Arnold Kling  

Two Bad Ideas

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Louis Gerstner writes


Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

His op-ed does not contain the word "parent." In my opinion, the more we subtract parents from the education process, the worse it will get.

DB investment advisors writes (I had to get past a legal-disclaimer wall to find the document),


One of the reasons that the "green sweet spot" is an attractive focus for an economic stimulus is the labor-intensity of many of its sectors. For instance, the Apollo Alliance estimates that every $1 million invested in the US in energy efficiency projects creates 21.5 new jobs, as compared to only 11.5 jobs for new natural gas generation. The University of California Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory also finds that renewable energy technologies create many more jobs per average megawatt of power generated and per dollar invested than coal or natural gas. Finally, a 2008 Center for American Progress report states that a $100 billion investment in clean energy and efficiency would result in 2 million new jobs, whereas a similar investment in old energy would create only 540,000 jobs.

So our goal should be to waste labor. From a sane economic perspective, the "job-creation benefits" of green technology should be counted as costs. But what Bryan Caplan calls the make-work fallacy dies hard.


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Les writes:

I certainly agree that this is a bad idea. It seems to me that all school districts and all public schools should be abolished, so that there are only private schools.

There is no reason that education cannot be limited to the private sector. It is probably necessary to give free education vouchers to indigent families to put their children through school. But no further government interference is needed or justified.

TA writes:

Landscaping is another occupation that generates lots of jobs for the money spent. Manual ditch-digging is even better.

Jacob Miller writes:

Spot on analysis.

TA: Perhaps manual ditch-digging with spoons? That would create even more jobs.

Gary Rogers writes:

Bad ideas, yes, but the kind of thinking that government bureaucrats who are not looking to make a profit might find attractive. Other examples are killing baby animals during the depression to increase farm prices, or, the more recent idea of tearing down homes to stop the decline in home prices.

Markets have a wonderful way of weeding out the idiots if they are allowed to work. Governments seem to attract the idiots who cannot make it in a free market.

Boonton writes:

The problem with Kling's criticism of abolishing school districts is the implicit assumption that more and more school districts somehow makes parents more involved with schools and schooling.

I think that's a pretty unjustified assumption. More and more districts may mean more job opportunities for running school districts but IMO can set off mechanisms that actually short circuit parental involvement.

Here's an example. Recently the local paper here had a story about a child whose parents had split. They had 50-50 custody. To make life easier, they kept her in a single school but half of the time she is living with the parent who is not in the district.

This district, in order to try to keep costs contained, has undertaken an effort to find students who've been 'sneaking' into the school by pretending to live in the district when they really don't. As a result, this child had private detectives trailing her for weeks. Usually in cases of a split, the child goes to the district of the parent with the most custody but this case the split was exactly 50-50.

Now if you had a larger school district that included both homes for this kid there would be no need to do this. Likewise the time the parent spends with the school could be focused on how they are serving the child rather than fighting their lawyers over property lines.

Likewise numerous school districts can circumvent parents uniting for better schools. The state and national gov't gets more press time, more attention than local ones. It is easier to track state policies than it is local ones (which is not to say that state politics gets the attention it should in NJ since NYC and Philadelphia suck up a lot of media attention). More and smaller localities make it all the harder to confront, address or even analyze what your gov't is doing.

It is interesting one of the things the No Child Left Behind Act did was force local schools to collect and publish data on standardized test scores. This was not information parents had an easy time obtaining in the supposedly ideal world of purely local districts that didn't have to answer to anyone beyond the local town. While the law didn't abolish local districts to create a single mega-national one (although you'd think it did to listen to some of the more hysterical types on education), it was an incremental move towards that extreme rather than away from it....yet it's clear such a policy facilitates rather than frustrates parental involvement. (Please don't misread that as saying a mega-district would be ideal, there is probably a point where economies of scale peak and larger districts become more of a problem than a solution).

Troy Camplin writes:

Never mind that the evidence shows that the more centralized education has become, the worse it has gotten.

manuelg writes:

> Never mind that the evidence shows that the more centralized education has become, the worse it has gotten.

Worse for who? Public schooling succeeds in its primary goals of:

1) Employing beaurocrats and unionized teachers

2) subsidizing textbook publishers

3) getting kids out of the hair of adults trying to make a living

Troy Camplin writes:

You're right, manuelg. It DOES do THAT. Evidence that ambiguity gives rise to multiple interpretations -- often to great insight.

Boonton writes:

Exactly what evidence are you talking about? How does it measure centralization and how does it measure getting better or worse?

Troy Camplin writes:

The more the federal and state governments have controlled the educational system, the worse education has gotten for students by almost any standard. All our public schools do now is turn out self-confident, ignorant fools. Anyone who can't see that doesn't want to see it.

Ted Craig writes:

So, we'll keep the 20 worst performing school districts in the nation (the 20 for the biggest cities) and eliminate the ones that are functioning.

The biggest problem with schools today is a lack of quality students more than anything else.

Boonton writes:

The more the federal and state governments have controlled the educational system, the worse education has gotten for students by almost any standard. All our public schools do now is turn out self-confident, ignorant fools. Anyone who can't see that doesn't want to see it.

In other words your evidence is nothing more than a subjective hunch. Usually evidence exists independent of whether or not one wishes to see it.

Troy Camplin writes:

No, my evidence is not a subjective hunch. You are pulling that out of clear air. The state of the American educational system is so widely understood and demonstrated to be in shambles that, as I said, only someone who is in complete denial of the facts would deny it. We know that test scores have gone down, and that states have made tests easier to mask the continued and worsening failures of their policies. I suppose that only hard-core teacher's union members think that nothing is wrong and that everything is just fine. Or are you proposing that George Bush's increased federalization of public education has actually worked to improve education? Not even Bush supporters make that claim. I've also had the misfortune of teaching middle school, high school. and college (community and university), and those experiences, aside from the mountains of studies available to anyone who wants to spend 5 minutes on google could learn about, demonstrated to me that our schools turn out nothing but students who think they know everything, but don't in fact know anything. And they all have such high "self-esteem" that they crumple when criticized and don't think that they have anything new to learn. Administrators are so worried that we might harm students' self esteem that we can't actually correct papers. Most students I taught at all levels could not even tell me what the subject and the predicate of the following sentence is: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." Can't even identify the nouns and verb. That's the pathetic state our educational system is in.

Boonton writes:

I'll ask again, how do these studies measure centralization? Are centralization rates equal for all states or are some more than others? Has the trend always been for more centralization or have there been periods where centralization has retreated? What metrics are you using to measure performance and how do they correlate with different levels of centralization?

While I haven't been posting studies myself I have pointed out at least one real life example where decentralization can be harmful. I've also pointed out real reasons demanding that Kling demonstrate why his implicit assumption of equating centralization with frustrating parental involvement should be accepted without serious proof.

So far your 'evidence' appears to be along the lines of the grump old man sort. Yes kids think they know everything, yes the world's going to hell in a handbasket. This is excellent stuff to bring to a discussion happening at the local watering hole but we are on a blog devoted to economics here and one would hope we could do a bit better.

Troy Camplin writes:

I can say a lot of nice things about "kids these days" that has nothing to do with their education. But we are talking about education, and it's not their fault that they are getting rotten educations, or that they don't know they are getting rotten educations. My criteria for centralization is how much the federal government is involving itself. The more it involves itself -- take your pick, in laws or money -- the worse our educational system has gotten. Your one example was not an example of the failure of decentralization, but rather one of justice overriding mercy, making the law unjust. That happens even more in more centralized systems. For example, I know of a situation where a principal is trying to get rid of a special-needs student because that student will bring down scores on the standardized tests forced on us by NCLB. Your example only demonstrated confusion -- mine demonstrates an attempt to deny education to a student. Centralization also forces schools to act in more egalitarian fashion, which necessarily dumbs down the schools, since they have to serve the lowest common denominator. Or, as the chair of a department I once worked for said, "The best and brightest will just have to be bored." That is the kind of evil centralization and its egalitarianist mentality brings about. Trust me, if things were in fact better, I would be happy to tout it. I'm not being conservative for the sake of being conservative here -- I'm looking at the history of education in this country, and seeing that those who believe the educational system should be more government-run and centralized have taken over and have run this educational system into the ground. Our scores in math and reading have gone down fairly consistently over the time period since the Dept. of Education was formed. We went from having one of the best to one of the worst educational systems in the world, and it has coincided exactly with the increased federalization of the educational system.

Boonton writes:

Troy,

It's good that you're giving us some more detail but it isn't really enough.

"My criteria for centralization is how much the federal government is involving itself."

First I notice your're changing the goal posts. You previously included state gov'ts in your definition of centralization but now it is suddenly just the Federal.

Second, 'involvement' remains vague and undefined. Are you talking about mandates, money, or something else? These things aren't all interchangeable. If a school gets a $10M grant to do whatever it wants that's quite a different animal than a school being told by the Federal gov't what color crayons the art department can order.

"Your one example was not an example of the failure of decentralization, but rather one of justice overriding mercy, making the law unjust."

I'm not sure what mercy and justice have to do with the example. It's a conflict of jurisdictions, which district has to pay for educating the girl which could even arise in your ideal voucher based system (imagine NJ's voucher is $7000, Florida's $3500 and a parent has a house in each state that they spend part of the year in and want to send their kid to a $10,000 boarding school in Nevada. Naturally they would like to be NJ residents and collect that voucher, NJ would rather see them collect Florida's and Florida would like to see them collect NJ's). The smaller your districts the more such potential conflicts there are and the more valuable it becomes to the district to get picky. On a state level there's probably only a few cases like this and they represent a small portion of the education budget but on the small town level there's lots more such cases and nitpicking over the residency of 10 or 20 kids can make a significant different in a town's education expense.

"For example, I know of a situation where a principal is trying to get rid of a special-needs student because that student will bring down scores on the standardized tests forced on us by NCLB."

Interesting because on the other hand the school could collect money from the Fed Gov't for taking care of a special-needs student. In fact there's a lot of talk about the opposite problem, schools labeling kids special needs too easily in order to keep the Federal money coming, perhaps the principal of this school isn't quite as savy as he likes to think of himself as.

But is this a centralization problem really? It sounds like it is one of a school trying to present itself with a certain image. It's not just but it's not fundamentally different, it sounds, from what Harvard does as they try to select students that will preserve the school's 'brand' as the trainer of elites. Perhaps the parents are being too lazy here, just looking at the test scores the school publishes without looking deeply into what is causing them to be good or bad. But at least the principal cares about a performance metric, that he is trying to game the metric indicates that it is having some impact. Would it be better if the principal didn't have to disclose anything about his school's performance?

"Centralization also forces schools to act in more egalitarian fashion, which necessarily dumbs down the schools, since they have to serve the lowest common denominator. Or, as the chair of a department I once worked for said, "The best and brightest will just have to be bored.""

I think you're equating centralization with homogeneous schools. On the contrary, larger districts can afford to have a diverse array of schools including experimental ones, elite ones, special needs ones, and ones devoted to particular subjects like the arts or science. NYC, for example, has plenty of crapy schools but it also has some of the most exceptional ones. Larger is not always better but neither is the reverse.

Troy Camplin writes:

Quite frankly, all this to me is just arguing over petty nonsense, as I don't think any level of government should be involved in our schools at all. The problem with our schools is the presence of government in them at all, not which government. Governments should eliminate all support for education at all levels, all mandates, rules, etc., and cut a check for each student and let the parents deal with where their children go. Make all the schools private, in other words.

The example I gave is of a principal wanting to get rid of an actual special needs student, because that actual special needs student is bringing down test scores (and the student being special needs isn't taken into consideration with the tests, which is bizarre to me). If you lie about regular students being special needs students, you get the money without it harming your test scores. In other words, our laws turn principals into cheaters en masse.

"Increasing centralization" involves both state and federal government taking on more responsibilities. Money, mandates, etc. are all involved, and all create problems. Government never gives money without mandates. Using the federal government's slow seizure of the educational system as a measuring rod clears away the cobwebs proponents of centralization like to spread around by pointing out irrelevancies. The bottom line is that the further away a government is, the less information it has about local conditions, meaning it cannot make good decisions for the local situation. That is a fact, and a basic principal of information/communication theory.

Boonton writes:

Quite frankly, all this to me is just arguing over petty nonsense, as I don't think any level of government should be involved in our schools at all. The...

This sort of thing, IMO, should be filed in the same folder as ideas like "wouldn't it be better if we just got rid of all money".

and cut a check for each student and let the parents deal with where their children go. Make all the schools private, in other words.

Err, then why is gov't cutting checks?

If you lie about regular students being special needs students, you get the money without it harming your test scores. In other words, our laws turn principals into cheaters en masse.

Your argument is that because a Principal cheats on a perfectly valid performance metric the problem is having performance metrics. It would be very entertaining to see the private sector adopt this idea. We could, say, simply cease issuing any type of standardized financial reports because Enron showed us such metrics could be gamed.. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't be so entertaining.

In your example, if the Fed. gov't wasn't requiring the principal to release test scores maybe he wouldn't feel an incentive to push around the special ed student. But then parents lose an objective (but imperfect) tool to measure the school in question and are left to simply trusting the information the principal himself chooses to release.

"Increasing centralization" involves both state and federal government taking on more responsibilities. Money, mandates, etc. are all involved, and all create problems. Government never gives money without mandates.

Since you've had experience as a teacher please tell us exactly what responsibilities the Federal gov't has in a typical public school.

Troy Camplin writes:

Eliminating government control of schools isn't like eliminating money. Money actually provides better information for people to engage in economic transactions. It is a lack of good information, on the other hand, that makes state and federal governments poor decision makers. Eliminate money, and you decrease information and good decision-making. Eliminate government from schools, and you increase information and good decision-making. They are in fact opposites.

I propose using the voucher system precisely because it could eliminate government interference in the schools themselves. Money to institutions always comes with strings. That becomes at least somewhat more difficult if you are sending the checks to the parents, who can then use that money as they see fit. The parents have far better information about local conditions and the needs of their children than do you, I, or some bureaucrat.

In regards to the cheating principal, I see typical pro-government thinking in your response. If you create a regulation, and it causes a problem, the solution is to then pass another regulation. When that causes problems, pass another regulation. Etc., ad infinitum. I see most government regulations much like drug laws. We pass drug laws, and that causes an increase in burglaries, robberies, and murders. Rather than getting rid of the law causing the problem, we instead strengthen the law causing the problem, making the other problems worse. Anti-drug, -prostitution, and -gambling laws have all aided and abetted organized crime, but the solution never seems to be less government interference, but more. I am all for transparency and standards, but a government with the kinds of "standards" our has, which only seems to create perverse incentives wherever it goes, is not the one to be creating those standards. Leave it to private organizations.

Now. please go to the Dept. of Education website and educate yourself about what it does. After all, it's a cabinet-level position. Or are you suggesting that a cabinet-level position doesn't actually do anything in this activist government of ours?

Boonton writes:

In regards to the cheating principal, I see typical pro-government thinking in your response. If you create a regulation, and it causes a problem, the solution is to then pass another regulation. When that causes problems, pass another regulation.

Actually this isn't so much 'pro-government' thinking as pro-performance metric thinking. Performance metrics are used by everyone, everywhere. This is because processing information is expensive. If you're comparing 20 schools or 20 hotels or 20 cars you will almost certainly not have time to learn all about them hence you must consolidate your information into metrics. Metrics are imperfect because some information is lost and because those with full time jobs can game them.

Your problem of the cheating principal exists everywhere from the Hotel that's 4 Star but negelects to mention it was rated 4 stars in 1979 and has been 2 stars ever since to the "three out of four dentists" commercial that neglects to mention the flaws in the 'study' to the classic 'only half the fat' line. As with all metrics the solution is to balance taking the metric at face value with spending some time digging into the numbers behind the metric.

It's odd that you describe my position as pro-government when your response is to let the principal do whatever he wants with no reporting requirement at all. In fact, it's kind of amazing that you think your example is an example of a problem with gov't interference.

Money to institutions always comes with strings.

Yes and why not? Your understanding of what is the private sector is seriously out of whack here. Your 'solution' is money with no strings. Take money from the taxpayers, give it to the parents to spend as they please. That's not the private sector anymore than the principal hiring his brother's construction company to 'rennovate' the school for millions of dollars is the 'private sector'. Other people's money comes with other people's strings and if you don't like that idea then use your own money. This is a fundamental problem with voucher advocates, they seem to have conned themselves into thinking that parents and taxpayers are exactly the same people. Unless a state is funding schools by putting a tax on kids they aren't.

I am all for transparency and standards, but a government with the kinds of "standards" our has,

1. Are you for transparency? It seems not. Your example of the cheating principal seems to indicate otherwise. Instead of being grateful that you have objective information in which to study his methods you decry that he is required to report anything! If only they didn't keep score at basketball games no player would ever feel an incentive to commit a foul!

2. As for standards, I've yet to see any real issue you've raised with them. Test scores are an imperfect metric but they do have some use and for all the carping about Federal 'interference' all that is essentially required is that public schools report what they are. All the claims about being mandated to 'teach to the test' is not talking about anything the Federal gov't did but is about a desire to avoid humiliation at having to be labeled the school with poor test scores. Well if those who are so afraid of being embarassed have better standards to judge the quality of their work let them present it! A lot of this sounds like companies who start quibbling over accounting standards when their companies are unprofitable. People are willing to entertain the idea that unorthodox measures of performance are worth considering.

Look at all the companies that went IPO during the dot com bubble with no actual profits. Sure lots of them went bust but some are still around and are doing interesting things. Perhaps your principal doesn't have the skill and creativity to argue that his school is good even though it has lower test score averages. In that case maybe it isn't so bad that he tries to kick out the special needs kids. Perhaps he is a below average educator and it's best that he teach a school of nothing but smart kids who don't require as much energy or skill from their teachers.

Troy Camplin writes:

I sometimes wonder if you actually read what I write, or if you make it up from partial quotes. Never did I equate vouchers with the private sector. That is your invention. You don't seem to understand my complaints against the principal at all if you think that my comments on transparency have anything to do with those objections. It seems as though you are just putting things together in a slapdash way to convince yourself that I'm wrong and not actually address everything in the contexts in which I have written them over this discussion. That does nothing for the discovery of truth, but only works to protect yourself from my arguments so you don't have to actually deal with them. The tests we impose are less than an imperfect metric. They are a completely distorting metric. When students failed to improve their test scores, the answer was not to improve teaching, but to make the tests easier! Rather than reform our schools to address the fact that students are in fact all different and learn at different rates, we have government imposing uniform rules that could only apply if everyone were in fact the same. The egalitarian utopia is exactly that: nowhere to be found. Yet our schools, due primarily to government pressures, treat students as if they were in fact equals in all things. This same principal also seems to think that if all the students aren't at exactly the same level, that makes the teacher a bad teacher -- which only goes to show that his egalitarianist ideals have overridden experience. And, in typical egalitarianist fashion, when he finds an outlier, the solution is to eliminate them. Democratic government involvement in schools will always result in this kind of attitude, because democracy is based on equality under the law. What this should mean is that government should only ever do anything that can in fact be applied to everyone equally. The fact that students all learn at different rates, and have different IQs and interests, etc. demonstrates that democratic governments have no business at all being involved in education, as they will only distort things, and bring everything down to the lowest common denominator, as has in fact happened. That, at least, has been the direct experience of myself and my wife, both educators.

Boonton writes:

So then what's your beef with the principal? He seems to be creating a school of high test scorers. But every principal in the district can't play this game. If one takes all the high scoring students the the others have to find some other strategy. If a principal had a good method for teaching low scoring kids he'd find plenty of available students.

You complain about schools too committed to egalitarian ideals as opposed to addressing the reality of individual differences but the example you cite is exactly the opposite. In a large district such gaming of the metrics may be unfortunate but they may also have a side benefit in that they will force some schools to specialize in particular types of students. Note my previous point about large city systems like New York. They have some horrible schools but they also have some of the best and they are able to be large enough to support schools that specialize in things like the arts or science.

You haven't really demonstrated why tests are bad. Yes they have limits and yes all kids are different but that's like saying net income is a bad measure of a company because all industries and companies are unique. This is only bad if you use the metric as an endpoint rather than a starting point of the discussion.

You also haven't supported your original assertion that education is actually bad in America. Usually when I raise this point I get lots of shocked posts. After all, isn't it unquestionable dogma that the US educational system is doing horrible, getting worse and so on? Well no it isn't. First off a lot of the scare headlines along those lines have little in substance to back them up. SAT's, for example, were once only given to the college bound elite but are now given to probably a majority of high school students. Of course averages are going to fall. The test that is often used to do international comparisons are administered in US schools with no pressure (the results don't have any impact on the kid so of course they work on the 'real' tests like SAT's and finals that actually impact their lives) while other countries treat the test as a source of national pride with prep rallies and other incentives to push their students on them.

Perhaps most damming is the complete lack of any real evidence of bad educational results. I remember in the 80's the 'Nation at Risk Report' said our system was so bad that if a foreign country had designed it for us it would be an act of war. Since then, those horribly educated people went on to create the microcomputer revolution, created VCR's, CD's, Walkmans, DVDs, the Internet, blogs, cell phones, at least half a dozen technological revolutions. Any evidence that the US labor force was hampered by its poor education? All the after school specials in the 80's and 90's about the huge numbers of adults supposedly living in shame because they couldn't read didn't seem to keep email and cell phone texting from achieving nearly 100% market penetration.

I'm not talking about evidence of bad schools or poorly educated individuals. I'm talking about real evidence that as a whole the US has a major educational problem. It's not there but people on both the left and right *want* it to be there.

Sure sure you can say if you had been allowed to run things starting in, say, 1975 we'd be living in a fantastic world today. But where's your proof? Every bar has a Joe telling annoying everyone around him with his declarations that the world would be perfect if only he was allowed to run it.

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