David R. Henderson  

Paul Peterson on Compulsory Schooling and His Best Teacher

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One of my more-delightful colleagues at the Hoover Institution (there are actually many to choose from) is Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University. He's also Senior Editor of Education Next.

I was up at Hoover yesterday to go on a show on RT and had lunch with him beforehand. Not surprisingly, given that he is an education scholar, we ended up talking about education.

I told him of something I had written about him in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey in 2001, relating to an event at Hoover in 1999. Here's what I wrote:

In 1999, I attended some presentations at the Hoover Institution given by 11 leading U.S. education scholars/school reformers. They agreed that smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay are not the answer, basing their belief, no doubt, on copious evidence, showing little relation between such things and standard measures of educational achievement, that one of them, economist Eric Hanushek, had assembled. But many of them wanted to stiffen and make uniform the content of school curricula, have teachers give more homework, have statewide testing, and impose other requirements to make schools and teachers do a better job. During one of the question and answer periods, I posed the following question:

One of my heroes when I was a teenager was Sammy Davis, Jr. In his autobiography, Yes I Can, he tells of going on the road with his father and uncle as a performer starting at age two-and-a-half. Sammy Davis, Jr. never went to school. But in every state today, governments require attendance at school. They enforce that requirement by threatening noncomplying parents with prison sentences. My question for each of you is, if you were in charge back then, would you have been willing to send Mr. and Mrs. Davis to prison?

Three of them⎯Paul Peterson, Herb Wahlberg, and Williamson Evers⎯said they would not have been willing to send Sammy Davis, Jr.'s parents to prison. The other eight said that they would have sent his parents to prison. One of the eight, Dianne Ravitch, said, "For every Sammy Davis, Jr., there would be one thousand kids whose parents didn't care." The purpose of compulsory attendance, she implied, was to keep the parents in line.


The other eight, by the way in alphabetical order, were John Chubb, Chester Finn, Jr., Eric Hanushek, E.D. Hirsch, Paul Hill, Caroline Hoxby, Terry Moe and the aforementioned Dianne Ravitch.

I had forgotten whether he was one of the three. He said that he had to have been because he opposes compulsion. Of course, as you can see above, he was. We shared our stories about our own Grades 1 to 12 experiences.

He gave me permission to tell the following story about his favorite teacher in 1 to 12. It was his teacher in 8th grade, I think in history. The teacher would call the students to order and then leave the class for the whole period to smoke with the janitors. The students ended up visiting with each other. Not Paul. He looked at the library in the classroom and eyed the volumes of historian Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume work, A Study of History. He started working his way through the volumes. Each time that class met he looked forward to reading more Toynbee.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Floccina writes:

When I was growing up there were kids who rarely showed up at school, no one seemed to care back then.

Like Peterson's teacher, my 6th grade teach would leave the class for hours each day, some mayhem would ensue but not too much because she a scary to most students, mostly we talked (my mother had the same teach 30 years earlier). She was not bad.

Also the worst teacher that every had my mother also had 30 years earlier. He could not control the class chaos ensued every day.

They did not fire teachers in those days (1960's).

David Seltzer writes:

David, the wonderful Nobel Laureate, Merton Miller, said; "The coercive powers of the state must be used sparingly and only when the evidence shows overwhelmingly, that available non-coercive alternatives, essentially private contracts and competitive discipline will lead to vastly inferior social outcomes." As for Ravitch et-al, none of us has the inherent right to coerce others of us. Reinforces your position on John Stuart Mill! Sorry for the long winded response.

Thomas Sewell writes:

I learned to read via a public elementary school's self-study program (go at your own pace) in 1st grade. Best thing I ever got to do in school.

I primarily read in class from about 4th or 5th grade and on. In 7th grade, I read through the history text in the first week of class and did all the assignments, so my history teacher just gave me a pass to go straight to the library and not even need to show up for class anymore.

Instead of 8th grade, I took advantage of some CA legal loopholes to test out and graduate from high school and start college. The school administration told my parents they were relieved, because they had no idea what to do with me for 8th grade the next year.

Being able to read what you want is probably the greatest gift for learning anyone who is self-motivated can get. Sadly, some schools now seem to want to crush any love of reading out of students by the way they go about it.

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