Dangerous choices

Here's something I like to see: states trying something new with the public schools on a large enough scale that we might be able to draw some conclusions. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal handily won a second term with a campaign that leaned heavily on education issues. He put together impressive bipartisan support for an education reform bill that will put a lot more choice in parents' hands, using vouchers, additional charter schools, and tenure reform. These reforms expand on a tiny trend begun as a crisis response in the wake of Katrina:
Only in New Orleans, where devastation from levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina led to an extreme makeover of schools, have results been dramatic. Although there were bright spots, city schools as a whole were among the worst-performing in the state before the disaster.

Since the state took over most schools post-Katrina, that is changing. Recovery School District students, including charter and traditional campuses, posted their fourth consecutive year of improvement last year. The proportion of students scoring at grade level or above grew to 48 percent in 2011 ­-- more than double the percentage in 2007.

That progress has come as most city schools became public charter schools, a concept that the governor's legislation would expand statewide.

Some opponents of the reform legislation have tried to make charter schools seem like a questionable experiment and point to the failure of some schools. But there are highly successful, stable charter schools in New Orleans. And the fact that some unsuccessful schools have been closed down is a sign that the system is working.
Grim and I sometimes argue about the value of the free market. He is skeptical of its tendency to monetize values that should be beyond monetization. I in turn am drawn to its way of putting choices in the hands of the recipients of goods and services. The advantage of competition is not that someone wins and someone loses. The advantage is that customers can gravitate to what succeeds and abandon what does not. The "losers" in this contest aren't doomed to bleak lives in hovels after their customers withdraw their resources and support. They can always adopt the winning strategies if they like, and quit losing. What they can't do is force their customers to keep coming back to hear a new set of excuses for failure. Parents don't have to agree or disagree with any of the excuses. They can simply go to another school, which is getting better results with a different approach.

Does this approach protect us against parents who make poor choices? Of course not. Making up for bad parents is beyond the capacity of a public school system, as failing schools are always telling us.


Grim said...

I don't think I have an objection to market competition in education: I'm not one of those arguing that education is a human right, and college (for example) should be free. Naturally it cannot be free: someone must pay for an endeavor that requires so much human effort. People must devote their lives to preparing themselves to carry out so difficult a task as effective education, and then doing the work for which they have prepared.

That said, if we're going to ask them to pay for their own higher education, then we must set remuneration at a level that justifies the investment. Either the market will do that or it will not. If it will not, then (if we value the education) we must either take on some of the costs of educating the teachers; or we must engage in setting the rates of pay in an extra-market way; or we must be willing to accept that we won't get what we want in terms of the education of our children.

In theory the market does a better job of this than the government -- and in fact, in this case, the government has largely succeeded at providing us with well-paid people who aren't properly educated (having advanced "education" degrees rather than degrees in the fields they teach). So, clearly the current system is a failure.

If it were the case that the market did not achieve the goal, however, we'd have to decide whether we were willing to accept the consequences of the failure, or meddle.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think it's good to at least pretend to monetise everything. It reveals what is left over. One would think Christianity at the top of the list where such discussions would be forbidden - except that Jesus himself talks in terms of purchase and trade all the time.

As for education, we have the best in the world - the stats showing that South Koreans or Finns are eating are lunch obscure important truths. American education is also better than it was a generation ago, or two. Conservatives aren't supposed to say such things, but I can back them both up, and it's not hard.

Improving education, then, starts with knowing that we are doing many things right, that there are no magic methods used by other countries, and small steady improvements are a big deal. This is precisely why charters and choices have value - not because someone is likely to find magic, but because experiment will reveal best practice.

Texan99 said...

I agree there aren't any magic approaches to teaching that can guarantee stellar results, especially with low-aptitude kids. The difference between schools that work pretty well and those that are awful often seems to come down to marginal changes in non-academic procedure. Less emphasis on the shiny newest pedagogic fad or textbook and more on being able to remove disruptive kids from the class, or being able to promote the teacher with skill and talent instead of the one with seniority.

I don't want to see new pedagogic techniques compete with each other in academic journals or in teachers' colleges or conferences. I want to see people try them out and compare their results to the results of difference methods. It's best if the parents are the scorekeepers rather than the academic pedagogues. Yes, lots of parents will muff it, but the evidence suggests to me that on average they muff it less than the pros do. Someone has to judge, and we don't have a perfect judge available.

New Orleans showed results when they "refused to let a crisis go to waste" after Katrina and tried something new. I'm delighted that Gov. Jindal took the opportunity to expand the experiment.

Ymar Sakar said...

Surely state run schools won't stop Michelle obama's children from vacationing in Mexico, on the taxpayer's dime. I guess all the CEOs in America stopped taking private jets in order to set an example. An example of who the real people in power are.

It remains to be seen whether the real people in power will let such experiments in one of their fiefdom cities, New Orleans, stand.