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I must admit, I have no tolerance for people playing charades. And in no sector do I see such games played more than in education. As I’ve said time and again: education is not about education. Let’s agree to an idea that should cut across party lines and ideological lines. What should we be able to agree upon? That our children grow up to have fulfilling lives, free lives, lives of opportunity and ultimately end up making positive contributions to the world from having been in it. Typically to ensure that this happens we teach our children to read, write, do math and learn and develop other valuable basic skills. We also do this by teaching them (even if informally) cultural values and norms, exposing them to music, art, dance, the outdoors, sports, etc. – in other words, we try to show them the wonders of the world and the wonders of humanity and the wonders of learning about each.

We can also cut across party and ideological lines by temporarily agreeing to disagree on what the proper scale (not scope) of government involvement in ensuring that these things are achieved for our children. Let’s agree that democratic political institutions are responsible to make sure our children achieve some agreed upon level of advancement in these areas. And let’s not debate what this level would be and what is appropriate. Shouldn’t we see a heck of a lot more experimentation and diversity in how we achieve these goals? Is it not utterly startling that virtually every one of the 311 million or so Americans has or will attend government run schools (and if not government run, heavily influenced by them and the graduate programs in education)? Perhaps more astonishing is that most kids go to school with kids the same age, take the same kind of math, reading, science, english, and so on at precisely the same times and in almost the same sequence and in the same settings, and using the same tools. Is it really reasonable to think that all kids learn best this way? Shouldn’t my daughter sometimes be learning with older kids? With younger kids? Does she need to wait until 7th grade to learn biology? Should she start art in Kindergarten? And so on.

The point being is that the way we structure elementary education today is the ultimate form of an input standard. An analogy would be appropriate. Suppose that we are worried that too much coal is being burned by residents of a city which results in unhealthy smog. The goal is to reduce the emissions of harmful particulates into the air. The most extreme version of an “input standard” – or a standard where the authorities decide exactly what is to be done to achieve the goal, would be to ban or mandate reductions in coal use. Why is this undesirable? Because it will possibly achieve the goal of fewer emissions, but it will come at a much higher economic cost than other ways of regulating and also because it drastically reduces the freedom of people to make their own choices – which ought to count for something. Instead of telling everyone to burn 50% less coal, for example, a better regulatory policy would be to set emissions standards for coal users, and penalize users for going beyond such standards. This would be an output standard. The regulators would have control over how much particulate matter is emitted, but it would allow the heterogeneous population to adjust to the standard in ways that are most beneficial to them. Some folks would indeed use less energy. Other folks would take measures to filter their emissions. Perhaps others would switch to other fuels. In any event, the goal would be achieved from the regulatory side, and the costs would be lower while preserving individual sovereignty.

Our current method of education is akin to an input standard. With the goal of having kids become “educated” we simply tell every single one of them how to be educated (and assume it works too). If you were seriously interested in improving the lives of our children and if you were truly serious about doing it cost effectively and respecting the diversity of human capabilities and interests, wouldn’t we see our government take a more “output standard” type of approach to education? Wouldn’t there be myriad ways of getting educational outcomes outside of funding and running government schools as we do? We could simply mandate each family have their children reach a particular standard. We could provide money to other institutions to use freely toward achieving their educational vision. I don’t want to go into particular reform ideas here, just to suggest that hundreds are out there. Any one of those would be preferable to the current situation because it allows for the current system to operate if it was indeed the most preferred – just as under a particulate output standard a choice for individuals would always be to use less coal, just as the input standard recommends.

I can imagine a major objection being that if the desired educational outcomes are not achieved (assuming they are agreed upon and measurable, which are big ifs, a point which I’ll raise in the future – I am not sure we even need to have an objective) then what recourse is there? Suppose a family was given $8,000 per year to ensure their kid met some standard, and when the kid turns 16 those standards are not met, do we want to put families in prison? Do we want to financially penalize them? Not only would the unintended consequences of those policies be awful, the administration of such programs would be prohibitively costly. This objection is hollow however. The current system, particularly for urban minorities, goes beyond failing – it is closer to a national tragedy, and a tragedy that is no closer to being dealt with today than when I was a kid 30 years ago. What are the consequences of failing today? The teachers unions are stronger. The school boards are stronger. The Ed Schools still maintain a tight grip on the accreditation process. The taxpayers don’t get a refund – indeed they end up spending more when poorly educated students end up in poor health, in poor economic circumstances or even in prison. Yikes.

If people really cared about “the children” wouldn’t we see a very aggressive popular movement toward educational experimentation? What is particularly annoying is that edutochracy preaches diversity, creativity, difference and respect for everything except the very product they are responsible for producing. Odd, isn’t it? Either it ain’t about the children, or the edutochracy is too dumb to experiment, or the edutochracy is a hotbed of experimentation and they have concluded that they have it right.

2 Responses to “Zealotry in Education”

  1. Bert says:

    This is an excellent post…and I can’t wait to show it to all my education-major friends and see their reactions.

  2. jb says:

    Devastating. Well done. When I was on the town finance committee I was liason to the school committee. We were spending more on education per capita than almost any other town in the state. When I raised that point the response, in effect, was, yes therefore we are the best. When it comes to public schools success is measured by inputs ($ spent) rather than output (educational attainment).

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