Public Education and "the Market"
A couple of weeks ago, IanH brought up an article by Leander Kahney about Steven Jobs' views on education. Jobs believes that we can fix our education system by allowing schools to get rid of bad teachers and adopting a voucher system. Although Jobs is anti-union and I'm not, I actually agree with him about the first one. His advocacy of vouchers, however, I strongly disagree with.
According to the Kahney article, Jobs said that vouchers will allow parents, the "customers," to decide where to send their kids to school, and the free market will sort it out. Competition will spur innovation, improve quality and drive bad schools (and bad teachers) out of business. The best schools will thrive.
I do have to admit that my fear of vouchers and "choice" might be overblown. In Minnesota, we have open enrollment, or "choice", within our public school system. A major issue in our state right now is a battle between our state legislature and the Minnesota State High School League, which governs high school athletics in the state, over a new transfer policy that has been proposed because so many kids have been changing schools in order to play on better football, basketball, or hockey teams. You see, I can give you the names of dozens of people who have switched schools in order to enhance their athletic careers. I can also name students who have switched schools because they couldn't get along with anyone in their original school, and I can name still others who have switched schools in order to be with their boyfriend or girlfriend. But during the entire time that "open enrollment" has been in effect in Minnesota, I can honestly say there is not one student that I personally know of who has switched schools because of academics. Not one! I'm not saying they don't exist--I'm sure they do. But the idea that "choice" has made Minnesota schools better academically is a joke. Once again, however, Minnesota's system involves only public schools, and private schools aren't in the mix.
There are some people who seem to believe that the market is God, and if you simply leave things up to market forces, everything will work out wonderfully. I definitely believe that an economy based primarily on market forces works better than a command system in which the government directs production and distribution. But the market isn’t God. Market forces have given us some very good things, but they have also given us telemarketers and spam email. Market forces have given us hour after hour of coverage on the news channels informing us about the dispute over where Anna Nicole Smith’s body would be buried. Market forces gave us the Great Depression, and despite Herbert Hoover’s high hopes, market forces were not able to get us out of it.
Market forces do not have the answers to everything, especially in education. KDerosa and others have told us a lot about Direct Instruction. They've told us that Direct Instruction proved itself to be a superior form of instruction during a congressional mandated program called Project Follow Through, but the results were buried by a few higher-ups who didn’t like them. That sounds incredibly scandalous to me, and I would think it would make a great story, especially in this era of No Child Left Behind when politicians and the public are supposedly soooooooo interested in education. Yet, Zigg Engelmann, the father of Direct Instruction, can’t even find a publisher who is interested in telling his story. I guess education just isn’t sexy enough. Nope. Market forces aren’t the answer to everything.
Kahney does a good job shooting down Jobs' theories, but I'd like to take a shot at them myself from a different angle. In a normal market situation the firm supplying the product and the customer are separate. According to that scenario, the school--the administration, the principal, and the teachers--would make up the firm, and the parents and their children would be the customers. Many people view education in this way, and THEY ARE WRONG!
Speaking from the perspective of a high school teacher, I can tell you that even though the students are "customers", they are also very much a part of "the firm" that is producing the product. The effect that students have on each other's education at the high school level is enormous, and it even rivals the effect of the teachers. I have had great classes in which a tremendous amount of learning has taken place, but I have also had classes that I've actually been ashamed of. Same teacher, but totally different classes and results because of the effect that students have on each other. The best class I've ever had was my first hour American History class during the 2002-03 school year. There were some students in that class who were considered poor students and some others who were average, but there were enough good students in that class that they made everybody better. The influence of those good students caused the poor and average students to work harder and learn more than they ever would have in a different class. Sadly, I have also had the opposite of that. In those classes, students who studied were scoffed at, and there were enough bad students to drag everyone else down closer to their level.
One thing that irritates me more than anything else is that the promoters of "competition" in education never propose that public and private schools all operate under the same rules. Jobs' idea of "competition" and "letting the market forces decide" consists of having private schools, who have the power decide who to allow into their schools and the power to kick out any students who don't meet their performance and behavior standards, vs. public schools, who must allow anybody in and must also recognize the "right to an education" and "due process" rights for all student no matter what they do. Hey, that sounds fair.
If we really want public schools to improve, we certainly do not want to encourage those good students, who have such a positive effect on their classmates, to leave. Yet, that is exactly what a voucher system would do. If someone wants to do away with our public education system, or turn it into an institution that simply houses the young people in our society with no hopes, no dreams, and no drive, while others attend the private schools of their choice, they should say so. My friend Steven comes right out and says that he doesn't believe in public education, and I can respect that. But Jobs does not, either because he's not being honest, or because he doesn't know what he's talking about. I suspect that it may be a little bit of both.