Wednesday, March 07, 2007

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.


Anonymous Ian H. said...

I think the other big problem with education-as-market is that no one's really sure what the product is. Seriously, are the students customers or are they the product? If they're the customers, what is the product? Is it my subject area knowledge? If that's the case, why do standardized tests not rate my knowledge? The students do get rated, though, suggesting that they are, in fact, the product of the educational system. If that's true, then there is a very different interpretation from Jobs' on what the school marketplace should look like.

3/07/2007 6:04 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Thanks for describing your market, Dennis -- it gives me a bit more of an idea of where you're coming from.

Now let me describe the market in NYC. Being forced into the wrong public school in NYC is a tragedy for most parents. They push their kids from before kindergarten to do well on the entrance exams for elementary schools they desire. If they don't get into the school they desire, the choice is generally either moving or private schooling. Public school teachers send their children to private school at nearly double the rate of other households.

The reason the parents are deciding in this manner has nothing to do with girlfriend/boyfriend issues, athletics, or social concerns. It has to do with academics.

And even to the extent where it IS something besides academics, so what? Denial of choice basically states that students should be placed into schools based on where they live.

As to a couple of your examples:

"because they couldn't get along with anyone in their original school"

I'd think this would probably affect academics, and besides is there a reason to keep the child miserable throughout school? Particularly when later in the post you note, "The effect that students have on each other's education at the high school level is enormous," it seems like this could be an academic as well as social reason to switch schools.

" in order to enhance their athletic careers."

Well, I think most of them are just dreaming about the pros, but how can you say this isn't the best route for them? If they're good enough to get a scholarship, it might make a difference between going to college and not going.

I'm sure if it's not possible to differentiate between schools based on academics, no one will be making a choice for this reason. Are there enough differences, available to the public, to allow such decision-making? Are schools given enough freedom to be different from each other in this regard, or is there some kind of standard mandates?

I do have another question for you, though, that's been nagging in the back of my mind for some time. I see little reason to make an issue of whether a school is "public" or "private" -- currently, the difference is private schools are (mostly) privately funded, and public schools (mostly) publically funded. Some of your suggestions, such as allowing liberal expulsion of students and reduction of tenure, have a rather private-school feel to them. Most of your arguments don't revolve around the source of funding for the school. So, what does "public" mean in your view, and why are you defending "public" education rather than just education generally?

ian, personally I don't care whether the teachers know the subject, provided the students know it at the end. We're not rating the students, we're rating the transfer of knowledge -- i.e., the delivery of the product. Of course, everyone likes to have students with all the "higher thinking" skills and fuzzy social skills in addition to the fundamentals, but these are difficult to measure. The fundamentals are not difficult to measure.

3/07/2007 7:23 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

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.

This is a common misconception, Dennis. Excessive interference in monetary policy, among other things (such as the antiglobalism policies enacted by the fascist/communist governments coming into power around the globe causing a global economic contraction), gave us the great depression.

There was nothing laissez-faire about Hoover. President Coolidge had derided him as the "Wonder Boy" since he thought he could accomplish anything as sec'y of commerce with top-down interference in the markets: From Wikipedia:

The economy was put to the test with the onset of the Great Depression in the United States in 1929. It is not accurate, as was routinely claimed by his Democratic opponents, that Hoover "did nothing" in the face of the crisis, nor that he was a believer in laissez-faire policies. He explicitly denounced laissez-faire in his 1922 book American Individualism, took an active pro-regulation stance as Commerce Secretary, and saw tariff and agricultural support bills through Congress. In his memoirs he recalled his rejection of Treasury Secretary Mellon's suggested "leave-it-alone" approach. However, Hoover opposed direct relief from the federal government, seeking instead to organize voluntary measures and encourage state and local government responses. Except for accelerating public works expenditures, Hoover largely shunned legislative relief proposals until late in his term. While his efforts were small in comparison to that of the Roosevelt administration, they exceeded that of any federal administration before him.

Hoover set the stage for Roosevelt who basically just ran with and expanded (and created new) government interference started by Hoover.

The great depression is not a lesson in market failure, it is a lesson in how excessive governmental interference can distort the markets, leading to market failure.

And, your free market analogies to education are misplaced, Dennis. Our current system is about as far away from a free market as you can get. The system, as it is currently configured, does not respond to market forces at all. That's why it is in the mess that it is. Our education system is a command and control system Fortunately for us, the education system is only responsible for providing education and not food or else we'd all be starving now, like what happened in the old soviet union when they tried to collectivize the farms system.

3/07/2007 7:34 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I thought of you as I was writing the post, because I know that school choice is an important issue to you. I'm not going to be able to address everything in this comment because I've been asked by the coaching staff to head down to the Twin Cities today to help out with chaperoning our hockey team. I'll be leaving in about an hour-and-a-half. They made it to the state tournament--a very big deal in Minnesota, and one of the reasons they got there was the play of a goalie who open-enrolled.

Believe it or not, I wasn't trying to bash public school choice; I actually have rather mixed feelings about that. The hockey teams that I coached here have benefitted greatly from open-enrollment, but there's a very heated argument in Minnesota about whether or not that's a good thing. My point was that, at least in Minnesota, when it comes to academics, open-enrollment is over-rated. I've read a little about NYC's school system, and it sounds like things are done much differently there. If you're saying that Minnesota's experience is not that relevant for someone living in New York, I can't argue with you.

I thought of elaborating on the kids who have moved because they couldn't get along with anyone in their original school, but I felt like it was almost too long a post anyway. (I'm not big on long posts.) What I left out was that the kids who have come to our school because they couldn't get along with anybody in their old school, usually can't get along with anybody in our school either.

You are right about some of my reform ideas having a private school feel to them. My point is that if we are going to be compared to private schools, and especially if we are going to have to compete with them, then give us at least some of the powers that they have in dealing with poor students. I once asked a private school teacher what happens in his school to kids who aren't doing well academically. He said, "If they don't keep their grades up, they're gone." I'm not looking to go that far, but I do believe it makes sense for us to be able to dismiss kids, or at least separate them, if they are making no effort to either behave or learn.

I have kind of slapped this together in a hurry, so I hope I haven't screwed it up. But I do realize that sometimes our views might be different because of where we live. What goes for Minnesota doesn't necessarily go for New York. I am perfectly willing to let you and other New Yorkers be the judge of what works best there.

3/07/2007 7:54 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KDerosa, your comment came in during the time that I was typing the first response, so I missed it.

I know that Hoover's actions were unprecedented after it became clear that the Great Depression was not like other downturns we had had, but Hoover is also the guy who said early in the Depression that the economy was fundamentally sound and that there was no need to tamper with it. As you also indicated, Hoover didn't go nearly as far as FDR did.

The best explanation I've ever read regarding the causes of the Depression is that we don't really know what made it so bad. I have seen arguments that government policies--especially the Hawley-Smoot Tariff--made the Depression worse, but I've never seen any argument before that the Depression was caused mostly by government interference, as you seem to say. That's a new one.

And there is no question what got us out of the Depression: the massive government spending which was made necessary by World War II.

I completely understand that our education system does not operate as a free market system. My argument is that bringing market forces into education, especially vouchers, isn't going to make things better. And since 88% of our young people still go to public schools, and since we have the best economy in the world, I'd have to say that if we were producing food, we'd all be eating pretty well.

3/07/2007 8:47 AM  
Blogger Tracy said...

Please see Professor Caroline Hoxby's work on school choice and competition at
Particularly see The Impact of Charter Schools on Student Achievement and
School choice and school competition: Evidence from the United States .

She looks at kids who are randomly assigned to charter schools or not and finds that charter schools both improve the academic performance of the kids who attend them and the academic performance of public schools exposed to the charter schools. So rather than public choice worsening public schools and turning them into institutions full of people with "no hopes, no dreams and no drive" it appears to be improving them. Public schools are more flexible and better than you imply.

3/07/2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Yes, it seems Minnesota has 4 of the top 10, and 7 of the top 15 high school hockey teams in the country, and Warroad itself is ranked in the top 10% of the country.

I sense a strange conflict here. You argue that schools are allowing students to go on and be successful how they like, often supporting this with anecdotal evidence from your own school. Your school is within a system that allows open enrollment. According the MN Bd. of Ed., 30,000 students have taken advantage of open enrollment, and every teacher posting here has argued that even a few good or bad students can make a large difference in classroom efficacy. Has this caused academic ghettos of the type you describe? Are you advocating for removal of open enrollment in Minnesota?

You've seen school choice primarily in the area of hockey, correct? It could be that some other schoolteacher in Minnesota somewhere is saying to themselves, "See, this school choice thing doesn't work, our hockey team hasn't improved at all!"

I don't think of choice as a magic bullet that will instantly cure all ills. Clearly other changes could be necessary, and I'm particularly interested at this point in DI for suburban areas. However, I think school choice would only aid the situation.

And technically, I'm in New Jersey. I could still make the same argument, though, with housing values and parental concern, cheating to get into the right district, etc. -- it's just that the contrast is ridiculous in NYC, where exams for preschools are not unusual for parents trying to avoid the lock-step system of public ed. Besides New York and New Jersey, I've also know a fair bit about Japan's school system, which has a more open system (that is, you can apply and attempt to test into schools. The pressure is intense, however. They also have a great public transportation system, so it's not unusual for students to attend school an hour away by train. Few American parents would want such a double-commute, but that's a practical matter which limits the use of choice here regardless of it's legal availability).

Are your suggestions really just because of comparison with private schools? If private schools were legally prohibited as of tomorrow, I tend to think you'd still feel your suggestions were appropriate.

3/07/2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/07/2007 7:34 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

Personally I am agnostic on school choice. The only reason I currently support it, is because I figure at least some decent schools are better than none at all.

I am pretty pesimistic that parents will demand a bottom up revolution of our system. Instead, I think that effective school reforms are more likely to be instituted from the top down.

My guess is that perhaps 1 out of 10 parents can make sense out of disaggregated data, or even cares enough to try.

If it was up to me, there would be a simple ranking system that would rate every school for every demograhic in every subject, and that it would be published on billboards and on the front door of every school.

I have to say Dennis, that until elementary school reform happens, I sort of agree with you. Kick out all the knuckleheads... let them work at McDonalds.

3/07/2007 7:34 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

but I've never seen any argument before that the Depression was caused mostly by government interference, as you seem to say. That's a new one.

That's because the Keynesians won't admit they were wrong.

in the 20s, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve bank and Montague Norman of the bank of England, inspired by Keynes, undertook to greatly increase the money supply by reducing the discount rate, causing wild over-speculation in the stock markets fueled by cheap credit and inflation which eventually resulted in the crash of '29 after credit finally petered out in '28.

Nowadays, we call that government interference.

Hoover is also the guy who said early in the Depression that the economy was fundamentally sound and that there was no need to tamper with it.

The economy was fundamentally sound; it was the monetray system that was out of whack.

Instead of letting the market correct itself, Hoover undertook to fix the economy by resuming credit inflation, required industrial leaders to agree not to cut wages (to increase them if possible), cut taxes heavily, increased governmnet spending, deliberately ran up a huge governmental deficit (the biggest in history up to that time), started more public works than what had been started in the previous thirty. Practically, all of the New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started. Hoover eventually lost ontrol of Congres who raised taxes in the Revenue Act of 1932. Hoover continued his interventionist rhetoric which served to persuade the financial community that Hoover was pro-labor and anti-business, exacerbating the deflationary effect of the huge tax increases. Exports collapsed due to the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930 helped to spread the depression to Europe. Hoover did quite a lot to turn a normal business recession into a depression and served to prolong the depression. Hoover was far from inactive during this period. Roosevelt merely redoubled Hoover's efforts and expanded them, making matters worse.

3/07/2007 7:56 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

There's a lot to respond to, and I've just got a little time on this computer, so I'll do my best in a short time.

Tracy, I have said in earlier posts that there are some situations where I think vouchers are appropriate. There are some places where the schools have become so bad that I'm afraid that rather than motivated kids pulling other kids up won't happen. I've had classes, thankfully very few, where adding a motivated kids or two wouldn't have made a difference. The only effect would have been to cheat the motivated student out of a decent education.

I have seen arguments and statistics saying that vouchers actually improved the performance of public schools. Sol Stern makes that argument for the Milwaukee schools. In our most troubled school systems, that may well be the case, but I'm afraid that the improvement will never be enough to make them good schools. The improvement will simply be enough to make them not as bad as they were before. I'm also afraid that those improvement might be short-term. My school, right now, is pretty average. There is no question in my mind that if you took the best couple of student out of my classes, it would hurt the education that the other kids are getting.

Crypticlife, as I indicated earlier, there are a lot of people in Minnesota who hate open enrollment because of sports. In hockey, for example, kids come up through youth programs. Most of the kids playing for Warroad this year played ice mites (6-9 year old), squirts (10-11 year olds), pee-wees (12-13 year olds), and bantams (14-15 year olds). The idea is that you build your program and when they get to high school, hopefully they can make it to a state tournament. While the parents of the young man who came to Warroad to play goalie certainly think open enrollment is a great thing, the parents of the kid who played goalie for Warroad through the entire youth program, and then lost his chance to play in high school aren't big fans of it. As I said before, although I have personally benefitted, I have mixed feelings about it.

KDerosa, your history knowledge is as impressive as your knowledge of educational research and statistics, but I repeat: your spin on the Great Depression is a new one to me. If I read you correctly, you're saying that John Meynard Keynes played an important role in bringing on the Depression, and Hoover did too much in trying to get us out of it, and that FDR actually made the Depression worse. Wow!

3/08/2007 10:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy said...

Dennis, you said in your post:
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.

I produced some evidence that vouchers have no such impact on public schools, that in fact public schools improve in quality when exposed to competition. For example, see the graphs on pages 19 and 20 (pdf page count - the numbers at the bottom are different) of Caroline Hoxby's work at, these show the reading proficiency of third grade kids in the schools most exposed to voucher competition falling from 1993 to 1996, then rising from 1997 to 1999, with more moderate effects for lesser-treated schools.

It is not clear from Caroline's work whether the most-treated schools are gaining good students, or whether they are improving outcomes by improving the school's (principal's, counsellors', teachers') performance. Whatever the impact of vouchers is however, there is no reason to believe that it is making public schools worse.

Now these effects may not be very large. But you said far more in your post than "vouchers have so far caused only limited improvements in public schools and Jobs over-states the case for them". You should correct that passage I quoted above in your post. Voucher programmes do not turn public schools into "an institution that simply houses the young people in our society with no hopes, no dreams and no drives".

I also think you are honour-bound to correct the passage where you say But Jobs does not, either because he's not being honest, or because he doesn't know what he's talking about.
It is entirely possible that Job knows Hoxby's work that school competition and vouchers improves public schools and I think it is not fair of you to accuse him of being either dishonest or not knowing what he is talking about, now I have pointed out some evidence that competition does improve public schools. I think implying that Jobs is dishonest is particularly unfair.

Of course, you didn't know of Caroline Hoxby's work at the time you wrote the original post, so I don't blame you for writing the original post. I just think you owe Jobs a correction now you have come across some evidence that public schools improve under vouchers, even if not as dramatically as we'd all like.

3/08/2007 1:02 PM  
Blogger The Educational Tour Marm said...

I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish area in Queens where the schools were superb.

My mother did send me to a private school for junior high, but I preferred the diversity of public school and the range of classes and teachers. I rebelled against a private school that existed solely for the purpose of segregation. To this day, I truly believe that I received a better education from my public schools.

Many of my classmates in high school came from lower socio-economic areas and were able to attend my high school because their parents either worked for someone who was willing to front an address or used the address of their business.

There were three diplomas: Academic, Commercial, and General.

Then there came the policy of, 'school busing'. In New York City, one had a bus and/or train pass for public transportation rather than a school bus. Who owned a car?

However, it was quite difficult for those who lived outside the neighbor to truly assimilate because of the hard commute schedules (some left home at 5:30AM for an 8:00 AM class and others didn't finish class until 6:00 PM, not reaching home until 8:00 PM) and could not join clubs or athletic programs because of this travel problem. Additionally, some of them had a part time job to help out the family and the commute became too much of a burden.

While the academics were of some benefit, the social side (financial pressures,and the inability to be a part of clubs and extra-curricular activities) was less than satisfactory. My neighborhood was rather progressive, so prejudice really did not play a part in this. But many of them either returned to their neighborhood school or dropped out.

New York City is also blessed with a number of very fine schools specializing in such diverse areas as, performing arts, fashion, science and math, and international affairs. These require entrance exams or auditions. Again, transportation can be an issue.

A few of my friends decided to become teachers, but upon graduation they were put directly into the needy schools and were required to teach courses other than their major. They had no preparation for this. This was a disservice to both parties.

Unfortunately, not one of my friends remained in the profession.

Perhaps I'm naive, but I would rather put money into increasing teachers salaries, upgrading neighborhood public schools, training a core of teachers to work in schools that are struggling (and compensating them properly), and partnering with the community on the whole to foster respect for education and pride of place. This, not vouchers, is the answer.

3/08/2007 3:28 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Tracy, I am not honor bound to change my statements. As far as I know, the only places where voucher systems exist are in places where the schools are very poor. As I said in my earlier comment, I have said in my book which came out a year-and-a-half ago, and in posts last summer, that I think vouchers in those situations are appropriate. But they are not a good statistical sample. As I read it, people like Jobs are promoting a full-fledged voucher system across our nation. You can't possibly assume that because the Milwaukee public schools improved slightly with vouchers, that schools that are functioning well would also improve with vouchers--especially over a long period.

Whether you are aware of it or not, there are some voucher promoters who would like to do away with our public school system and privatize it. I suspect that Jobs is one of them. They certainly have the right to hold that opinion and argue for it. But many of them are not open about it because it is not a popular idea. To argue for "choice" sounds so much better politically.

3/08/2007 4:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I never answered your last question. You are right. I believe teachers in any school should be able to remove kids who refuse to behave or refuse to make a reasonable effort. I'm not talking about EBD kids, and I'm certainly not talking about special ed. kids. I'm talking about kids who refuse to do things they are perfectly capable of doing.

3/08/2007 5:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

Dennnis - what evidence could convince you that people promoting vouchers are not out to destroy the public education system but may actually genuinely believe vouchers may improve public education?

I am not asking you what information would convince you that vouchers are right, just what information would convince you that Steve Jobs may have reasons other than the two options you give in your post to support vouchers.

I will be away over the weekend so it may take me a while to reply.

3/08/2007 6:43 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Tracy, I want to make it clear that I am not saying that everyone who is for vouchers is anti-public education. But when I read the article that Ian provided, it came off to me like Jobs is. Believe me, I've never gotten that impression from you, and I'm not questioning your sincerity. You seem to be a person who honestly believes that vouchers could improve public education. Even though I disagree with you, I respect your opinion and your arguments.

3/08/2007 7:26 PM  
Blogger M said...

over here, parents have a reasonable amount of choice about where to send their kids to school. Most schools do have zoning but there is choice within the area of where you want to send your child (not sure if it's the same in the US).

Regardless - Are parents really going to want to send their child to a school that is an hour away (out of the 'zone') anyway? Talk about tiring your child out before they ever GET to school...and after traveling an hour home again to start their homework? No favours being done to anyone there.

As for private vs public. There was an incident here that highlighted exactly what private schools do with their money. A well known private school poached a whole sports team from a public school and gave them all scholarships for an education at the private school. They did the same with a few highly achieving academic students. It happens a lot across private schools across the country. Across the world too.

Now, while in a so called free market you might argue that this is all well and good, choice and all that - but what happens is that those students who were born and bred in public schools and did well end up lifting the profile of private schools because of their high achievements. Look how easy it is to get high scores across subject areas and sport when you have the money to poach from other schools!

The public schools suffer because their scores go down when their good students are being poached, they then get less funding because there are less enrollments and thus the downward spiral begins - private schools look like they are producing good eggs when really it has less to do with the quality of THEIR schools/teachers and more to do with what MONEY can buy.

There is a completely FALSE sense of security in the perception of these schools being better. Well sure, if you have the money to send your child to a school like that they're probably already a step ahead in a lot of ways than kids who don't have food at home or the means to rise above.

Wealthy students + handpicked students + scholarship students with GREAT marks who are dying for a chance to shine. Gee, I wonder why the results are so great? Must be ALL due to the teachers.

Once again, people look at the superficial elements of schooling when there is so much more going on.

The effect that students have on each other's education at the high school level is enormous


3/09/2007 5:11 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


May I ask where you're from?

The problem you describe sounds realistic, but not insurmountable with proper regulation or measurement. Essentially, it's the same issue faced in evaluating colleges -- is Harvard really good because the teachers are good, or because they hand-pick students, have a billion-dollar endowment, and can offer scholarships? Regardless of the discrepancy between Harvard's weight and that of a state school, state schools still exist, and some are quite well-regarded.

I'd also add that in some places, schools are differentiated on particular academics. My wife, for example, attended a school that was not well-known for its scholarship, but happened to have a top-ranked bookkeeping program. Like a lot of other students there, she attained the highest bookkeeping rank available, and others from Japan are always very impressed when she mentions it (the Japanese, it seems, rank everything). By the way, if you ever marry a top-ranked bookkeeper, be prepared for a lot of foot-tapping and "Honey, you used an extra $4.50 this week; did you go buy that expensive coffee at Starbucks again?" :) But, she's a great help.

As far as the commuting issue, kids in Japan fairly commonly commute an hour or more to high school. In America, I knew a group of parents who took their kids daily from Queens to New Jersey, a commute of well over an hour when considering traffic, for a preschool they desired.

There's no problem with schools being unequal. They're unequal now. Let's see if I can see it from the perspective of the student starting in public school. They start in a school, and perhaps they wish to change to a particular private one, but don't have the money (even with a voucher system). They select the best initial school they can, figuring if they do well they can get into the private one on a scholarship. Yes, not every school is at the top level, and some of it may be due to factors like money or the other students in a school. It won't ALL be teaching. In fact, I don't know of any proponent of school choice who says the choice should be completely predicated on the quality of teachers. Lack of choice means that the few good students are being forced to raise the quality of the class, instead of being in a class where they don't need to be raising the quality of everyone else. They don't get paid for this, and effectively the aid they provide the teacher ends up being indentured servitude.

m, you also haven't addressed Hoxby's research, which shows improvement in public schools when faced with charter school competition. This seems to contradict your statement on "poaching".

School marm brings up a point which I find interesting. In many districts, there are entrance exams to get into desirable schools. This undoubtedly raises the quality of students there by filtering out low-quality students. What would you think, Dennis, of expanding this kind of application system to include almost all public schools, where there might be a few that were quite easy to get into but others at varying degrees of difficulty (perhaps an application involving attendance/homework rate, plus tests and grades for some schools)? It seems not terribly different from allowing schools to weed out students after-the-fact. It would directly result in competition between students, and doubtlessly raise school quality.

3/09/2007 8:30 AM  
Blogger M said...

Cryptic, I'm in Australia. I feel for you with the bookkeeper in the family. No getting away with anything there, I'm sure! I have it on good authority that significant others of teachers have to put up with the "teacher look" - akin to being stared at with laser beams burning into you. ;)

Lack of choice means that the few good students are being forced to raise the quality of the class, instead of being in a class where they don't need to be raising the quality of everyone else. They don't get paid for this, and effectively the aid they provide the teacher ends up being indentured servitude.

Is this truly what it's come down to? I don't think I've ever seen education in that way and thank God for that. That's not how kids are thought of by teachers! They're not forced to bring up the marks, they aren't slave driven to achieve. They do, because that's their thing. Like how there are some brilliant drama students and some wonderful athletes who are not so good at the academics. Everyone has talents somewhere and weak points somewhere. Hopefully all students are challenged to do the absolute best they can. That would be closer to the truth. The 'best they can' is different for everyone.

If then good students should have the choice to go to 'good schools' then perhaps wealthy low achieving students should have to go to bad schools in order to make more room for the good kids at the private schools. Essentially it's the same argument isn't it? I'm not sure how implying that good students don't belong in mediocre schools would make those schools achieve better results. It wouldn't. It's just creating a bigger division in the education system. But I'm not actually opposed to choice in the public system. However there is no way I would send my child 1 hour to school. I just find this horrific! Imagine the strain on the child traveling two hours a day. I understand what the parents are trying to do - they're trying to give their children a leg up and I fully sympathise with them. These days, we all know that image plays a big part in success and even child who is a bad student academically and otherwise but has lots of money behind him and went to a private school and has access to the "old boys network" as they say - has a HUGE advantage IN LIFE over someone who is from a low socioeconomic area but is a good student. Rich but bad student can get his foot in the door where the poor kid can't. Maybe that's how the 'market' works anyway - but it's certainly not fair, or right and it certainly has nothing to do with school results.

Improvements in public schools. Well, that is a separate issue from poaching and private schools having the money to afford to buy desirable results (basically that's what it comes down to). It so happens that obviously students are not poached until they have proven to be an asset to the school they are at. THEN they are poached.

I get the feeling that people think that public schools do not discuss and address issues of performance and improvements within their own schools. That they have to be forced to do so - but I can assure you this is not the case. We constantly do evaluations on other schools in our area and examine our weak spots and how we can address those. We visit like-schools to see what they are doing and they visit us - we have charter priorities and we have PD to work on them. I don't know of a public school that is sitting back and chuckling because their high achieving kids are bringing up the results and therefore they don't have to worry about anyone else.

3/09/2007 12:56 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

M, I think your response was excellent.

Crypticlife, kids effect each other in their classes, especially at the high school level. Good, motivated students tend to have a good effect on their classmates. To call them indentured servants because of that is odd to say the least.

I think public schools would perform much better than they are right now if kids were simply required to behave reasonably well and to make a reasonable effort. One reason for the improvement would be that the very worst behaved kids, and the kids who absolutely would not try would be gone. They would no longer drag their classmates down. But I don't think that is not the most important reason.

Once again, I think most of the kids who behave poorly and make a poor effort in public schools do so because they know they can get away with it. I would like to see them perform better, too, and under the system you're proposing, I don't see how that would happen. I really believe the biggest favor we could do for these kids is to make it clear to them that if they want to stay in school they are going to have to behave and try to learn something. There is no doubt in my mind that many kids would respond to this, and they would be the biggest winners.

What is a kid who won't try gaining by staying in school? And as I've said before, I would be perfectly willing to welcome those kids back if they ever changed their minds, and decided that they did want an education. Then we can actually do something for them.

3/09/2007 6:10 PM  
Blogger 40 said...

I have always maintained that my parents and students are my customers. My product is the learning that takes place and the fashion in which it does. When students/parents are dis-satisfied with the product, I make changes to be sure learning does take place.

I am not sure what the answer is to the entire system, and I probably don't care. I have chosen to focus on my own school. Teachers are the most isolated profession that I know of and they do not get enough support. Administration can't do this, it is up to the other teachers themselves to help. That's what I consider my role to be as a veteran teacher. Will I get all of our school's new people to stay and become good educators? No way. But, I hope for enough to make a big difference on a scale much larger than my single classroom. If all teachers would let their self-righteousness down for a few minutes, it would really help. Lend a hand. Help a rookie, pull them up with a new technique. Or just be a sounding board or a good listener to their problems.

Steve Jobs makes good computers. But, his ideas on education are wrong. I agree with you. The apple on the logo should not stand for education.

3/10/2007 2:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

So Dennis - you are saying that there isn't any evidence at all, in the whole of the world, that could convince you that Steve Jobs was actually seeking to improve public education? Ian has written his article and as far as you're concerned that's the end of it?

3/11/2007 1:48 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Tracy, I'm sure Steve Jobs will do fine regardless of what I think of him, but my mind could certainly be changed. In the article I read, Jobs came off as unfriendly to public education and teachers. Quite frankly, I'm tired of hearing from businessmen trashing us, in part, because I think very few of them really have a solid grasp of what goes on in our classrooms. I admit that I tend to get a little touchy about that. And by the way, just to clarify things, the article was provided by IanH, but it wasn't written by him.

3/12/2007 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm relatively new to this blog, so it is entirely possible I missed the discussion which proved that the fundamentals are easy to measure. I teach 9th grade English; Pre-AP (about 100 kids in three classes) and English Language Learners (another 40 kids in two classes). When I think about the critical thinking skills it takes to survive in today's world, and if I only knew the "fundamentals" which were required even ten years ago (much less twenty), I don't think the fundamentals are enough. As for easy to measure - at the classroom level, yes. At the district, state, or federal level, they are not easy to measure for a few very good reasons.
I also wonder if Jobs would like us to overhaul his entire business model based solely on the worst performing employees or aspects of his business.

3/15/2007 5:32 PM  

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