Uncommon Sense

September 13, 2012

Is School Choice the Answer?

Filed under: Education,The Unions — Steve Ruis @ 11:41 am
Tags: , , ,

In my city (Chicago) there is a teacher’s strike currently stalling the opening of the school year. This is one of very, very few strikes in this era of crippled unions. The surrounding discourse is very disappointing. Mostly there are newspaper editorials that are shallow, often appealing to doing our “best for our children.” The real issues are nowhere to be seen.

But the vast majority of Americans, I would wager, are fed up with public education and are looking for “solutions.” One such proposed solution is offering parent’s vouchers for their children’s educations to be spent where they wish. So, I have two questions:

1. Are the problems real? and
2. Are vouchers a “solution?”

Are the Problems Real?
It is undeniable that schools are not doing as good of a job as we would like them to. I hope this would never change as striving to do “better” is the only way I know of not back-sliding. But are the schools in crisis? Are we doomed?

The current state of the news media is tragic. Basically all of the old “news” organizations have been taken over by the entertainment divisions of mega-media corporations and basically, if it doesn’t entertain, it doesn’t get covered. One form of entertainment that sold newspapers and still gets ratings and advertisers dollars is “awfulizing.” I didn’t invent the term, but it is extremely accurate in its characterization. Basically, awfulizing is telling people how awful things are.

If you think otherwise, try to identify some actual good news on any media outlet (you can’t count the YouTube kitten videos so prominently used for a shot of “feel good” so common today). Good news doesn’t sell, so you don’t hear any.

The best I can tell is for about the top quarter of our school children, the public schools are educating them just fine. For the middle half, their schooling is mediocre. For the bottom fourth, their education is tragic.

So, I believe there are real and significant problems with the way we educate our kids.

Are Vouchers a “Solution?”
I keep putting the word “solution” in quotation marks (darn, I did it again) because such a simple thing cannot be a real solution. The short answer to this question is “no.” The reasons are simple. The pro-voucher crowd claims that injecting competition into schools will increase their quality. Uh, no, again. The general guidelines are: within your “in group” cooperation works best, outside of your “in group” competition works best. Look at the higher education system. Are the private schools stratified by competition? Does MIT or CalTech really compete for students? Does Harvard? Does Yale? Well, there is some competition going on, but by and large it is not a competitive market place. So, competition cannot be the source of the USA’s reputation of having the finest system of higher education in the world.

But still the pro competition group wants there to be competition: winners and losers. They want “for profit” schools siphoning money out of the system to use for purposes other than educating kids. And do you think teachers are primarily motivated by money? (They aren’t. Investment bankers are, but teachers are most certainly not, so how are you going to reward them for competitive success?) If you are really “pro competition” do you think that having your kids clean their rooms with the winner (being the one who does the best job, normalized to age) getting to eat dinner as the reward is a good idea? Is competition always good?

The desire for a simple solution to a complex problem is the problem here.

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. There are cornerstone ideas that trigger new commitments, that change people’s thinking, but they aren’t the “solution.”

If you really want to improve education, study what we are doing now then ask yourself how you would like the schools to operate. Then you can begin to see what really needs to be done to fill that gap.

I will share a trio of my perspectives:

1. There are no standards of student accomplishment (so we really don’t know what works and what doesn’t).
2. There are no systems in place to improve the process (so things get better only by accident).
3. There are no standards for management (so the odds of a good school also getting good management are poor at best).

In Finland, if you take a course of study in college that leads to teaching, your education is free. But the standards are high and continuing education is, well, continuous. You must commit to teach for five years or repay the cost of your education. Teachers are respected and well-paid in Finland. Their education system is one of the best in the world. In this country, we solicit the group of college graduates who have the least ambition and are willing to work on the cheap to educate our children. How’s that workin’ for ya?

Maybe, just maybe, we might consider that another country already knows how to do public education better and we could mimic them to good effect.

And, just to come full circle . . . as a former union negotiator, any strike is a failure. Unions know that strikes are net losers for them, so they are a sign of failure to do a good job on the behalf of their members. Any time you see a strike, one other thing is guaranteed, and that is bad management. Management knows that unions know that strikes are losing propositions. The best deals can be made by pushing up to a “strikable” proposition, but no further. The Chicago Teachers Association strike is a judgment of the District’s management and the judgment is “you failed.” But, rarely are there any consequences for being a bad manager and managers have no money in the game.

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