Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Response to Kyle's Substantive Points (Last Post of Debate Pt. I)

My last post dealt with my initial proposal for fixing the education system in the US. This post will focus more heavily on responding to Kyle's specific proposals from this afternoon. Importantly, I should note that my previous post discussed at some length what is probably the cornerstone of Kyle's proposal, to wit, the concept of Progressive Diversification. As I said in the previous post, the Progressive Diversification concept is I think an innovative idea that would take a very large step in the right direction. I should add that I would think this to be the case even without additional steps towards school choice since it would at least increase individual decisionmaking about curricula.

Because Kyle's other proposals are many, I will deal with them each relatively briefly:
1. Research and Development: Kyle proposes establishing two committees of experts to study educational techniques domestically and abroad. I would not place as much emphasis on this proposal, as I think an increasingly free market in the education field would be a significant improvement in the way of increasing the spread of successful teaching methods, strategies, and programs. However, the committee approach would still have some noticeable benefit that would be an appropriate function of government, at least in the short-to-medium term. Specifically, the standing committee concept is useful as something of an information-sharing mechanism. I would be hesitant to empower the commissions to make binding recommendations about curricula, though, as binding curricula decisions would restrict innovations (thereby resulting in fewer new techniques for the commissions to study).

2. Central Pool of Funds: Kyle is correct in hypothesizing that schools wind up spending money they don't need to spend in order to maintain their budget from year to year. As a practical matter, it will be difficult to accurately set a minimum level of funding for every school - this will rapidly become an area rife with corruption and appeasement of powerful political interests. This would I think also be the case with the remaining funds, for which individual schools would have to show a specialized need. I suspect that the amount of bureaucracy required to accurately evaluate minimum funding levels and special funding requests would be far above any realized efficiencies and savings.

3. Higher Teacher Salaries/Merit Pay/Incentives/Continuing Education: First, we tend to forget that while teachers may be paid relatively low salaries, they also only work 9 months out of the year. In many areas, this still means that teachers make comparatively little. However, it's worth mentioning that one of the biggest impediments to better teacher pay is the wholly subsidized public education system, which restricts competition from private schools. As a result, private schools (particularly parochial schools) pay even less than public schools- otherwise their tuitions would have to be too high to attract any students (note that this doesn't apply to top prep schools, which have ample funding from wealthy alumni- but this actually accentuates the problem that exists wherein our education system ensures that only the wealthy can afford real school choice). If you had a tax credit system established, you would see private sector teaching jobs pay increasingly large amounts as affordability became less and less of a problem. This would in turn encourage public schools to pay increasingly higher salaries in order to retain good teachers. I'll skip the issue of merit pay since I already dealt with it in my previous posts. As for higher certification standards- this is something I'm largely opposed to; it raises the costs of becoming a teacher in the first place, thus restricting labor supply of potential teachers. Also, I can say categorically that certification requirements are rarely meaningful and are far more often arbitrary and false indicators of qualifications. As I've said before, despite my having passed numerous bar exams, I would far rather have most 10th year paralegals giving me legal advice than many/most 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year associate attorneys with no prior real-world experience.

4. Standardized testing- I discussed this in various contexts earlier, so I'll just skip this issue here.

5. Nutrition in schools- I should say that I think much of the anti-fat and sugar movement is based on bad science. However, the way in which public schools contract out vending services is something that should be held up to higher scrutiny. Also, greater school choice for parents would make schools more accountable to parents when it comes to the selection of vending services provided.

6. Smaller class sizes- while smaller class sizes are generally recognized as beneficial to students, it's important to remember why this is. Specifically, smaller class sizes are useful because they allow for more individualized instruction, ie, less of a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. In the public school system, smaller class sizes would be a natural consequence of greater school choice (whether in the form of credits or vouchers), as students leaving a school would on average take less money with them than their cost to the district. I should note that if smaller class sizes are the goal, we need to make access to the teaching profession less restrictive, not more restrictive.

7. Positive Reinforcement- this is an issue of individual teacher style and is somewhat hard to enforce on an administrative level. However, Kyle's argument here is essentially one of pointing out the problems with mixing kids of vastly different abilities and interests in the same class. PD would resolve many of these problems.

8. Longer school years- I'm somewhat ambivalent on this one. My recollection is that some school systems played around with this concept in the 90s with limited success. Extending the school year would certainly mean higher teacher base salaries, though. This is one of those things that really would have to start on a small scale and then see how much interest there was in expanding it.

9. Pre-K programs- I would have no opposition to extending any credit-based program to include pre-kindergarten.

10. After School Programs- Certainly, these are relatively popular and, as far as public schools go, they seem to correlate quite closely with kids doing well and staying out of trouble. I just don't want to see them become mandatory. Importantly, we should not be drug-testing kids to determine whether they should be allowed to participate in an after-school program. This makes no sense on a number of levels: it raises civil liberties concerns and amongst other things creates the perverse situation in which you are sending a kid who is already presumably at higher risk than most onto the streets with nothing to do for a couple of hours.