Education in America, part II

A report, published a few weeks ago, says that 74% of Detroit’s population is “functionally illiterate,” despite half of that number having a high school degree or GED. This alarming fact begs a few questions: how could so many students graduate without learning to read? Why would a school system allow it? And why would only half the population get a diploma or GED, in a society where education is paid for? As surprising as this statistic may be, the deteriorating quality of our education system is widely recognized. From sea to shining sea, we are failing to equip our children with the necessary tools for healthy, prosperous, and ethically responsible lives.

THE PROBLEM

There are many contributing factors to this broken system: underperforming teachers/teachers unions, low salaries, unengaged parents, large class sizes, lagging technology and so on (I would strongly advise those interested in this to see the film Waiting for Superman, or pick up the May 2011 issue of Reason Magazine). But these, and most other common excuses, are not the problem, they are symptoms of two root problems: 1) political management, and 2) disregard for individuality. It is fair to say the second merely follows from the first—collective action through law must treat all as equals and serve the “common” good. The alternative is political favoritism.

The culture of American education ignores individuality by presuming that people share the same internal biology and capability, therefore  differences in achievement must be from some source beyond the individual. Curricula and teaching methods are developed with the intention that each child will learn the same things, the same way, and management of teachers is handled on only the most equitable basis. Thus, responsibility and accountability are rare in the classroom. Individual success goes unrewarded, or under-acknowledged, and mediocrity is the new standard.

Without giving individual students the opportunity to learn and develop as individuals, and not as products on an assembly line, they can never reach their full potential. The view that drives education is the direct reverse of that which drives quality in nearly every other industry: competition. But as competition places value on individual achievements, it is said to have no place in an education system that is supposed to uplift all. It is, in fact, the same false paradigm that supports nationalized healthcare.

THE SOLUTION

The popular solution has always been to throw in more money. Between 1945 and 1950, spending on education quadrupled to $10 billion. It reached $100 billion just 26 years later, and has since surpassed $800 billion. In my lifetime alone, America has more than quadrupled spending on education. Yet, the quality of education seems to have actually decreased. (see chart) Lack of money is not the problem. The American education system must be unhinged from its government monopoly. Our increasingly bloated, bureaucratic and expensive model has shown no sign of improvement, and it will not until that model is radically altered.

“Lack of money is not the problem. The American education system must be unhinged from its government monopoly. Our increasingly bloated, bureaucratic and expensive model has shown no sign of improvement, and it will not until that model is radically altered.”

In recent years, major efforts have been made toward a more privatized system. Whether through voucher programs or the hybrid “charter school” model, competition and accountability are again taking their place in education. I applaud these efforts. But the idea of a predominantly or completely private education system is intriguing to me. While I remain skeptical that a purely private industry could ensure a properly educated public, it doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. Allow me to explore that thought.

THE CASE FOR PRIVATIZATION

The first assumption most people make about a private education system is that only the wealthy elite could afford it. That isn’t true. There was a time when political class determined one’s destiny, but in modern democratic capitalistic societies, supply and demand is the arbiter of wealth and opportunity. With an education industry consisting of thousands of companies, competing for the business of millions of potential customers, prices would adjust to what families are able to spend. This principle is the reason there are 3D IMAX theaters and Redbox kiosks; department stores and Wal-Marts; BMW and Nissan—or bicycles for that matter.

Through private education, each child would presumably get the quality of instruction suitable to their academic potential and/or the amount of money parents are willing to spend. The last half of that is obvious, but we tend not to think of the first. We think scholarships are only for college, but that’s just because K-12 is already covered. Without government subsidies, investors and philanthropists would be pouring in to offer scholarships to students who showed real potential to advance favorably in a better environment. And with a far lower tax burden for education, that money would be more available.

In America, there’s really no such thing as being “stuck,” unless the government is involved. And though we think of education as being the great source of upward mobility, in many ways it is very restrictive. Every child must spend thirteen years of their life—five days a week and
9 months at a time—doing what the state, district, principle and teachers have them do. Parents have little say in what or how their child learns, and end up spending most of the most important years on the sidelines. The one hope for most parents is that they move into a neighborhood with a good school.

The harsh reality: many children would be better off at home—and for some older teens, at work—than they are in our abysmal school system. We should not compare our options to what we wish education would be, but what is actually is. Here’s where the rubber meets the road: how much is the average low-performance student really getting out of sitting in classes until he/she is 19 years old? I suspect it’s not much. But what if that same child were spending the last two years or so with his/her family, learning a trade, starting on a low-paying job, and getting a head start at figuring out how to survive in the real world?

Let’s remind ourselves why we are so persistent in dragging our kids through school. We want them to learn, to have a better chance at success, and we want society to respect them. Unfortunately, our school system does not provide these things. And frankly, if your child does not have the character and will necessary to accomplish these things, nothing and no one (but the child) can help anyway. I am not suggesting that society give up on underachieving students. I am saying that we should allow those children to explore alternative means of success.

The overwhelming opinion is that a private system of education forever relegate low-income children to poverty and crime. But this view misplaces they key ingredients for learning and success. Some of history’s most intelligent and influential figures—like Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, just to name a few—never had formal schooling. What they had was passion, will and integrity. For some, the classroom of life is the best teacher.

With a free-market education industry, any child that showed interest and ability in learning through a traditional classroom would have access to a truly functional system. Those who did poorly in the school environment would have other means of developing life skills. But the market for education today is unable to develop innovative solutions to meet those needs, as our model imagines each individual as being a carbon copy of those around him/her, and seeks to produce the same results through the same methods. It has not worked, it is not working, and I can see no chance for significant change without shifting toward less dependence on the state-run model.

Perhaps a true private education model is absurd, but it’s a useful thought experiment. At the very least, responsibility for education must be made more local, more flexible, and more compatible with a free and competitive market of educators, ideas and talent.

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