Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Education Proposal (Debate Part I, ct'd)

This afternoon, I identified what I see as the five most significant flaws in the current educational system. This post will address what I view as the best way to fix them. Of course, as a libertarian, I would ultimately love to see public schools go completely private. But this is not a realistic option in the short or medium term, and in principle I am even alright with the continued permanent existence of the public school system in the long run - provided that private schools can compete on an equal or reasonably equal footing to public schools.

As a general matter, most things that tend to increase competition will, I think, address each of the five problems I discussed this afternoon in some form or another.

Indeed, the comparison that libertarians like to use most does a pretty good job of illustrating how competition makes the entire system better. That comparison is, of course, the American university system, in which public schools must compete directly against private institutions. The public schools are of course heavily subsidized by the state, but not so much that private schools can't compete for even poor students. Generally speaking, the American university system remains the envy of the world even despite the problems in our elementary and secondary school system. Not to say the American university system is perfect; but it is certainly something to be proud of relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, compare the state of the French university system, which is almost entirely public and which guarantees a free education to anyone who can pass the entrance exams, with the state of the American university system, and you get a pretty good idea of the value of private competition in the education field.

So, the introduction of more equal competition is key to any plan to improve the American elementary and, especially, secondary education system. Importantly, private competition will have effects far beyond simply improving the quality of education provided. In some ways, improvements in quality may not even be the biggest benefit. Instead, the biggest benefit may be the ability of private competition to offer more flexible curricula, which is absolutely critical in that it permits students to better pursue their own talents and interests. Moreover, it removes decisions on curricula from the political process, so a parent who wants to make sure that their child's education has a particular focus on reading and math, or that their child is placed in curricula with an appropriate level of difficulty, is able to do so.

Similarly, competition amongst schools goes far towards resolving the problems of merit pay. As much as I find the lack of merit pay amongst teachers appalling, they do have some good points: leaving the decisions on pay levels to the principal is a recipe for arbitrary decision-making that may have little to do with a teacher's talent. Similarly, merit pay based on test results ignores the types of students a teach may have or the fact that test results only show how well the students did on the test, and say relatively little for how much the students learned in general.

Competition, however, largely solves this problem. With competition, a district/superintendent/principal (depending on who gets to make the pay decisions) has an immense incentive to make their wage decisions on the basis of which teachers are actually the best, rather than on the basis of which teachers with whom the principal has a good relationship. Simply put: a good teacher is a teacher that is drawing kids to the school, and who will be sought after by competitive schools. If that teacher leaves, there will be a possibility that some students will follow. Conversely, a decisionmaker has an incentive to get rid of bad teachers whose presence deters parents from sending their kids to a particular school. Sure, you will still have abuses, but by and large you will have a merit pay system that is in fact based on merit. This is certainly preferable to the system that currently exists in which merit is completely irrelevant to salary considerations.

Of course, the most important thing about introducing competition is that it gives parents in particularly bad public school districts an escape route which they currently lack.

Now, the manner in which you introduce competition is absolutely critical. Doing so in an inappropriate manner can actually create more problems than it solves. This is why I am somewhat leery of many (not all) voucher programs, which are often heavily dependent on standardized testing. To the extent voucher programs also require recipient schools to comply with the state's curriculum, they may also severely limit the benefits of a flexible curriculum in the private schools. This is not to say that voucher programs are inherently flawed- I can envision some that would be quite successful all around, and in the long run I think they must play a significant role in improving the US education system. However, in practice and in the short run (which is really the topic of our discussion), vouchers come with a lot of flaws: concerns about the influence of the state on recipient schools' independence, legal hurdles, and perhaps most importantly the tendency of politicians to place conditions on the vouchers that destroy many of their benefits and free market effects.

What then is the solution in the short term? Well, tax credits and rebates need to play a significant role. With credits, we are essentially talking about a system in which parents get money taken off their taxes up to the amount of tuition they pay for their child's education. For the foreseeable future, such a credit program would almost certainly require a means testing formula of some sort. In my opinion, we ought to be able to come up with a system in which parents below a certain level of income can get up to 100% of the local district's per student cost credited/rebated on their taxes for sending their child to the school of their choice (with appropriate documentation of course). The amount of credit/rebate would then go down based on the parents' income level. This means testing is particularly useful in the short-to-medium term because it places poor students on a far more equal footing as compared to wealthy students. The mechanics of this system are somewhat beyond my expertise, but for further reference I would suggest consulting most of the work of Cato's Adam Schaeffer, who has written extensively on tax credits for education.

A second essential element of reform that I've long thought about is the need for students to have greater flexibility within the public school system. On this issue, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see Kyle's Progressive Diversification proposal this afternoon, which is remarkably similar in principle to what I have in mind here. Ideally, within the public school system at least, I was thinking something very similar to the German system of education, which I've long thought understands the necessity for students to learn trades (even if it starts them on divergent paths a bit too young for my tastes). As I said this afternoon, it makes little sense to me that a student with little interest or aptitude in the sciences should be required to take four years of high school science, at the expense of spending more time in a field that they will actually use in their lives.

In many ways, though, Kyle's Progressive Diversification (PD) idea strikes me as superior to the German system: PD is a gradual system that leaves much up to the choice of the individual student. Moreover, it accepts that some/many students will have an interest in pursuing the trades- an interest that we discourage all too often with our current emphasis on college as a panacea for all ills. We tend to forget that the trade of auto mechanic, for instance, requires quite a bit of knowledge and skill in its own right, yet we look down on mechanics as if they are somehow inferior. I've recently taken to pointing out that without tradespeople who actually understand how individual things work, we would be totally screwed as a society within a very short time period. Unfortunately, our emphasis on college results in people with an interest for these trades being turned away from that path. This hurts us a society, and it hurts these students as individuals by pushing them down a path that they don't necessarily want to take.

There is, I should add, one important, though not at all fatal, flaw in the Progressive Diversification proposal. This flaw is the proposal's inherent emphasis on testing benchmarks. The reason this is a flaw is that you again have to rely either on standardized testing with all of its problems - not least of which is its broad, one size fits all manner of evaluating what a student should know- or you have to rely on the subjective judgment of the teacher, which would be fine except for the fact of social promotion. One easy way to fix this problem is of course anonymous test-taking, with several teachers grading each exam, and an average grade awarded.

The other fix to this problem is the introduction of competition discussed at length above. A school forced to compete for students is a school that will want to make sure that its students are properly educated. Yes, there is an incentive to keep the parents of an individual child happy by continuing to promote the child to the next level in his/her interest area. But there is an equal or greater incentive for the school to keep its reputation intact in order to make sure that its degree actually means something to colleges, employers, etc. A school whose degree means nothing is a school that will soon be struggling to keep students.