Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Fundamental Flaws of the American School System (Education Debate Part I)

This afternoon, Kyle posted his initial proposal in our education debate series that will take place between now and the end of January. His proposal raises some interesting points that I will hopefully respond to tonight. My opening salvo will occur in three parts tonight. First, in this post, I will identify what I see as the largest flaws in our education system. Second, I will make my initial proposals. And third, I will respond to the various elements in Kyle's proposal.

So, without further ado:

Kyle discusses education as something of a magic bullet for all of society's ills, and to a large extent he is right. A society that provides the greatest possible opportunities for its members to grow as individuals and to learn essential tools for living will largely find its members with the greatest number of career and life choices. Greater career and life opportunities equals maximized socioeconomic mobility. However, to a large extent, various international tests show that our primary and secondary education system has fallen behind despite our nation's vast wealth and advanced industrialization.

Why is this? Importantly, the problem is not simply an issue of lack of funding for education. As this graph shows, there is no correlation (one way or another) between student performance and education spending. Similarly, we all might want to recall that the DC Public Schools have the highest per-pupil spending in the nation, yet I doubt there are many people who would exactly call the DC Public Schools a beacon of educational greatness.

So what are the problems? In my mind, the following strike me as particularly important (in no particular order):

1. Top-down dictation of curriculum. Curricula are increasingly dictated by the federal and state governments. Trouble is that what exactly goes into the curriculum is a political football, as are the standards that students must meet. As a result, we wind up getting an education system that emphasizes a one-size-fits-all standard that has little or no relationship to anything other than what is politically popular at the time. I don't have time to find the link, but I recall that the political correctness demanded by state school boards in Texas and California (in particular) has resulted in nationwide dilution of textbooks. The other problem with inflexible curricula set by state or federal government is that it doesn't accept that students have different interests, dreams, and talents. As a result, we wind up forcing kids with no aptitude or interest in science to take four years of it in high school even though they will never have a need for it after high school. We might say that there is no harm done by learning something like this, except for one thing: there is a massive opportunity cost here. Why not allow those kids to spend more time studying history, or taking shop class, or studying a third foreign language?

2. An over-reliance on standardized testing. The "teaching to the test" meme has been heard before, so I'll spare you the details. But the fact is that "teaching to the test" might make a school appear to be performing well, while at the same time teaching its students nothing other than how to pass the specific test. The problem with an emphasis on standardized testing is that it makes the fundamental mistake of associating correlation with causation. In other words, high performance on a test, in ordinary circumstances, is closely correlated with understanding the subject matter as a whole. The problem is that when you know the test is coming, and you do nothing but "teach to the test," then all you're learning is how to pass the test, while learning very little about the subject matter as a whole.

3. A general lack of competition. Government-run schools effectively have a monopoly in their area, in the sense that no matter what parents decide, they get to collect the same amount of revenue, unless people start moving out of their district (which has high external costs to the individual taxpayer such that a local school system is unlikely to see a dramatic effect on this end from year to year). A family that chooses to send its kids to private school still has to pay the same amount of taxes to the local school system. Indeed, if that family sends its kids to private school, the local school system actually has more money to spend per student (creating a bit of a perverse incentive to do poorly, although I doubt this particular perverse incentive plays much of a role). There is also another problem here, in that there is no accountability to the taxpayers who don't send kids to the school system. So the difficulty that parents (especially poor parents) have in shifting their kids out of the public schools, combined with the lack of consequences to the school system even when kids do go to private school creates a serious accountability problem.

4. A problem of "regression to the mean." By this I mean our school systems' general emphasis on egalitarianism amongst the students. As a result, all students are expected to be the same, to a large extent. I think in general we do a pretty bad job allowing the top students to excel. This is also closely related to the curricular problem, in that students have little opportunity within the public school system to pursue their actual interests and talents to the fullest extent. Instead, the emphasis is increasingly on going to college, regardless of whether the student wants to go to college. (As an aside, I have a theory that the over-emphasis and the resulting pressure to go to college is at the root of most school shootings- but that's another topic altogether).

5. Lack of incentives for teachers to excel. This is the issue of "merit pay" that the teachers' unions so vociferously oppose. I almost threw up when Hillary Clinton, at the last Dem debate, described her opposition to merit pay (as actually defined- not as redefined by her and Dodd to refer to giving higher pay to teachers in "underserved" areas) as being based in the concept that teachers in a school are a "team" and therefore should all be treated the same. Of course, this ignores the fact that on any team, some members are more talented than others and should be paid more than others. If they aren't, then they will likely leave as soon as a higher bidder comes along. Either way, our current system does a really bad job at rewarding the best teachers while doing a really good job at rewarding the worst teachers. Put another way: it's essentially communism under a different name.

There are, I should say, a whole host of other major problems with our current system. But the five problems outlined above are the most critical in my view. Moreover, I think if you found the appropriate solution to those five problems, you would find that the other problems would largely work themselves out on their own.