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Education in Seven Questions

Mises Daily: Friday, July 29, 2011 by


America's system of education is plagued by problems. The natural tendency for politicians and technocrats in search of solutions is to devise grandiose plans that involve more testing, regulation, and spending. However, these schemes do nothing to alleviate the root cause of problems, and indeed only serve to perpetuate them. What our system of education needs is simple: a recognition that children, parents, and educators are diverse and should be treated as individuals.

Below I've highlighted seven key questions that should be asked of our education system. Interestingly, all of the problems they touch on have one common culprit: mass standardization. While left-liberals love to espouse the virtues of diversity, their actions do not follow their words. Real diversity is achieved by respecting the liberties of individuals, not by forcing conformity on them. Real educational diversity requires the freedom to define and pursue education according to one's values, interests, and aptitude. Education will be revolutionized once these liberties are afforded.

Do We Need High-Stakes Accountability Tests?

States spend millions of dollars designing, implementing, and evaluating high-stakes accountability tests. Last year the Texas Education Agency signed a five-year deal with testing contractor Pearson worth an astounding $468.4 million. Such elaborate testing systems are supposed to give administrators objective data to assess performance — but in practice these systems do little more than incentivize teachers to focus on rigid state standards, encourage cheating, and disrupt valuable class time. Still, the naysayer objects, how else would we know how schools are performing without them?

It's actually quite simple (and free to the taxpayer): prices.

Market prices are the cornerstone of any healthy economic system. It's easy to take them for granted — everything we buy has a price as does the labor we sell. In actuality, however, prices are enormously intricate and important — without market prices our standard of living would become virtually unrecognizable (e.g., like that of the Soviet Union). Friedrich A. Hayek explains,

I gradually found that the basic function of economics was to explain the process of how human activity adapted itself to data about which it had no information. Thus the whole economic order rested on the fact that by using prices as a guide, or as signals, we were led to serve the demands and enlist the powers and capacities of people of whom we knew nothing.

Essentially, market prices are the culmination of seemingly infinite data points that provide both consumer and producer with a wealth of information. Without these "signals" entrepreneurs would be oblivious to the demands of the market and consumers would be similarly confused as to the nature of the product or service they're purchasing.

In a market system of education where parents have school choice, prices serve the same purpose. Market-based tuition is driven by factors such as teacher quality, parental satisfaction, and operational efficiency (among countless others). If a school underperforms in any aspect of its service, parents can simply choose to enroll their children elsewhere — thereby signaling administrators that immediate improvement is needed. This is precisely the reason you rarely hear about underperforming private schools — they either improve or close; they rarely linger in a purgatorial state of "needing improvement" (absent of state meddling, of course).

Signals are virtually nonexistent in our current system of education. In the absence of prices, school administrators are clueless to the types of education that are demanded and whether or not parents are satisfied with their services. This matters little to statists, however, who use the power of monopoly to force consumers to accept only one type of education. Their prohibition of school choice all but ensures that parental opinion is eschewed in favor of some other (arbitrary) system of accountability — such as standardized tests. It's only logical to conclude that states have more faith in test results than parental opinion.

Most private schools aren't subjected to state testing, but parents still choose to enroll their children in these institutions even in the absence of "accountability" results. Are these parents making uninformed decisions? Are these school administrators not held accountable for results (real results, not state-test results)? In fact, it's quite the opposite — parental decisions are better informed and school administrators are subjected to higher standards in such a system.

State testing is an ineffective and expensive substitute for prices, especially when accounting for their unintended consequences. A market-based system that includes both school choice and prices would provide parents and educators with the signals needed to make effective decisions.

Why Do Kids Hate School?

Parents rarely give thought as to why their children hate school — after all, aren't kids supposed to? This faulty reasoning relies on the assumption that children are genetically predisposed to detest learning. More likely, however, is that kids dislike the system of schooling they're forced into rather than education per se. What they're subjected to daily, characterized by mass-standardization and conformity, is antithetical to the human spirit, and is likely the source of their utter disdain for school.

Children are cleverer than they're given credit for. They recognize bad teaching just as well as adults can. They know the pace at which they're learning is always too fast or too slow — never just right. They realize that much of the material they're learning will be of little value outside the walls that surround them. They're also aware that in the eyes of the state they are (literally) just a number.

"If millions of kids need to be prescribed medication for a system to work, then it's not working."

This is not to say that in a market system of education every child would enjoy learning equally. They wouldn't. Children are no different than adults — they will always have to do things that are beneficial to their well-being but not necessarily enjoyable. It is, however, reasonable to expect that if provided with education that is effective (i.e., differentiated instructional methods) and meaningful (i.e., differentiated curriculum) most kids would enjoy their schooling.

Along these lines, a simple rule of thumb should be used when evaluating education: if millions of kids need to be prescribed medication for a system to work, then it's not working.

Why Do Homeschooled Kids in Pennsylvania Have to Learn about Fire Safety?

Contrary to popular belief, private educators are not completely free of state oversight. Since all states have compulsory-education laws, it is necessary for them to define "education." If private institutions fail to live up to the arbitrary standards imposed on them, their students will not be given credit for attendance and thus will be labeled "truant."

Some states, such as Texas, have less restrictive regulations on private schooling and allow educators to operate relatively freely (not free from harassment, though). Others aren't so fortunate. Pennsylvania has notoriously burdensome homeschooling regulations that dictate laborious reporting requirements and arbitrary curriculum standards.Download PDF At the secondary level, the preponderance of students (including most homeschoolers) must pursue a course of study that includes the subjects below.

English, to include language, literature, speech and composition; science; geography; social studies, to include civics, world history, history of the United States and Pennsylvania; mathematics, to include general mathematics, algebra and geometry; art; music; physical education; health; and safety education, including regular and continuous instruction in the dangers and prevention of fires. High school credit requirements: 4 credits of English, 3 credits of math, 3 credits of science, 3 credits of social studies, and 2 credits of arts and humanities.

Clearly, such rigid curriculum requirements do grave injustice to a student by arrogantly ignoring his interests and aptitude. Perhaps, for instance, his time is better spent focusing on an area at which he excels, such as economics. Instead, he must continuously learn about fire safety as if he's completely numb to the lessons of common sense.

Market-based reforms cannot begin to occur unless states are stripped of their monopoly on defining "education." Until then, government will be free to impose its bureaucracy and arbitrary standards on everyone. The fundamental question that must be asked is, Who should determine how a child is educated: government or parents? Naturally, the statist who wishes to use his superior intellect and insight to instruct society on how to live will select the former — and, in his mind, rescue citizens from ignorance and ineptitude.

Why Are Gym Teachers Teaching Math?

According to myriad news reports there exists a shortage of math and science teachers. While the applicant pool might appear shallow, it has little to do with a lack of qualified minds.

Since the 1960s, state-supported teachers' unions have grown exponentially in power and have been a significant force behind pay compression. In other words, teachers are compensated uniformly with little regard for subject-related aptitude. The result is an abundant supply of applicants with general training (e.g., education majors) and a scarce supply of applicants with specialized training (e.g., math and science majors).

To remedy these "shortages," teacher-compensation systems should differentiate among subject-related skillsets. By responding to the demands of the market, hiring managers will find that the shortage of math and science teachers will gradually dissipate and the oversupply of less qualified applicants will diminish.

There is no reason for gym teachers (or any other unqualified teacher) to be teaching technical subjects, because an obvious economic solution exists to the problem. However, teachers' unions, including the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), make this politically infeasible in the realm of public education.

Why Does No Child Left Behind Have 300,000 words — Almost 293,000 More than the Constitution?

Neil P. McCluskey astutely observed that the 650-plus page No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is shamefully larger than the Constitution and imposes exceptionally burdensome regulations on states, districts, and schools. So why is NCLB approximately 43 times larger than the supreme law of the US?

The Constitution, which espouses liberty and seeks to protect citizens from government intrusion, did not seek to grant privilege to special interests and create far-reaching regulations. Freedom is simple and doesn't require legalese. By contrast, central plans must be lengthy and convoluted so government can seize power stealthily — which is exactly what NCLB aimed to accomplish.

According to McCluskey, NCLB demonstrated that

The political calculus of Washington almost always produces results in education that end up helping the special interests who make their livelihoods off the system, not the parents and children public schooling is supposed to serve.

In other words, the further that decisions are removed from parents and local educators, the more politicized and wasteful the system becomes. Federal involvement only proliferates state problems.

So what has resulted from NCLB? Even education secretary Arne Duncan is at a loss for kind words, saying,

By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students.

"Freedom is simple and doesn't require legalese."

While Duncan correctly recognizes the drawbacks of mass standardization in education, he naïvely advocates for a revamped version of NCLB — as if continued federal meddling will empower parents and local educators. Quite simply, a system of differentiated education requires less government involvement, not cosmetic changes to a toxic dose of regulation and bureaucracy.

NCLB has given us nothing but weaker standards, impotent accountability systems, and — of course — plenty of wasteful spending. Any effort to reform this failed legislation will be futile. Ron Paul summarized NCLB beautifully: "Everybody passes — no single child is left behind. Instead, they are all left behind in large groups."

Why Do Parents Fight So Much?

Our system of public education destroys diversity and fosters a hostile environment plagued by forced intolerance. Textbooks, curriculum, and religious expression (to name a few) often incite heated debate about what's permitted inside the walls of schools. On any issue there are always as many opinions as there are parents — and since they should have the power to determine how their children are educated, the parents are all in a sense "correct."

According to McCluskey, political conflict is inherent in public education because "all taxpayers must support the public schools, but only those able to summon sufficient political power can determine what the schools will teach and how they'll be run." In his paper, he cites nearly 150 inflammatory conflicts that occurred nationwide during the 2005–06 school year, ranging from debates over homosexuality to book-banning controversies.

Such uproars should not be surprising. If one father's child is educated according to the father's personal values, he might be quite tolerant of his neighbor's views on, for example, intelligent design. However, if one common curriculum is forced on both of their children, this tolerance will evaporate rather quickly (and vice versa). As a compromise, both of their opinions might be allotted instructional time in the curriculum. In this instance, the natural bias of the teacher will ultimately decide whose side is given preferential treatment. Even robots programmed by humans could not teach matters of history, economics, and government without invoking their programmers' personal beliefs, however subtly. Ultimately, the neighbors will be engaged in a perpetual state of conflict and forced intolerance.

Mass standardization in education destroys diversity of opinion and forces unnatural conflict on parents. If allowed to spend their education dollars freely (instead of paying "twice" for private education) parents would be able to choose the course of education that best suits their values without the need to politicize every issue ad nauseam. The issue du jour has only one real solution: school choice. Diversity and tolerance would thrive in a system that reflects every parent's opinion, not just the opinions of those who are politically connected.

What Has the Department of Education Done for Elementary and Secondary Education?

When Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979, he gave his bedfellows at the teachers' unions exactly what they desired: easy access to federal largesse. The Department of Education (DOE) has grown exponentially in its brief history, with inflation-adjusted discretionary spending increasing by 53 percent between 1993 and 2001. In 2010 it spent nearly $62 billion in taxpayer money on elementary and secondary education alone. What do they have to show for this? Not much.

Big-government enthusiasts love to espouse the relatively modest increases in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for 4th and 8th graders between the 1970s and today. However, as Andrew J. Coulson points out, this matters little as scores for 12th graders are a more appropriate barometer of outcomes.

Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate.

The DOE has produced nothing but unconstitutional government meddling, and its power will only continue to expand unless it's abolished. Abolishing the DOE would free states of burdensome regulations, deprive special interests of their much-beloved cash cow, and save taxpayers about $107 billion annually.