The use of knowledge in our educational system
Hayek wrote, of the economy,
Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coordinate the parts of his plan.
In our education system we have nothing nearly so clear as prices to help piece together the various bits of knowledge and experience, desires and frustrations that comprise the system as a whole. Our education system is not a market and, even if Milton Friedman’s vision of universal school choice were someday realized, would still not be a market, really, because there is nothing for sale and nothing produced save well-educated young minds.
Interestingly, though, a bottom-up, organic system of education, just like a bottom-up, organic economy is still the most likely system to produce the best outcomes, or at least the most diverse outcomes (good and bad). In this sense, our education system should be more like a market if not one based on prices and profits.
Uniformity has its place – there is a good case for basic standards, for instance – it also has its downsides. Whereas a uniform system of education can certainly produce good outcomes under the best circumstances (in rich white suburbs, for instance) that same system can not be easily or effectively grafted onto our poorest schools. Uniform systems are not resilient to a diverse world, and they are prone to systemic failure.
Now, I don’t think you need vouchers or for-profit schools in the mix here at all. Charters bring all the school choice the system needs to infuse it with the sort of bottom-up experimentation that any system needs to thrive. For-profits in particular make me nervous, because they inject into the system a second motive: profits. The profits in the education system ought to be seen down the road, as young people enter into the job market with critical thinking skills and a strong education and contribute their skills to the broader economy. Vouchers are more complicated.
All of which leads me back to Shawn’s really excellent post on my shifting rhetoric and the very complicated, very partisan school reform debate going on today. Shawn notes I’ve been consistent in my attempt to support the most bottom-up reforms, but in all honesty it’s not always very clear what constitutes bottom-up these days.
Are unions bottom-up?
They are in some respects. In their dealings directly with their employer, in contract negotiations and worker-rights, they very much are a bottom-up institution. Similarly, in their advocacy for teacher autonomy and protection of individual teachers from political reprisal, unions represent a small “d” democratic strength-in-numbers force out to protect the rank-and-file from management and from the political winds of the day.
But unions are also top-down. The two big teachers unions have over 4 million members between them, and constitute a powerful political force that can make or break politicians, policies, and can halt both good and bad reform efforts in their tracks. Ultimately, it’s hard for me to see how true teacher autonomy can ever be realized without major reforms to the union system.
Are the education philanthropists bottom-up?
Well, they often support bottom-up policies such as the expansion of charter schools. They often attempt to reform some of the more strict and unbending rules set in place by teachers unions, such as tenure reform and pay reform that could lead to higher wages for teachers.
But the philanthropists wield vast sums of money as well, and use that money to push broad changes to the system from their high perches. This can lead to big failures, because the changes they push are often assisted by top-down bureaucrats like Joel Klein in New York or Michelle Rhee in D.C. or various other superintendents who think businessmen know best when it comes to education, and choose to leave teachers all but out of the mix.
What these reformers often fail to see is that their knowledge is limited, too. They talk about markets but forget the first lesson of markets: humility.
Perhaps the term ‘corporate reform’ is most appropriate because of this lapse in understanding, not because they all want to privatize schools (they don’t all want that, after all). No, they are ‘corporate’ reformers because they believe they can push top-down reforms in order to get a bottom-up system. This will never work.
Accountability is important, but how we measure accountability is also important. And many education reformers miss this point, pushing tests, tests, and more tests and then tossing in a merit-pay bonus as if that would somehow fundamentally change the nature of the teaching profession for the better.
I don’t mean to walk the middle ground for the middle ground’s sake. I’m not trying to walk some tightrope between the status quo and the reform movement. I’m trying to find where the false lines have been drawn, where the good ideas have been buried beneath the dirt of politics and partisanship.
I’m still very much of the opinion that teacher autonomy and equitable financing of schools are the most important factors in education reform. And I like Shawn’s prescription for education reform:
We should significantly increase teacher entrance and hiring standards, step up attempts to attract the smartest, most capable college graduates to the profession, and raise teacher salaries. Once they’re in the profession, we should give teachers autonomy and free them of the strictures imposed by pervasive standardized testing. De-emphasizing multiple-choice testing in favor of engaging and holistic curricula, the end goal of education wouldn’t be merely training the next generation of workers for corporate employment; critical citizenship would be prioritized over docile acceptance of the status quo. Public charter schools could also be part of the mix — they contribute to educational pluralism — but they would have to allow unionization or some type of workplace representation for teachers. (This could be an interesting area for innovation, in fact: Maybe retain the current union model for traditional schools, but have individual unions at each charter school. Such a change could cut through union bureaucracy and allow for more decentralization and rank-and-file teacher participation.)
In addition, charter schools would have to be regulated to ensure quality, couldn’t be run by for-profit companies, and, ideally, would be midwifed by educators and community members.
This reminds me of the recommendations of the recent NCEE report, which also pushed for higher standards and a more professional teaching workforce. The problem here, of course, is money. And, beyond that, the risk that higher teaching standards would cause labor shortages, or that you still wouldn’t get the good teachers into the bad schools.
Shawn’s suggestion that charters could be an interesting arena for contract negotiation with teachers unions is something I’ve touched on myself recently in two posts (here and here). Indeed, perhaps the end-result of charters will be the transformation of unions into far more dynamic institutions, and teaching into a more professional, competitive career.
Ultimately, we don’t know. Just as in teaching methodology and what comprises the best sort of education for students, we really don’t know for sure what education system will be the best for our country.
There is the Burkean case to be made that we should push forward as cautiously and carefully as possible, not tinkering too much, and allowing slow change to happen over a long period of time. For the majority of American schools this makes perfect sense. For our middle class, suburban schools there is little to gain from radical change and plenty to lose.
But for the poorest among us, in neighborhoods where schools are all but crumbling away, how can we take such a callous approach? If the political will is not there to fix the poverty in these places, perhaps the only way forward is to take the Hayekian route, the route of choice and experimentation. The fundamental problem with poverty and with failing schools is a barrier to exit for those students and people trapped in the system. Removing those barriers to exit, allowing students to break free of the cycle of poverty and desperation that their families have been drowning in for generations, is a fundamentally liberal goal.
To me, poverty is a more pressing issue than maintaining tenure rules. It is more pressing than upholding rules of seniority. Shawn rightly argues that we need to talk about first-principles, educational values, and end-goals. I agree. My end-goal is to not only make the education system one that is competitive with the leaders in education globally, but to alleviate poverty and knock down barriers to exit from poverty for those many American children who have been abandoned by the system and the many political forces which help to create and sustain that system.
In any case, the world around us is changing. I suspect technology will undermine us all in ways we simply cannot predict.