Subsidiarity and public education
I enjoyed Will’s response to my post very much. I think this is a good idea up to a point. I think the ‘small homogenous’ argument is a bit over-played. That is certainly one factor in Finland’s success, but it is only one. Other small homogenous countries are poor and have terrible education systems. Here’s Will’s prescription for public education:
Embrace a radically-decentralized approach to public schooling that gives states and localities wide latitude to experiment with students, teachers, and curricula. Forget about national standards, let a thousand flowers bloom, and hope that someone, somewhere hits upon a way to overcome cultural barriers to student achievement. Absent a solution to underlying problems that are at once amorphous and intractable, the best alternative – at least in my mind – is to keep trying different approaches until something starts working.
It’s important to talk about No Child Left Behind here for a moment, because NCLB was a radical departure from previous eras of federal education policy. One thing it did was create a system of sticks and carrots in order to get all children proficient in reading and math by 2014. To do this it asked states to craft their own tests and measure their own improvements in order to qualify for federal money. Race to the Top (NCLB 2.0) is similar – it asks states to race to the top of the reform ladder to qualify for federal dollars. Both programs – the most federally invasive programs to date in education – leave the measuring, the crafting of tests and standards, and pretty much everything else up to the states. They simply require that the states do something in order to qualify.
Subsidiarity posits that whatever can be done at the local level ought to be done there, whatever cannot be done locally should be done at the next level up and so forth. My view of education has evolved to fit within the framework of subsidiarity as follows: pedagogy and teaching methods should be handled as locally as possible. Teachers should have as much autonomy as they can be given. School administrators should provide support and guidance. School districts should work to hire and keep good teachers and provide equitable funding for schools. States should help fund schools in poorer districts and should provide support to districts mostly in the form of funding.
States, municipalities, and school districts should not be in charge of tests or measuring improvements except as a way to monitor improvements, i.e. not used to hold schools or teachers accountable. A funny thing happens when the incentives are lined up the way they are under a program like NCLB. States are not only responsible for measuring their own progress, they are also expected to pick their own tests and administer them. Is it any wonder that so many of the last decade’s gains in testing results have been so drastic? In New York City for instance, test scores rose dramatically after Bloomberg took control of the schools. What Bloomberg and his administration tried to keep as low-profile as possible, is that they made the tests much easier.
Here is where the next layer of the subsidiarity framework comes into play. If we are to have measurable learning or measurable results you need to have a central authority. You need to have a uniform set of standards by which to gauge progress or else all the players will simply game the system. In other words, by all means let a thousand flowers bloom as Will suggests when it comes to teaching methods, when it comes to creative approaches to education and learning – but if you don’t have a constant how can you measure the results of these myriad experiments?
And I would go further, naturally. I would suggest that these national standards and any accompanying national curriculum (or voluntary federal curriculum) be used only to measure, not to hold anyone accountable. Tests are crude instruments, far too blunt to determine the countless factors that go into the success or failure of children, teachers, or schools. Teaching to tests has been a disaster for America’s public schools. Tests are useful guides. They can help identify students who need help, schools that may need more resources or intervention, teachers who may need the support of mentors or extra classroom support, but they can only really suggest these things. Many accountability metrics such as ‘value-added’ end up identifying really excellent teachers as appallingly bad. And because these ideas are all abysmal failures, the federal government continues to insert itself further into what has been a traditionally local affair.
So let’s decentralize where it counts, and centralize where that centralization actually makes sense. A simple way to think about this is dividing things up into How and What. What American students should be learning should be fairly uniform. If you move your family from New York to New Mexico, you should not discover to your dismay that New Mexico’s students are two grades behind New York’s students.
How students learn, on the other hand, is best left to local school districts and to teachers.
Likewise, a single national test to determine the progress of all American students creates fewer incentives and opportunities to game the system, and creates a much more reliable measurement of success across the country than the current hodge-podge of state and local tests. Let schools and teachers and states figure out how best to teach our students. Let the federal government act as referee. That’s how decentralization ought to work, at least in our public schools.