05 October 2008

Public education

I think there are two main things we should do in this country to improve public education.

1. Stop micro-managing our teachers and administrators. Let these people do the jobs we hired them for. The jobs they trained for. In particular—to give just one important example—let them pick their own text books.

2. Figure out how to get more of the money we spend on education into teacher salaries. Pooring more money into the system isn’t an answer to anything until we figure out how to better use what we already spend. If we are going to let the teachers do their jobs, we need to retain the good ones, recruit more good ones, and give them the incentives to do their best.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of school choice. The best schools can’t take everyone. (Even if they did, that would just mean they wouldn’t remain the best as they got overloaded and stretched too thin.) The other schools will still be full, but it will be full of the kids who lost the voucher lottery instead of the geography lottery. We need to improve the whole system rather than trying to come up with a silver bullet.

9 comments:

Craig Weeks said...

I would add an item to your list that cannot be fixed by government at all: fix the broken American family. I've talked to a number of teachers about children who have no support at home for their educational activities and,consequently do not come to school ready to learn.

Unfortunately I can only identify the problem. I have no solution that I can put any confidence in.

Anonymous said...

I find your comments about school choice interesting. How does allowing greater competition harm the level of service provided?

If there was only one restaurant in your town, the service would be pretty crappy. Especially, if people HAD to go there (or pay big bucks to hop the train to the next town- Privateschoolville).

Competition improves the level of quality and customer service because if an business (or school) doesn't provide what their customers want, then the customers go somewhere else.

Robert Fisher said...

fix the broken American family

Not only do I think government can’t fix that, I don’t think anyone can. You can’t make people care. You just have to work with the ones that do.

Well, I suppose—like ministry—we can plant seeds. We just can ensure that they will take root.

Robert Fisher said...

Where’s the competition?

School A has the best performance metrics. They can handle 200 kids, although they’ve been forced to take 400. Of the 800 kids in the district, all their parents want them to go to school A.† So, somehow you pick 400 of the 800 and let them go there.

School B can handle 150 kids, but they’ve been forced to take 400. They get the 400 remaining. Nobody wanted to come to this school, but they didn’t have a choice because the only other school in the district is filled way past capacity.

Nothing has really changed except—maybe—which kids go to which school.

Or, maybe you allow school A to expand to accommodate all 800 kids in the district. We’ll just close down school B. If school A doesn’t hire new teachers, then obviously quality is going to suffer. If they hire teachers who couldn’t even get a job at school B, then that doesn’t look hopeful either. So, I guess they’ll hire all the teachers that used to work at school B.

Which is a simplistic way to look at it, but hopefully gets across the point that public schools and restaurants are almost nothing alike.

†Of course, this is the least realistic part of the scenario. All those parents Craig referred to couldn’t care less about the quality of their kids’ school. Or worse, will choose schools based on superficial reasons.

Which points out another difference. Free markets rely on the producer being able to set the price and the consumer paying out of their own pocket. When we’re talking public schools, the parents aren’t (directly) paying the money and don’t have the option to spend more or less.

Now, if we wanted to talk about eliminating the public school system altogether and having real competition, then I’m listening. I have reservations, but I’m listening. Trying to duct tape competition onto the public school system as a quick fix is... I don’t know what, but I can’t support it.

Philotomy said...

Figure out how to get more of the money we spend on education into teacher salaries...

This is a supply and demand "problem." Teachers have a lower marginal utility, compared to say, professional baseball players. (That is, if we had to choose between all the baseball players in the world or all the teachers in the world, we'd obviously choose teachers. But that's not the way things work. Instead, we compare the value of one teacher vs. one baseball player. There are relatively few people who can perform at MLB levels. There are a lot of people who can teach middle school. Teacher salaries are governed by that supply of potential teachers, among other factors.

A distorting factor is the lack of a free market in education. If schools were private and were selected by the parents and paid for directly (rather than through taxation and government support), schools would pay more to get better teachers, and the better schools would charge more. Good teachers would earn more. The possibility of higher salaries than are currently the norm would tend to attract talented people that currently wouldn't enter the teaching professional because of the low earning potential. Et cetera.

Also, if parents are paying for their childrens' education directly, they're more likely to take an active interest in the educational activities. I think socialized schooling is like socialized anything; less valued and less efficient. (I'm generally of the opinion that government intervention is almost always worse than a truly free market approach.)

Robert Fisher said...

Well, I wasn’t being nearly so optimistic as to push for paying teachers what they should be worth. I’m just suggesting that we might as well get more of the money that we are already putting into public education into teacher salaries.

As I said, I’m open to the idea of eliminating public education entirely in favor of private. I’d love to see some states give it a try. (Though I don’t know if there’d be any federal impediments.)

I guess I tend to suggest incremental improvements thinking that they are easier to get consensus on.

Philotomy said...

I guess I tend to suggest incremental improvements thinking that they are easier to get consensus on.

I understand. As I get older, though, I think I'm getting less patient with such an approach. I don't see much evidence of that kind of incremental approach making a significant difference. Maybe I'm getting more radical, but I think paying teachers what they're worth (i.e their true market value) is the right approach, and I'd rather aim for that than for something that amounts to a mere gesture in a right direction. (That probably sounds harsh; please don't take it as an attack on you -- that's not how I mean it at all. I do understand where you're coming from.)

Anonymous said...

Ok. I think we have some confusion with the way we are each using the term "school choice". I've never heard of "school choice" being a public school only system, but that seems to be what you are talking about. I'd agree that doesn't make much sense.

What I see as an option that would increase competition and improve quality is providing parents with a voucher that could be used at the private school of their choice. That's generally, what "school choice" entails in the conversations I've been involved in.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I would favor your more radical proposal of eliminating public schools all together. However, it's a non-starter politically. Look how little has been done even with limited school choice due to the opposition of the Teachers Unions. If making the whole education system private is the goal, it will only be achieved by many, many, incremental changes- and politicians and private citizens with the guts to fight the unions.

Philotomy said...

I agree that teachers unions are a major obstacle to any real reform of the education system.