Sunday, May 04, 2008

The market is not God!

On a number of my posts, I have gotten comments from people who say they believe we shouldn't have public schools. Although I completely disagree with them, I respect them for their honesty. What galls me are those who don't have the guts to come out and say that, but instead seek to destroy public education by advocating "choice" through a full-scale voucher plan. They generally push their ideas by extolling the virtues of the market. To many of them, the market is God.

Last week, Jay Greene had a guest education basher on his blog named Matthew Ladner. Before pushing his "market" solution, Ladner throws his spears at public education.

Our education problems worsened despite the increased spending. Today, 38 percent of our 4th graders have failed to learn basic reading skills, and around a third of our high school students dropout of high school. As today’s dropouts are largely those students who failed to learn to read in elementary schools, tomorrow’s dropouts are already in the pipeline.

Last week Greene told us that our elementary school students were doing just fine, and now his buddy tells us that nearly forty percent of our fourth graders can't read. I'm not sure where he's getting that statistic from, but I would guess it might be the same place as his "around a third of our high school students dropped out of high school." I've seen that statistic before, and I know that it's widely disputed, but Ladner presents it as fact.

Ladner's solution to all of our problems, of course, is the market.

Our students need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success and either improves or eliminates failure. This has been sorely lacking in the past, and will be increasingly beneficial in the future. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status-quo...

A market system will embrace and replicate reforms which work, and discard those that fail to produce. A top-down political system has failed to perform this task. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed miserably, however, a market of parents pursuing the interests of their children will succeed in driving progress.

You know, if I was one of the less fortunate in our society, I think I might be a little bit suspicious of someone who tells me the market (genuflect, please) is going to be my savior. I have no doubt that a full-fledged voucher system would be a heckuva good deal for all those affluent people who are already sending their kids to private schools, but I'm not sure about people like the working poor. I mean they aren't exactly thriving under our market-based health care system.

But Ladner cares about poor people--he really does.

Charter school operators such as KIPP, Yes Academies and Amistad have proven definitively that low-income inner city children can learn at an accelerated pace, and can even outperform our complacent suburban schools and attend elite universities. These innovators face huge political and practical obstacles in making these schools more widely available, but don’t bet against them. Already, they have settled the question of whether we must settle for today’s failed status quo: we don’t. Our students can learn. We adults simply have to learn how to follow the example of those who are getting the job done.

We cannot feel satisfied with a system that watches helplessly as a third of pupils drop out before graduation each year. We can do much better. The key lies in matching disadvantaged students with high quality teachers and school leaders. Parental choice programs help to achieve this by providing new education delivery methods.

Even though I don't teach in an inner-city school, I find Ladner's inference that the kids in those schools do poorly because of poor quality teachers insulting. People like him always assume that if schools aren't doing well, it's the teachers' fault. What he is apparently too dense to realize is that when you take all the kids in an area that suffers from a lot of social problems, a number of those kids aren't going to give a rip about education, and that's going to make it much more difficult for anyone to learn regardless of the quality of the teachers.

I have no doubt that there are kids in the inner-cities who do want to learn with parents to whom education is important. And it doesn't surprise me one bit that if you put those kids together, and get them away from those who don't care, that they will do wonderfully. And that's great! But if we ever go to a full-fledged voucher system, and we take more an more of those kids who care about education out of the public schools, what is going to be left? How in the world are those kids going to learn anything? That market system will probably work about as well for those people as our heath care system does for those who can't afford insurance.

I do wan't to make a couple of things clear before I close this off. First of all, I am not a socialist. Heck, I'm not even a liberal Democrat. I am grateful that a market system is at the heart of our economy in the United States, because I think for most things, a market system works better than anything else. It isn't perfect; but it beats the alternatives. But the market is not God. The second thing is that I would love just once to hear one of those education market-thumping revival preachers say, "Let's have real competition. Let's have a voucher system, but let's also give public school teachers and principals the same power to deal with disruptive and apathetic students as private schools have." Do you think any one of those "experts" who say they are so concerned about education and so concerned about poor and middle class people will ever say that? Don't hold your breath.


Blogger Amerloc said...

It'd be easy for me to say, "Dennis, you teach in a small market; you don't teach in the real world." Of course it'd be easy, and it might even be true, but it'd be retarded.

Because it'd be irrelevant to the truth of what you say.

What Greene and Ladner and all the others who genuflect at the charter altar ignore is that there are people for whom a leak-free roof and food on the table are more important than subject-verb agreement or the square root of 97, and until they solve that inequity, no other inequity will matter.

5/04/2008 6:33 PM  
Anonymous cranky said...


You also hit upon the reason vouchers won't work--if you accept federal voucher money, you will eventually have to accept federal control. I can't see it being otherwise. And the reason most private schools are successful is because they don't have disruptive students. Mostly this is due to self-selection, but for those who do show up and prove disruptive, they can show them the door at anytime. The lack of disruptive students, and thus the possibility of real teaching and learning taking place, attracts better teachers than the sub-standard pay many of them have would suggest. If this were to change in any way, all of the "superiority" of the private schools would quickly be equalized. No matter where you are, just as you can't have real democracy if you don't have a liberal, secure society (e.g., Iraq), you cannot have learning in the midst of chaos. Doesn't matter where you are, it isn't going to happen, private or public. The difference is that private schools aren't handcuffed by lawyers, courts, and an ever-expanding list of "rights" accorded to every student but the ones who wants to strive and succeed.

Secondly, voucher advocates assume parents WOULD choose on the basis of a quality education. Not bloody likely for a lot of people: I would predict that having a prestigious athletic programs would attract more students than would successful academics. And indeed, there would be a lot of parents who simply wouldn't care. Instead, vouchers on an academic basis likely would be a boondoggle program to exactly the same sets of parents who already have put their children into private schools in the first place.
Some people would scoff at this being the case, but I assure you it is. Try visiting Appalachia and see if you find it a bastion of intellectual enlightenment. Trust me, there aren't many would-be Voltaires out there hiding in the hills. In fact, the few that are get the hell out as soon as they can. This is why I find blogs like Kitchen Table Math sooooo frustrating--they have white, upper-middle class, highly educated blinders on. They never get it: some parents do not see getting a good education as being the highest priority for their children. It may be well down the list, in fact. Indeed, the entire value system is often completely, and frustratingly, different. I met some teachers from southern Kentucky once who expressed their difficulties with motivating smart girls to achieve academic success. Why? Because their parents didn't want them to to go off to college, where they'll be exposed to different values, and instead they should stay home and find a husband as quickly as possible. To such a mindset, vouchers won't do a damn thing, and it's at precisely these sorts of people that vouchers are supposedly aimed at. Besides, how many high quality, highly educated teachers are going to suddenly move to eastern Kentucky, southern Ohio, or southern West Virginia? Or to an big inner city school? Look at the demographics for those areas--people get educated and then they leave as fast as they can. Nobody is being attracted to these areas.

So it isn't just markets, it's culture, and vouchers aren't going to change that for all people, whether its the inner-city or its Appalachia. And all the advantages of private schools could be accorded to public schools if they were simply given more rights to remove the disruptive. (Although, if we reformed our school structure and stopped forcing everyone into a one-sized fit all curriculum that is irrelevant to the non-college bound, we might have fewer of these students as well. But that's another story....

5/04/2008 7:54 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Amerloc, I do find it ironic that many who push vouchers do so on the basis that having a market-based education system will be the salvation for the very people who have been the big losers in our market-based economy.

Cranky, I thought your comment was great. There are times when someone will comment on one of my posts, and I will realize that that person should have been the one to write the post. This is one of those times.

5/05/2008 4:54 AM  
Blogger Charley said...

While your post seems to focus mostly on the idea of competition via vouchers and such, could there be a place for the radical idea of a complete abolishing of the public school system and its accompanying compulsory attendance laws? THIS ARTICLE posits some thoughts to consider. Will it ever happen? Probably not. Does it stimulate some "out-of-the-box" thinking about the current problems associated with the government-sponsored/controlled, group-schooling model? Absolutely.

And when you consider the school system in Chicago (I think) spends over $10,000/year/child (Good, short post on this HERE) have to wonder what the people of Chicago are getting for their money and if there might be a better way....

HomeDIscipling Dad Blog

5/05/2008 6:35 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I understand the passion behind those who say that vouchers will help those who are least fortunate, but not one of them has yet satisfactorily explained to me how a family living paycheque to paycheque will be able to afford even ½ of a voucher-subsidized $10,000/year private school tuition. No, vouchers will only help those who are already in private schools, to the detriment of those left in public schools, after that money is withdrawn from the public system.

5/05/2008 6:57 AM  
Anonymous choller said...

Your last statement hit the nail on the head, with regard to showing the door to kids/parents who just aren't interested in what schools are selling. I'm not anti-charter, but they still have the ability to show kids the door, which makes the "regular" public school a dumping ground. I don't think charter schools are a model for regular public schools, but they could cause a paradigm shift where the "motivated" kids go to a charter school and all the others go to "regular" public school.

5/05/2008 1:20 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

I have an autistic child in public schools that the schools spend quite a bit of money and staff time on. He gets special therapies. They put up with a lot of his mannerisms that no way a private school would deal with.

That being said, really, the school is the one that decides what therapies the kid gets and what that extra staff time looks like. The kid can't go from one class to the next without an aide to minimize his wandering, but he must take Algebra and Spanish instead of learning how to get from one place to another alone without getting into trouble?? I have about this (.) much input into the subjects he learns, really, even if I am an "equal partner on the IEP team." In theory, I suppose, school choice would change that. But I'm just a wee mite skeptical that it would, despite being a bit Republican/Libertarian in my leanings. Like Cranky said, once you get the government in on it, all kinds of things could happen.

It would be nice if we had a bit more choice, or if we were told that there are X dollars for your son's therapies... which ones do you want? Algebra tutoring or social skills?

Cranky touched on an IMPORTANT point about culture. I don't value the "degree" for my autistic son G, I suppose because I am white trash.

Idea: the school system doesn't somehow have to benefit from my taxes in order for children to be well-educated. I'm sure there are plenty of options out there. And as a parent deciding on a school, I'm looking at MY kid and not the benefit of the institution, or the benefit of those I would "leave behind."

The system should be in place for the children and not the other way 'round. The thought that the "other children will suffer" because I don't let my younger kids participate in something inferior to what I could give them at home or somewhere else is kinda backwards in my opinion.

I'm sure there are lots of unexplored options like part-time schooling and special trade schools for older children. Bet you the public school might even see a need for some of this stuff and start the classes themselves.

:] That would be pretty kewl, wouldn't it?

5/05/2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Oops. Just re-read your post. I have the *guts* to say I'd be totally ok with the destruction of the public school system. No clucking here!!! I had to return and post that so there would be no mistake.

But let's be real; it isn't going anywhere anytime soon! I don't see where schools can't change with the populace, with the children it serves or the job market they'll be entering (even if the kids are implied to be the low-class scum left behind by the middle class or poor children "dumped" into classes).

5/05/2008 2:23 PM  
Anonymous daniel simms said...

Dennis, I think that most voucher proponents would like to bring about pure competition in education. They just don't realize that if the funds are flowing through the government, it will be the government and not the free market that will be making the rules (just like it is now).

5/06/2008 12:50 PM  
Blogger kherbert said...

I shutter to think what would happen to my students in a "free market" system. They are poor, large number ESL students.

Judging from comments about our test scores being good (.5 of a point from our state's highest rating)for our population (said with a sneer and up turned nose), I'm guessing they wouldn't be desirable raw materials to some people.

Well my 2nd graders just drew a brace map finding all the different combinations 2 plants could make if they were cross pollinated. Our 5 graders had 24% make commended performance on Reading (perfect or missed 1 question). Our 3rd graders had 40% commended performance.

We are a dual language campus with kids from both backgrounds learning both languages.They love reading in both English and Spanish. They devour the new library books, and even recognize the boxes that they are shipped in, and bug the librarian about the new books anytime they see a red and white box brought into the building.

We have bright kids, who are eager to learn. But people look at their backgrounds and dismiss them.

5/08/2008 10:50 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

You seem to imply that it's impossible to be *for* vouchers and *not* want the destruction of public schools. I'm not convinced the two views are mutually exclusive; I hold both of them.

5/16/2008 10:36 PM  

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