Thursday, December 18, 2008

Our Flawed Debate Over Education

As usual, Freddie DeBoer has a worthwhile post up today. Discussing the now-dormant but neverending debate over education policy, he writes:

As someone who is an ardent supporter of public education, and a committed opponent of vouchers, one of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation is
the amount of work done by completely unfounded and unsupported notions about
widespread public school failure. Simply put, a huge difficulty in our discussion on education is really paralyzing lack of reliable data on which schools are succeeding and which are failing. We just don't know, really, how many school districts are reliably good, how many reliably bad, and we really don't know about individual school quality within those districts. But when I argue education policy, again and again I find foes of public education allowing the assumption that any given public school has to be shitty to carry their water for them. This is made especially frustrating by the fact that these are often people who are usually very circumspect in the way that they construct data, and would never countenance an opposing argument that relied on so much assuming and anecdotal evidence. But when it comes to public school, where it benefits them, they can just talk as if it's safe to assume that any given public school is probably no good, and certainly worse than a private alternative. It's a failure of elementary good faith argument and analysis.

I think this identifies a very real problem in the debate over vouchers, although I think he underestimates the extent to which it exists on both sides (like Freddie, I am a product of the public schools).

One of the biggest problems with the debate over vouchers/school choice is that it does tend to get bogged down in the question "public schools: good or bad?" This is a problem, for both sides, because it is inherently a normative question, but is couched as if it can be scientifically proven - of course, depending on your side of the debate, that science just happens to agree with you.

The real question, in my mind, is how much control individual parents should have over their child's education? This is still a normative question, but it at least does not hide its subjectivity, allowing us to debate on more or less common ground.

For many - maybe most - parents, the local public school does an adequate, even more than adequate, job meeting expectations in terms of quality, safety, and, yes, values. The trouble is, for some unknown but still significant number of parents, a local private school or homeschooling would be a much better fit. Maintaining a system that only incentivizes those parents keeping their children in the public schools is rife with problems.

For instance, if those parents become a powerful political force within their school system, you will wind up with huge battles over curricula (see Kansas, State of). Even if those battles are settled relatively peacefully, they often result in significantly watered-down curricula that wind up leaving out or whitewashing critical issues so as to avoid controversy. Worse, in some cases these local compromises can wind up having fallout on education throughout the country (take a look at how right wing political correctness in Texas and left wing political correctness in California affect textbook content nationwide).

There are a whole bunch of other issues that you can pretty easily think of that wind up undermining the ability of some individual parents to get their children anything resembling the type of education they would like, solely because of the district in which they live, and where preferences are particularly subjective. Some other examples: vending machines - ban or keep?; do metal detectors deter violence more than they make schools feel like prisons?; Does a teacher's advocacy of a political position indoctrinate students more than it encourages critical thinking? And so forth.

Importantly, changing the debate to focus on the question of "how much control do we give individual parents over their child's education" avoids the moral absolutism and elitism that comes with the existing debate, which makes it difficult to discuss on terms that all sides understand. Instead, changing the debate puts us all on something of a sliding scale in which individuals are forced to recognize the complexity of the issue. To be sure, there is a temptation to simply answer the question as if parents should have total control - but there are few who actually believe that, at least when push comes to shove. It is, after all, close to universally accepted that a parent has no right to prevent their child from receiving an education or has a right to abuse their child in the name of that child's "education." Similarly, I know of no one this side of Pol Pot who would argue that parents should be left out of the education process entirely. Simply put, thinking of the debate on these terms throws almost all of us into that "mushy middle" where we are forced to actually engage in a real discussion rather than simply throw ideological grenades.