Education and the architecture of choice

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

33 Responses

  1. Ian M. says:

    One rhetorical point – teachers’ unions are made up of teachers who can vote for decertification of their union whenever they want. Teachers’ unions are made of teachers and arguing that the “unions have too much power” is another way of saying “the teachers have too much power”. Teachers are not drones and if they choose not to participate in their union that’s their choice. Don’t like your union? Tear it apart from the inside – it’s there for you.
    I’m not a fan of most education unions. They are not terribly democratic and not seriously interested in tackling institutional problems. This is particularly true in Nashville where I currently live. School choice is something I like here, because the teachers also have school choice. If I can go where the teachers want to be, great. If I am stuck sending my child to a school that cannot retain anyone because of the neighborhood then it’s a problem.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Ian M. says:

      @Ian M., The unions do generally do their job in representing the interests of teachers in working conditions and pay. Unfortunately the equilibrium they’ve reached with their employers is not great for education, or really for teachers if they considered their wider interests – teachers are underpaid, but have insane levels of job security, are overworked for 2/3 of the year but have 1/3 of the year off, they have public sector pensions. In econ-speak they end up taking a huge amount of their pay in inefficient, non-monetary forms. This is partly a function of the tax-payers reluctance to pay them properly given their qualifications, but its also a function of union power – unions tend to embed themselves most effectively where contracts are complex and lots of compensation is non-monetary.Report

      • Ian M. in reply to Simon K says:

        @Simon K, Having negotiated a union contract, I found most of the complexity emanating from management. Complex contracts benefit the side with the bigger bank account for lawyers. Working conditions and job security are big issues for most workers, union workers just get a say about it.
        Explain what is “inefficient” about accepting non-pecuniary compensation.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Ian M. says:

          @Ian M., True. My experience is with cases where the union is the larger entity. I’m not certain, but I suspect that teachers unions may have bigger budgets than many school boards, especially on totemic national issues like vouchers and pay-for-performance.

          Non-pecuniary compensation is inefficient because the employee has (usually) no choice about how to dispose of it. It therefore typically costs the employer more for the same amount of work, except where distortions like tax incentives come into pay. The combination of unionisation and politics leads to such distortion with teachers. The employers would almost certainly get better value for money if they simply paid teachers more.Report

          • Ian M. in reply to Simon K says:

            @Simon K, If the tax-payers really are not going to deliver more compensation, the only way to improve the job is through non-pecuniary compensation. Sounds like the market is working just fine in allocating resources, the problem is inadequate resources. (cue knee-jerk “no gubment” response) We all want better teachers, but nothing proposed here is going to improve the pool of teachers without better compensation. There’s only so many people with an indifference curve that skews strongly towards accepting less compensation in exchange for the feeling of doing a societal good. I think we have those people.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Ian M. says:

              @Ian M., Oh, I agree. The “market” is working just fine – if you don’t pay people properly you have to give them something. I just think we’d have better outcomes if we gave teachers more pay and less perks. If they get a bit less social esteem by being obvious properly compensated isn’t that a better trade-off? Now, would the unions like that? Not by any evidence we’ve seen so far, no.Report

        • Plinko in reply to Ian M. says:

          @Ian M., Well, there’s the obvious problem of accounting, in that “non-pecuniary” compensation becomes hard for individuals workers to properly place value on them and easy for the employer to account for improperly. We see this all over with pensions and health care plans – the future costs are very easy to underestimate, then when they eat up the available compensation pool over time, the employees get angry as what raises they feel entitled to are eaten up by the costs of pension and health insurance.Report

          • Ian M. in reply to Plinko says:

            @Plinko, Non-pecuniary means “not relating to money” health care and pensions are very much pecuniary benefits. We are talking about things like having the summer off, schedule flexibility, social esteem (the approbation of your peers as Smith would say), tenure (job security) and other forms of compensation that do not have a cost attached.Report

  2. mike farmer says:

    Right now education in America favors the upper-middle class and the rich. Public schools in wealthy areas tend to be better schools, plus the well-to-do can afford private schooling. We’ve been aware of the problems with public education for decades yet it never gets any better, and in many inner-city areas it’s getting worse. Duncan is asking for 23 billion more. Society is not ready to talk about fundamental problems ans fundamental solutions – we’re obsessed with symptoms. The most intractable problems are in inner cities, in areas of high crime and poverty, and until these problems are resolved no symptomatic solutions will have any lasting effect, and we’ll throw money down a pit.
    When you combine the inner city problems with bureacracy and unions and politics, you get what we’ve got in the problem areas. The problem is that we’ve created a two tier society, and neither the rich nor the poor are to blame — but our systems can be blamed, starting with the welfare state. No one seems to have the will to tackle these problems in any meaningful way. Isolating education and tinkering with symptomatic problems is like putting a cast on the broken arm of an abused child and ignoring the psychotic parent.Report

  3. Pat Cahalan says:

    Devil’s Advocate for a moment.

    We all agree that the primary mover in educational success is parental participation, yes? That is to say, we all agree that as a measurable indicator of future performance, an engaged parental cadre does more to promote student success than anything else?

    If this is the case, then isn’t school choice just encouraging crappy parents to become free riders?

    Their existing school would perform better if they got off their butts and volunteered and tutored and showed up at school events and supported the band and whatnot. Giving them the option of “school choice” simply allows them to pick the highest performing school (under the delusional belief that a good school will allow them to continue to be lazy parents), and put their child into the better school, which is actually bad for the better school, and of little or null real value to the actual parent and student (well, except giving the parent an artificial idea of actually doing their job)?

    @ mike

    Education favors the middle class and the rich not entirely because of the structural advantages in their local school (although that certainly doesn’t help), but also because middle class and rich parents are proportionately much more likely to have the time to be Engaged Parents. If you’re a single mother working two jobs, you’re probably poor and you don’t have time to watch over your child’s homework or help out at the bake sale. Again, parents make the most difference, right? Better than even the best teachers.

    So if the welfare state is the start of the problem, how do you suggest encouraging parental involvement in under-performing schools when they don’t have the time?Report

  4. mike farmer says:

    Ian and Pat,

    What needs to be done will take decades. The comment section is not appropriate for such a reply, but I can say it has to do with slowly removing government from education and replacing it with private alternatives which are funded by private donations. I know that no one believes this is possible, but from my way of thinking, and based on government results, it’s the only way. Economic reform is first, so that there’s more opportunity for good paying jobs — once the economy is operating at a high level, job demand will be high, and a part of education has to be geared toward working after graduation. It’s good to get a well-rounded education so that society is enhanced and people have more skills to succeed n life, but the practical part of education is sorely missing. Not everyone will go the university route to become a doctor, lawyer, and such, so a part of education has to gain the interest of those who will be fixing stuff, or building stuff — technological advances demand that all workers have a certain amount of knowledge to do even the simplest of jobs. A vibrant economy solves a lot of problems, but our welfare state is hurting the economy — we need innovative solutions in the private sector — everyone needs to be involved in the solutions. To me, it’s not a matter of coming up with specific solutions here in a blog, but calling for a change in direction, away from welfare, statist solutions, and toward private solutions where we’re all involved at the community level — through action and persuasion rather than government coercion. Everyone will be better off if the poor are better off and independent — governent can tackle the symptoms of poverty — society working together can solve the fundamental problems of poverty.Report

    • Ian M. in reply to mike farmer says:

      @mike farmer, I agree that we should have a socialist utopia.Report

    • @mike farmer,

      Fair enough, this may be a bad medium for the depth of this particular issue. However, you haven’t even made a nod to the base question: how do you suggest encouraging parental involvement in under-performing schools when they don’t have the time?

      “To me, it’s not a matter of coming up with specific solutions here in a blog, but calling for a change in direction, away from welfare, statist solutions, and toward private solutions where we’re all involved at the community level”

      That sounds great.

      We’re not all going to be involved at the community level.

      Full stop, it’s not going to happen. It’s beyond my own comprehension how my wife and I are able to be engaged with the education of our children to the extent we are as it stands. And she works part-time, I work in one of the most family friendly environments I can imagine, and we bought before the bubble so our tiny house is propped up on a mortgage we can actually afford. This is the case for… almost nobody else in southern California. Or most other urban areas in the country, for that matter.

      Unless, of course, you’re talking about dismantling the current structure of urban culture, altogether. Which would probably work, but then you’re talking about a heck of a lot longer transition than a couple of decades.

      Poor urban schools will be underperformers as a class. They may actually turn out well-educated kids, but only if they have enough in the way of advantages to partially offset the lack of parental involvement. It’s not impossible. It’s likely to be relatively expensive. Even then, the kids on the margin will probably still fail at a higher rate than those in communities where parental involvement will be higher.Report

  5. Kaleberg says:

    The problem with charter schools is that they lack accountability. Public schools are run by elected officials. If people don’t like what they do, they can vote them out. Charter schools are run by corporations. They own elected officials and buy new ones as soon as a new batch is elected. It’s not as if they do a better job of teaching kids. They don’t, but they do have a more effective lobby, and the individuals running them can make big bucks by breaking teacher’s unions and the like.

    I’d say this was a big deal, but since the U.S. has taken Guatemala as the model for its future, I think charter schools are a step in the right direction. We too can live in poverty as powerless peons. It’s the American way.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Kaleberg says:

      @Kaleberg, what greater form of accountability is there than being able to pull your kid out of a school that you don’t believe is educating them? I will take the accountability of school choice over the accountability of elected officials. There are some fair arguments against school choice, but I don’t consider accountability to be among them.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Kaleberg says:

      @Kaleberg, I guess what I’m saying is that I am not worried about my kid getting trapped in a bad charter school. I can always take them out and put them in a different charter school or regular public schools. A bad public school, though, may offer no alternatives beyond private school or homeschooling.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Kaleberg says:

      @Kaleberg, I don’t know where you live, but round here charter schools are non-profits and any extra funding they get comes from the parents. If they had enough money to buy off elected officials I would be very surprised.Report

  6. td says:

    The problem I have with the entire issue of school choice is that many of those in favor are simply engaging in magical thinking. The market isn’t suddenly going to make poor parents more engaged or create class space and brilliant teachers for every student, just wont happen overnight and indeed it might not happen at all in many cases. It may elevate some kids out but the exits aren’t wide enough for everyone, or more to the point the entrance wont be wide enough for everyone. You’ll still have kids with parents who aren’t engaged stuck in schools that underperform and now those same schools will be even more underfunded so we will have made the actual problem worse.Report

  7. laral says:

    When you have school choice, who winds up staying behind in the subpar school that’s been written off rather than repaired? Everyone seems to assume that all parents want the best for their children and will go out of their way to get it. The problem is that some of them really can’t be bothered. It’s not that they’re pressed for time or money. It’s that they don’t care. I have friends who are inner-city teachers and social workers, and they see parents who don’t quite cross that line into the kind of neglect that would get their kids placed in foster care, but they don’t care the way most people assume all parents care. So their kids are operating at a HUGE disadvantage already, and school choice turns the public school into a dumping ground for the worst off, whose parents are never going to pick up a form and fill it out to get them into a better school. What’s the solution to that? Do we just write off those kids entirely?Report

    • Scott in reply to laral says:


      Last time I checked, it is not the gov’ts job to force people to be good parents. You can only do so much for people, at some point they have to care. NYC even tried to pay poor folks to do the right thing but even that didn’t work. (see link below) So if paying people won’t work I don’t know what will.

      • laral in reply to Scott says:

        @Scott, I agree, you can’t make people care. So is your answer to my question yes, write those kids off?Report

        • Scott in reply to laral says:


          Yes, we have to accept that not everyone is cut out to go to college. Society needs mechanics and plumbers just as we need doctors and lawyers. I for one am not prepared to accept the level of gov’t involvement in people lives that it would take to ensure that every parent did the “right” thing, are you? What does it say when you can’t even pay people to do the right thing?Report

          • Pat Cahalan in reply to Scott says:


            > Yes, we have to accept that not everyone is cut
            > out to go to college.

            I don’t think that’s what he meant by, “write off”

            > Society needs mechanics and plumbers just
            > as we need doctors and lawyers.

            Absolutely true. Many kids don’t *need* to go to college. But again, that’s not what he meant by “write off”. He’s talking about the underclass. They’re still out there, you know. People with no GED who dropped out and don’t have *any* job, and can’t get one.

            > I for one am not prepared to accept the
            > level of gov’t involvement in people lives
            > that it would take to ensure that every
            > parent did the “right” thing, are you?

            No, but this is a false dichotomy.

            The real question is, “Given that some parents won’t care (or are suffering under constraints that limit their ability to engage at the same level as well-off or wealthy parents), are you willing to pay more in order to get the best teachers and equipment into the environments where they can offset some of this? If it’s a 20% vig on the normal cost per child to offset 50% of this disadvantage, is it worth it? 40% for 75%? What if it’s 40% for 10%?” Given that these schools will always be relative underperformers for the price (compared to schools in affluent areas who don’t have to compensate for the lack of parental involvement), are you willing to hold them to a different standard?Report

            • laral in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              @Pat Cahalan, Yes, I would never consider blue-collar workers (which describes most of my family) to be the result of worst-case scenario parenting. If only. And I didn’t really say anything about the government coercing parents to care. Thanks for helping to clarify.Report

            • Scott in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              @Pat Cahalan,

              As for those people you refer to that choose to drop out and then choose not to get a GED, I have little sympathy for them given their choices. I disagree with your premise that getting the best teachers and equipment can change those who decided they that don’t care about their education or that it will convince their parents to do the right thing. The bottom line is that no matter what the gov’t does or doesn’t do, no external stimuli, is going to make any person decide to take advantage of what is available or do the right thing.Report

            • Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              @Pat Cahalan, I second Scott’s comment about more money and better teachers making up for poor parenting. If I thought it would work, I would be all for it, but I share Scott’s skepticism.

              There’s only so much you can do to compensate for bad judgment. If the kid wants to graduate from high school, that option is available to him at no cost. I might be in favor of wider access to GEDs for kids that want to go that route, but you can’t make the kids take the test. You can’t make them not drop out.Report

          • td in reply to Scott says:

            Not going to college and not graduating high school are vastly different things and to imagine that those stuck in bad schools will simply become tradesmen is to engage in more of the magical thinking that this issue tends to evoke. We’re talking about building a permanent wall around the core underclass in this country and sacrificing generation upon generation of children to the ideological hubris of free market utopianism. If you believe that education has a fundamental value to society then it is actually impossible to argue that some children shouldn’t have access to an equal education. This is where the rubber meets the road with that whole “We hold these truths to be self evident…” thing.Report

            • Scott in reply to td says:


              Last time I checked, almost every kid in the US has access to publicly financed primary and secondary education, so I’m not sure by what you mean by equal access. As for the whole “We hold these truths to be self evident…” thing, not even the Founders really believed it.Report

            • Trumwill in reply to td says:

              @td, it’s a wall with a gate. A gate to what is less certain, but they can get through school and if there are opportunities out there for high school graduates they can take advantage of them. To the extent that there are not opportunities out there for high school graduates (which is unfortunately quite true in many parts of the country) that’s something of a different discussion.

              If a kid doesn’t have parents who care and is not self-directed, I’m not sure what can really be done by schools to reverse that. You can call that “writing them off” and maybe that’s accurate (though not completely so, because we’re not advocating that they be tossed out of the education system). But it’s not for lack of caring. It’s focusing on those that can be helped.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to laral says:

      @laral, I think one of the hopes is that with school choice thrown into the mix the existing public schools will try harder to avoid losing the students. This may be ineffective if the school leadership is hamstrung on their ability to do what needs to be done to improve performance, though.Report