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School Choice

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A Symposium in Reason Magazine:


We asked a dozen experts what reforms they think are most necessary and promising to improve American education. We also asked them to identify the biggest obstacles to positive change.

Some folks give predictable answers (vouchers are the solution, teachers' unions are the biggest obstacles), but other comments are more interesting.

For example, John Taylor Gatto says,


People don’t learn anything the way schools teach except reflexive obedience, so their behavior can be predicted by statistical tools.

This was built into the original design. The idea was that we had to convert a nation where 75 percent of the population had independent livelihoods—and this was their dream in childhood—in order to serve a highly concentrated corporate economy in which only a few people could call the shots for everyone else...We didn’t have a country like that...we were well on our way to being the most dynamically inventive nation in the history of the planet. We had 90 percent of the patents in the world. That changed because in order to have westward expansion, we needed genuinely massive investment. There was only one place that investment could come from: Great Britain, which was an intensely class-based society, sent the senior sons of the people with the money over to make sure that our economy was slowly but systematically regulated the same way the British economy was regulated through class.


Historians with a less conspiratorial bent will argue the point differently. They say that the industrial economy needed a different type of worker, and mass education helped transition people out of agriculture.

Here is how I might have answered the symposium's questions, although I am not sure which of these to label as "biggest need for reform" or "biggest obstacle."

I think that a major structural problem that has emerged in the past thirty years is the large school district. The stranglehold that teachers unions and other status-quo defenders have on schools reflects the fact that school districts are too big for parents or other stakeholders to challenge. Large school districts favor rent-seeking over accountability.

I think that the key to school reform is to change the belief system in which government is viewed as a parent. As long as people instinctively think that government is analogous to a parent, rather than an institutional agreement among consenting adults, they are unlikely to think outside of the box of the current system.


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Robert Sperry writes:

The biggest need in education is to apply the scientific method and an engineering process to the development of educational materials, environments and processes.

While somewhat out of date read Richard Feynman’s description of the text book selection process for incite into how educational decisions get made.

From Jenny D. blog* I read a claim that the total R&D spending in education is about 0.25%, and I am betting that most of that is large survey type studies not directed engineering and longitudinal testing.

“Another Tidbit from Tony Bryk's Talk
He said that the percentage spent on average by companies, or industry, on research and development is about 15 percent. Of the spending on education, only about 0.25 percent is on research and development.”

Now the meta-question why is there near zero educational R&D in everything from public to private schools, grammar to graduate school.

Source* http://drcookie.blogspot.com/2005_11_01_drcookie_archive.html

cameron mulder writes:

I think your idea about smaller school districts is a intersting one, but my own experience would argue aginst this.

I lived in a rather small school district, If i remember right my graduating class was around 65 people. The whole district had around 6000-7000 people living in it. I Personally thought that my friends who lived the the north of me, who where in a much larger district, that had 4 high schools, recieved a superior education. From what i have seen i would say that size of the district, and quality of the school have little corelation.

But i think this is something worth looking at, and should be a very simple research project given the amount of public data avalable on schools today.

If you want to do a research project on this, I would love to help.

Let Us Have Peace writes:

The Marxist or neo-Marxist notion that compulsory primary and secondary education was "demanded" by industry is rank historicism. Carnegie was happy to hire immigrants who had no formal education at all. The push for schooling came from the groups who benefited most directly - the Protestant clergy from the "respectable" denominations - Friends, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and then, much later, Baptists. They and their children and relatives became the teachers and administrators for the new public systems.

As for the present cure, remove the compulsion and let people vote with their children's feet. Any system that forcibly conscripts students ends up being like the U.S. military when it was corrupted by the draft. Vouchers are like compulsory national service with the option to not serve in the military. They do not address the corruptions built into a compulsory system; they only make it marginally more palatable.

daveg writes:

They have tried vochers twice in california and it was defeated both times. The suburban voters won't go for it becuase it "takes money from the public schools." The polls showed something like 10 point gender gap on this issue, with women more oppossed than men. I don't think it received a majority either tho.

I am open to the idea of vouchers, but do I think it has any chance of becoming policy? No.

dearieme writes:

Gosh, that's the second time in a couple of weeks that I've seen someone on the web advance what is, in structure, an anti-semitic argument, but with the Brits playing the role of the Jews. Fascinating.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I'd like to posit that the level of classroom discipline required for effective learning may not be compatible with the Constitutional limits on the power of government.

John Spence writes:

The objection to large school districts should be tempered with some of the economies of scale that are addressed due to regulatory requirements.

As the parent of six special education children, I have long dealt with the Inividuale Education Plan (IEP) that is prepared annualy or more often. There is a requirement for psycologists that wind up coordinating and sometimes arbitrating the wants and needs of parents and educators. Staff positions are cheaper and more sensitive to the culture of the educational process.

This is a small sample of the impact of regulatory issues (see No Child left behind) have on district size.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Mr. Econotarian has a valid point: schools are dealing today with students from dysfunctional families that 2 generations ago simply could not have acted as they do today. Schools should not, and cannot, make up for a maladjusted culture - the sort where basic deference to authority is missing. In a roundabout way, this argues for no compulsory schooling - if the kids & parents truly don't want to be there, they shouldn't be there.

Dan Landau writes:

I am not sure the failure of vouchers to win majorities of voters is because they think of the government as a parent. It could well come from a deeper if less articulate understanding that government funding can’t really be separated from government controls on content, methods, etc. This is a big weakness of the voucher idea that I have never seen well addressed.

To go further out on a limb, I think the deepest problem of education is not government management, but their non-profit status. The private schools are better than the public schools, but not nearly enough, especially if you allow for the higher cost of many of them.

Only for profit organizations have degree of management control necessary for radical changes in school organization and technology. Once we get for profit schools, the entrepreneurs and the market will decide what works and what doesn’t. One thing it is possible to make a confident guess about, less learning will be by live teachers talking to whole classes, and more will be by computers teaching individual students. This alone may reduce discipline problems. More important, it will allow each student to advance at his own pace.

Jon writes:

Where does one get the idea that small school districts are superior or more efficient? Or that private schools are "better" (some very expensive ones may be)? Actually larger school districts are able to offer children more options--advanced courses, special ed, magnet schools, and vo-tech schools.

People also forget the past rather easily. Modern schools make a far greater effort to educate children with a variety of disabilities then their predecessors. This is extremely expensive.

Self interest explains why school choice is unpopular in many well to do suburbs. People feel that they have paid more for their house to go to a top school. Any school choice system (even "cluster" systems or consortiums within the public system) would at least take away this advantage, and most likely their children would risk not being able to attend the school they chose when they bought their house.

In other areas school choice is unpopular because many people simply would rather see their neighborhood school be good instead of sending their children elsewhere. They also know they are unlikely to find a good school that will accept their vouchers.

Steve Sailer writes:

First, do no more harm.

When American families shop for homes, they look for neighborhoods with "good schools," which is a euphemism for schools with good students. Americans want their children's peers to be oriented toward success in studies.

So, the obvious first step is: Stop letting in so many illegal immigrants, who typically have elementary school educations, come from a Latin American culture that places little value on education, and whose children generally enter school speaking no English.

No matter how you organize or fund a school, these kind of students will put severe stresses on it.

superdestroyer writes:

Another reason people do not want an all private system is that many of them know what a rigged game private school admission is. Most college prep private schools have arcane admission criteria, waiting lists, and entry points. If you are middle class, most of those schools are beyond reach just like Harvard or Stanford is beyond the reach of most college students.

Paul N writes:

I think "vouchers will work" is the best answer.

I also thin that if schools were really as horrible as they're portrayed to be, there wouldn't be so much opposition to vouchers or school reform in general. Face it: to a first approximation, people like our schools as they are.

Jim Glass writes:
When American families shop for homes, they look for neighborhoods with "good schools," which is a euphemism for schools with good students. Americans want their children's peers to be oriented toward success in studies.

So, the obvious first step is: Stop letting in so many illegal immigrants, who typically have elementary school educations, come from a Latin American culture that places little value on education...

New York City was the center point of the tide of immigration back when it was at its highest, also had the most developed major public school system, and kept good records.

The children of those (very poor) immigrants performed substantially better in the public schools (higher graduation rates, etc.) than did native-born American children, in general.

The exceptions were the Irish and Italians, who came from regions where government was distrusted and who carried over this attitude to the government public schools in NYC, and thus sent their kids out to work instead of school. Their first generations of kids had a literally 0% high school graduation rate (although the average was 10%, other immigrant groups did as high as 20%).

Immigrants on the whole continue to do disproportionately well in the NYC public schools. Not just Asians, a real interesting story is how the Caribbean blacks are at the very top of educational and economic performance here while the native born blacks stay at the bottom, and the emnity growing between them ... some of the most racist comments I've ever heard ... but that's for another thread.

New York City's population today is more than 40% immigrant, non-US born. Almost half the city. The last census said something like 60 languages are spoken here. Immigrants from everywhere are everywhere doing everything.

I don't know anybody here who's anti-immigrant at all, much less the way people in the Southwest are. It's like that's another country or something. But that's for another thread too.

spencer writes:

I'm going to go back to my basic analysis that the US has multiple school systems. A great one for the affulent in affluent communities. An OK one for the middle class in middle class communities and a poor one in poor communities.

Now how would using vouchers to shift to private schools change this?

I doubt it would make any difference in the wealthy communities.

OK, in theory it might be possible to make a little improvement in middle class communities.
But that conclusion depends on the assumption that middle class schools are very inefficient and that making them private could improve efficiency so much that they could do a better job. But education is an inefficient process.
In business you improve efficiency or productivity by giving each worker more capital so they can produce more -- productivity. But
so far no one has come up with a better or more efficient way of teaching then some form of one-on-one instruction that reaches a limit of about 20 or 30 students for teacher. This is also the methodology used in private schools. If there were a more efficient method some of the thousands of private schools we have would have found it. So how do you get around this limit by switching from public to private schools?

In poor communities is where we need the improvement. These communities have poor schools for several reasons. The single most important reason is the poor home environment the kids come from. Switching from public to private schools will not change this-- in private schools the kids will still come from a poor environmnet. The second reason the poor communities have poor schools is that the parents have little influence on the system. It is just another example of the poor suffering from the overall system. The poor have little influence on anything, public or private. Now, I think it is up to those advocating vouchers to demonstrate or explain how the switch from public to private without spending any more resources will overcome the poor home environment these kids come from and make poor people suddendly acting like middle class and affluent parents in influencing school policies and administration.

If you want to improve out school system you have to be able to spend more to offset the poor home environment, etc,, of the poor kids and switching from public schools to private schools will not do that. Now, I know you are going to cite data on how much NY city spends compared to what a school in Kansas spends but that is largely a function of difference in costs of living. Yes, you are right big city school systems have large bureaucracies and that could getting rid of that could release some resources, but not enough to make much difference.

Finally, we have poor teachers largely because we pay them poorly. Teachers unions are the symptom of the problems not the cause. So how will shifting from public to private schools impove the caliber of people we attract to teaching while still paying the same -- you get what you pay for. Yes, we use to do it because we exploited women, but they now have better opportunities so we can no longer do that.

So far I hear many people making claims that using vouchers would solve all these problem.
But I have yet to see any evidence that anybody has actually overcome any of the problems by using vouchers.

James writes:

Spencer asks, "Now, I think it is up to those advocating vouchers to demonstrate or explain how the switch from public to private without spending any more resources will overcome the poor home environment these kids come from and make poor people suddendly acting like middle class and affluent parents in influencing school policies and administration." This would be a great question if voucher advocates ever claimed that the effectiveness of vouchers would come from some related change in home environments.

I could just as soon ask, "Now, I think it is up to those opposing vouchers to demonstrate or explain how spending any more resources without the switch from public to private will overcome the poor home environment these kids come from and make poor people suddendly acting like middle class and affluent parents in influencing school policies and administration."

But neither side has claimed that vouchers or government run schools are a solution to home environment problems. Spencer's question is a strawman argument.

Since there seems to be a severe misunderstanding regarding the pro-voucher position, here goes: If I am one of the few parents in a poor neighborhood that is concerned about my child's schooling, under the present system, I have zero effective control in the matter. My child has to attend the school that the government gives me and the government gives me what the majority agrees with. Effectively, I'm at the mercy of the many disinterested parents in my district. Under vouchers, if I am dissatisfied with what my child gets, I don't have to convince a majority that the entire school system should change. I can change the education that my child gets without having to depend on a majority of the other voters in the district.

Due to the small number of voucher programs attempted so far, there is not much conclusive empirical evidence showing that vouchers are better or worse than public schooling. This is no more a reason to oppose vouchers than to support them, unless you also make the a priori assumption that direct state provision of a good is likely to be better than a program in which the state subsidizes consumption but consumers have a choice of provider. I could almost respect such a position if its believers were not so inconsistent.

I tend to observe that the same people who oppose vouchers do not make parallel arguments that the food stamp program should be replaced with state run cafeterias, that state run district hospitals rather than "medicare for all" is the solution to the health care "crisis," that the Pell Grant program won't work because it doesn't do anything about students' home enviromnents, etc.

Mike writes:

I haven't the time just now, but why do so many of you simply ignore the empirical evidence on three fronts:

1. What is the impact of vouchers?
Research on Milwaukee and Florida seems to indicate that they are positive. In fact, I am not familiar with too much work indicating that vouchers have been unsuccessful.


2. What role does money play in improving outcomes?

Starting with the Coleman report, through a good book by Gary Burtless and all the way to recent work by Kain, Rivkin et al - at best the evidence is mixed and proponents of either view can make a case that either resources do matter or matter not at all.

3. Comparing the effectiveness of private and public schooling.

I don't think that there is any empirical question about the privates being better than the publics, even after all sorts of controls for selection. Many here also seem to think that private schools like Andover, Exeter, etc are the rule rather than the exception. Most private schools are Catholic - and I would go to bat by saying that they spend less per student than their public school peers. Further, I never found the impression to be that these Catholic schools played the ridiculous admissions games that some mentioned above.

Jon writes:
1. What is the impact of vouchers? Research on Milwaukee and Florida seems to indicate that they are positive. In fact, I am not familiar with too much work indicating that vouchers have been unsuccessful.
There is also research indicating such programs are ineffective; enacting these programs on a larger scale will likely be less effective. The small scale of the pilot programs will put students in the best slots available at the prevailing prices.
I don't think that there is any empirical question about the privates being better than the publics... Most private schools are Catholic - and I would go to bat by saying that they spend less per student...
Where is your evidence that "private schools" are "better" than public schools? What is the criteria under which you declare them "better"? Catholic schools can be less expensive because they are administered by the church which can provide funds from donations and they can rely on a labor force whose religious beliefs induces them to accept low wages. If one tries to switch to a private system, one will quickly exhaust this pool and be using the same people now in public schools. BTW, even the private schools that charge over $15K hit parents and grandparents for donations.
spencer writes:

My view on the voucher discussion is not about private vs public. Rather, it is that the advocates of vouchers are promising a free lunch and I see no evidence tht they can deliver.

James, your point about a single individual using the voucher to escape a bad school is a very good one. It makes for a very compelling argument.

The so called "school problem" is simply that we are now trying to educate a group we use to let drop out. In the old economy that was no problem. They could be a useful and contributing member of society without an education. We can say we still do not need these people to be educated, we still need janitors, bed pan emptiers, etc., and just go back to the old way of letting these kids drop out. That would solve the "school problem". But for the most part these are kids that do not respond to the classic education system largly because of their bad home environnmet. If we are going to try and educate people they have never responded to the classic education approach we need to try something different with them. The advocates of vouchers are saying just turn it over to the private sector. But really, there is no significant difference between education as performed by the private sector and the public sector. So I do not see this as a solution to what I see as the "school problem".

English Professor writes:

Spencer has put his finger on the basic problem. When anyone says that public schooling in America is terrible, what they really mean is that in communities populated by the poor or minorities, the schools are failing to prepare young people to succeed on any level in American society. Schools for the white middle class generally seem to be ok--not inspiring perhaps, but generally competent. And so the problem has to be rearticulated. It is not, "What can we do to fix public education," but "How can we address the fundamental structural problems that are crushing poor and minority youth?"

I don't know whether vouchers will work, but they have this advantage: they need not be available to all the students in an entire school district. They can be targeted to areas where the public system is failing most atrociously. And even if we accept some of Spencer's other observations, it seems to me that vouchers may be the best response currently available. He offers two dominant concerns--first, the poor quality of the home environment of many students, and second, the lack of parental control. Vouchers will not change the overall quality of the home environment for all the children in a neighborhood, but they may allow concerned families to escape a failing system. That is, they would help parents who want to change their child's school environment. As for the matter of parental control--that is precisely what vouchers offer--not political control over the schools, but control over where (and indirectly what) their children will be taught.

Quite frankly, I suspect that if vouchers became widely available, the problem of poor primary education would not be solved overnight. Education is a fairly complicated social practice (and that alone should make us all skeptical of government control). Parents have to teach their children to value education; teachers have to motivate students; there has to be an appropriate curriculum. Some parents will not to do their part while some voucher schools are liable to offer a dubious brand of education. But voucher schools are more likely to implement a variety of approaches, some of which will work for some students. And I suspect that some institutions will provide some students with the sort of structure that they currently lack at home.

Those who support vouchers are probably excessively optimistic about what they can accomplish in a short time; but those who oppose vouchers must admit that they are willing to accept the status quo. And for poor and minority students, the status quo is simply unacceptable.

Chris Bolts writes:

I think when people try to address the problem of education, they try to apply "one size fits all" solutions to the problem as opposed to dealing with each problem individually. However, this is a conundrum because trying to deal with each problem individually would be a daunting task and there can be no surefire way that each individual would have their needs satisfied. This is an argument for vouchers since each parent at least knows what their child or children needs and can best use the monies to meet them. Those who are skeptical of just turning over the educational system to the private sector are right to be skeptical, but for the wrong reasons. I think that if we give parents more control over how they are able to meet their childrens' educational needs we can see a big improvement in the overall educational system.

One facet of the school system that has not changed since it had become a popular belief to have education publicly funded is teaching to a set of core educational values (reading, writing, and arithmetic basically) as opposed to discovering the talents and specializations of children. Why is it important to keep stressing these core values in high school, especially if most children who graduate from high school is more likely to enter the workforce as opposed to going straight to college? If parents are able to get vouchers, a private market for schooling could possibly form that emphasizes childrens' interests and goals and in turn specialized schools will begin to form. Why can't an eigth grader who loves math and/or economics start learning these hard subjects at an earlier point in their educational career as opposed to waiting until high school or taking advanced courses in college?

My entire point is that instead of being outright opposed to vouchers, opponents should be open to the idea and at least let the program have a trial period of ten years or so in a significant number of states. If within that time there proves to be no significant improvement in childrens' educational attainment, then go back to the public system. If instead there is a significant improvement then we should be pushing for less government involvement in education and allow markets to operate.

Jim Glass writes:
When anyone says that public schooling in America is terrible, what they really mean is that in communities populated by the poor or minorities, the schools are failing to prepare young people to succeed on any level in American society.

Oh, there are criticisms that are a good deal more concrete than that, and which aren't restricted to schools in minority communities.

Like from this former NYC public school teacher, for instance.

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