Sunday, July 16, 2006

Aspen Ideas for Education

I have been railing on the public education establishment for its dismal performance and promoting the idea of vouchers as the best (only) solution. Now it appears that the liberal intelligentsia and Democratic politicians, even, are starting to take notice.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, an event at the left-leaning Aspen Institute, there was the glimmering of the realization that we do know how to improve education, and, politics aside, it is not even that difficult, explains Clive Crook, in the National Journal.

Not that things haven’t been tried. In America - as in Britain - the past 25 years have seen a torrent of educational reforms and school systems have been deluged with cash. Per-pupil spending in the United States is way up. Everything has been tried, it seems. And, apparently, nothing works.

Crook notes that measures of achievement in schools have flatlined for years. American high school students are among the poorest performing in the developed world in math and science. And if you measure education productivity by national test scores divided by real per-pupil spending on education, school productivity has declined by more than 40% since 1970. This is at the same time that worker productivity has soared.

Only with a monopoly could so much money be spent on so many bad ideas with such poor results for such a long time.

For example, an educational theory called "whole language" reading was adopted in the US (and Britain). The new teaching method abandoned the old-fashioned phonics-based approach ("a is for apple," "c is for cat") as repressive and inconducive to children's instinctive creativity. Children should not be taught to read; they should discover reading. The children taught, or not taught, that way are now young adults, in many cases their entire education blighted, struggling to make their way in the world. Businesses such as Hooked on Phonics filled the void left by the schools and prospered. The non-educators did the same harm to my daughter and her classmates with “New Math.” Sad to say, Hooked on Math was not available then.

Crook makes the point that in a competitive school system, some schools might have tried these revolutionary techniques, but they would have done badly and been quickly found out. The market would have rejected a dud product. Only in a state-monopolized culture could such a folly be perpetrated nationwide and then, in the face of mounting evidence of failure, persist for decades.

Crook and I say that there is an easy method for improving education: competition among schools. Americans take competition for granted, assuming that competition is vital to ensure the highest standards in almost any kind of endeavor. But some things -- such as education and health care -- are deemed "too important" to be left to the market, too important to be thrown open to competition. This makes no sense. Some things are just too important to be sheltered from competition. Education is one.

Charter schools are better than public schools and vouchers let low-income parents opt out of failing public schools. But, even more important, under pressure, the public schools get better. Amazing! Who would have guessed? A charter school opens, or a voucher program gets started, and before you know it, the neighborhood public schools are offering extra classes after school, Saturday morning openings, new tutoring and mentoring schemes. Why didn't we think of this before?

Unfortunately, school systems in this country are run to protect the interests of producers (teachers and educational bureaucrats), not consumers (parents and children). That is what happens when you declare something "too important to leave to the market." Please, no more hand-wringing about how hard it is to fix education. If anybody truly wants a solution to the problem, it is there in plain sight.

Before closing, I’d like to point out what the unionized educators were worrying about at their annual convention in Orlando last week. The National Education Association’s "Legislative Program for the 110th Congress" reveals that the NEA supports:
-- reproductive freedom
-- a nuclear freeze
-- a moratorium on capital punishment at the state and federal levels
-- U.S. participation in and financing of the United Nations and related bodies
-- a progressive tax system and, was there ever a doubt
-- restoring the estate tax.

How a nuclear freeze relates to high student dropout rates or dismal reading and math test scores is a mystery left unexplained.


Blogger Free Agency Rules said...

Is it any wonder that the Educational system continues to fail our childern, when the left/democrats have continued to be in charge?

Their motto, "throw more money at the problem!" has not worked and will never work because the main problem is lack of competition, not lack of money, but then who ever said the NEA was full of competitive spirit when they all love tenure because they want security over freedom?


2:52 AM  
Blogger cornbeltkid said...

The former union rep for the PVPUDS was questioned about the use of merit pay for teachers as a method to improve their teaching ability. He was told of results in other parts of the country, and he was actually very familiar with some of them. But his answer to me was that we "could talk about merit pay" after he retired, but while he headed the negotiating team he could have none of it. Here was a man who "knew" but refused to even engage in a discussion because of who he represented, i.e., the teachers. It was pretty clear that the "education of kids" was not on his agenda.

12:12 PM  

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