Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on Education and the Free Market

We live in a society where business executives who oversee the production and sale of crap no one needs-- let's say sugary soft drinks, which magnify health problems such as obesity and diabetes--routinely have incomes a hundred times (or more) larger than the school teachers entrusted with preparing the next generation for successful participation in society.

It can be argued that the system that produces this result has something important going for it, some procedural virtue that speaks in favor of keeping it in place despite results like this one. Maybe this is the system in which individual liberty in production and consumption choices is maximally respected without wholly undermining the future of society. Consumers are free to indulge their maladaptive sweet tooths, and resourceful business people are free to make a killing by fueling the propensity for such overindulgence--while basic education is provided by something other than the free market, and hence without the chance at generating extravagantly excessive rewards for education providers, in order to ensure that all children have a shot at being productive citizens, even the children whose parents wouldn't be able to buy a decent primary education for their children if it were provided through the free market, or whose priorities would lead them to neglect their children's education in favor of buying crap they don't need.

But even if the social disparities we see in our society are the outcome of systems possessed of procedural virtues, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't be troubled by outcomes that are so troubling in their own right. I think most of us woud agree that our education system is doing something far more crucial to the long-term health of society than is the soft drink industry. I think we can agree that even if the soft drink CEO worked very hard to become a soft drink CEO, it remains troubling to contemplate the enormous disparity in incomes between the hard-working teacher entrusted with a crucial social role and this CEO whose "social role" is to indulge a sweet tooth that it would be better for all were it not indulged to nearly the degree that it is.

Here's a deeper way to think about the problem: Education succeeds to the extent that it develops intellectual virtues and virtues of character. Education isn't just about shoving necessary information into people's heads. It certainly isn't about teachers somehow taking over the hearts and minds of their students and developing their potential for them. Education succeeds by helping students develop the intellectual skills and the habits of character that enable them to focus on developing their own talents and abilities for themselves. Education ideally aims to turn students into mature adults who defer immediate gratification for the sake of more meaningful good and long-term goals, people who develop themselves and use their talents as opposed to primarily indulging their preferences-of-the-moment.

But businesses in the free market often are most successful to to the extent that they tap into dominant preferences-of-the-moment, capitalizing on our difficulties with resisting temptation.

What's the result? Here's how George Scialabba puts it in a review of Why America Failed:
According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.
And I suspect we'd find similar statistics relating to food consumption choices. The pattern is this: Choices that express or reflect the pursuit of self-cultivation--of our talents, abilities, knowledge, and tastes--are far less common than choices which don't place any real demands on us.

I'm not trying to be elitist here. I'm not saying there's something essentially wrong about enjoying something that it takes no effort or training to enjoy. The point is that much of what's best in life does take effort or training to enjoy. There is a level of satisfaction that comes from developing a talent and then using it well, or developing a capacity for discernment that enables you to appreciate excellence--and it is a level of satisfaction that outstrips the satisfaction you get from satisfying your sweet tooth or watching a movie where lots of things blow up.

A life in which we develop some of our talents and our capacity to discern excellence is a better life, overall, than one in which we don't. And it isn't just better because we're likely to make more money with which to indulge our desires-of-the-moment. It is better because we can enjoy more rewarding things. A life characterized by the pursuit of excellence and the appreciation of excellence is, simply put, a richer life. 

If we want to have access to these goods we need to develop our capacities. And to do that we need to cultivate character traits like perseverence, diligence, focus, and commitment. That doesn't happen when we spend most of our time watching TV shows...and the commercials that aim to feed into our baser appetites and desires, channeling them towards consumerism. The statistics Scialabba cites are disturbing precisely because they indicate a society that has prioritized immediate gratification over self-development.

Put another way, the CEO who is pandering to our baser preferences is winning out over the school teacher who is trying to help us cultivate ourselves. And the social injustice here isn't simply that the CEO is richly rewarded while the school teacher scrapes by. The deeper social injustice is that the system is set up to more richly reward (in overt material ways) the person who panders to baser preferences than it does the person who provides the foundations for a life of self-cultivation. While I believe the inner rewards of the school teacher are more profound, the visible system of overt rewards symbolically conveys a message about social values and priorities that is turned upside down.

So what do we do about this?

We can't solve the problem simply by letting the free market do its thing. Free markets can do lots of things well, but they are designed to reward those who are (a) good at meeting existing demand and (b) good at manipulating consumer psychology to magnify demand for what they have to sell. The former does little to develop character, and the latter shapes character in ways largely indifferent to what is best for those whose character is being changed. If society is ruled by unregulated free markets, the result will be a society mostly indifferent to what is perhaps the most crucial requirement for a flourishing society: the wise character development of its citizens. And so we need institutions that aren't ruled by the laws of supply and demand--institutions that, instead, shape how the laws of supply and demand play out because, in shaping character, they help shape what people want and hence what is in demand.

We need, in other words, a system of comprehensive public education that is funded by something other than free market forces. And of course that's what we have. But the public resources devoted to compensating our teachers leave the disparity noted above intact. The upside-down message persists.

Much of the problem here is an issue of degree. We already impose upon the free market a taxation framework in which some of the wealth generated by those who largely pander to existing preferences is transferred to those who cultivate collective preferences in accord with virtue--in other words, those who teach our kids the basic intellectual and moral virtues that offer the foundation for a life pursuing and appreciating excellence. And no politician or political party that I know of is advocating that we do away with taxes or public education.

But in the political tug-of-war in our society, there are pressures to prioritize "business development" over public education--to cut taxes on the supposed "job creators" (as if there were no public sector jobs that aren't thereby threatened) and then cut salaries and positions in the public schools to compensate for this. And this strikes me as a move that should be presumptively resisted. Because it seems to me that we should be going in the other direction--that the symbolic affirmation of what our schools and our teachers are doing needs to be greater than it is.

In times of comparative austerity, it seems even more important to stress, through our policies, a set of social priorities and values that lift self-development and intangible goods above the consumerist satisfaction of desire.

In other words, when the economy gets tight, invest in education.


  1. Thanks Eric

    An important point. Not sure of the current state of the play in education where you live, but down here it strikes me that we teachers face a double threat. If a key role for us is the instilling of an ethic of working towards that which ultimately nourishes the soul, so to speak (and I think it is) then two things typically stand in our way. The first is that which you have so clearly identified, a market structure which rewards those who encourage shallow gratification for minimal effort.

    Just as insidious, I think, is the lesson learned by the student who puts their head down and works hard towards a goal that proves, ultimately, to be just as shallow as the pleasure foregone. We have moved increasingly to an education system that values extrinsic rewards (grades, approval, comparative achievement) over the intrinsic value of understanding, particiaption, appreciation and mastery. Learning, in other words, for learning's sake, has become unfashionable. (Every time a student asks 'will this be in the test?', I know I have failed them.)

    This framing of education as a competitive pursuit, sold as a preparation for the 'real world' of jobs and money, is to my mind the intellectual equivalent of fast food, and represents the other barbarian clawing at the gate.


  2. I don't think you should dump money into a broken system even when there are virtuous and hard working teachers.
    On the other hand, I agree we should not cut salaries in that way.

    The central question is not should we invest in education, but how do we invest in education?

    First, you don't have to lay off teachers. If you have worked in the public school system, you know the administration is bloated. How many supervisors and "curriculum writers" does a district need? How much should superintendents be paid? How many athletic fields does a district need? For example, Dallas could have cut in these areas 3 years ago rather than letting go teachers. Perhaps, they chose the latter because it is so hard to fire a teacher.

    Look at the success of charter schools like KIPP, Harmony, etc and docs like "Waiting for Superman." These people are providing superior educations (their graduates are being accepted into Ivy League schools and are largely drawn from lower SES Pops) for low income students from broken school districts. The tragedy, in my mind, is not that teachers are paid little, but that parents must partake in a "lottery" to get their kids into these better schools. Most don't win the lottery.

    I believe the meaningful debate is about what specific steps we as a society should take to "invest in education." My proposal: invest more money into the schools that are working. This means allowing parents to remove their children and send them to better charter, private, or public schools. This also means allowing such schools to expand. The solution is simple, but difficult to implement because of political warfare and monetary interests.

    They are working because the students can read, write, and do arithmetic when they graduate. They are working because their graduation rate is high and students are being admitted to the best schools. They are also working because they are teaching the students the virtues needed to succeed in both the academic and professional world

    1. Anonymous,

      I agree that the debate should be about HOW we invest in schools, rather than about whether we should invest less than we do now. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to offer arguments for positions that we might think ought to be our starting point.

      On your proposal for how we should invest in order to solve the problems with the current system, I have a number of worries. So we invest more in the schools that are working and less in the schools that are not working. Unless we know why the schools that aren't working aren't working, this may not be very helpful. For example, if the schools that are working are working so well because they are well funded (situated as they are in a wealthy district and supported by property taxes) while those that are languishing are doing so because they are underfunded, then you are rewarding wealth by throwing money at it and punishing being poor by taking money away.

      Also, part of what makes a school successful may be a function of it being the right size and the right ratio of teachers to students. If successful schools start seeing an large influx of new students who want to take advantage of that success, you might see the successful school lose something essential to its success.

      Furthermore, there's the issue of how we measure success. If we measure it in terms of performance on standardized tests, you face the issue of schools treating a high proportion of special needs students as a liability. A school that does an exceptional job with special needs students might have "low" scores and be penalized for it, so that their capacity to continue being successful with this population ends up being diminished. If you measure success in terms of improvement, you face other issues. What about the school that is doing really well from year to year, so that year in and year out their students achieve their potential--but scores don't change much from year to year? Will they be seen as unsuccessful because they aren't getting better year after year?

      And then there's the fact that if schools are rewarded or punished based on some measure of performance, it starts to become all about these measures rather than the love of learning. And it may well be that some of what makes the best schools as good as they are will be lost as soon as we start imposing extrinsic rewards and punishments.

      There may be ways around these problems--but it doesn't follow that such solutions will be successfully implemented in a complex beaurocracy.

  3. Eric, Good point about the need for arguments about the starting points. I agree those are needed.

    As for the actual solutions, I agree with you that all those problems are possibilities (funding, unintended consequences, how to measure success and progress, etc), but the fact is that some charter schools have gone into low income neighborhoods and done what people thought "impossible"... graduate these low income students, give them the education they need to pass the standardized test, and the education they need to get into the best colleges. They did all this while spending less than the schools that lost students to them. Yes, we need to figure out why they are successful and why other schools in those districts aren't (there's quite a bit of documentation on that), but, if I'm a parent, I want my kid in that successful school. They are doing something right. And I want them to create more of them.

    In education, it seems quite complex to figure out what works best. Small classes, educated teachers, money, technology, student choice, parent choice, constructive curriculum, traditional curriculum ... the list goes on and on. We can endlessly speculate about the nature of extrinsic and intrinsic education and how to maximize the best ideals of edcuation in our system. Speculating about education has itself become big industry/business

    But, there is a bright light in the midst of this speculative confusion. Many states have allowed the creation of charter schools and the use of vouchers to experiment with different educational approaches. Some of these experiments have been wildly successful and some horrible failures... just as bad if not worse than the public school option. But the point is that one way to figure out what works is to experiment in these ways. I know it sounds awful to experiment on kids, but that's what we're doing anyway.

    Personally, I think one reason SOME charter schools are successful is because it is easier to remove kids with serious and disruptive behavior problems in charter and private schools. In most public schools, those kids often remain and teachers need a huge amount of documentation before they can be removed. This puts unnecessary stresses on the teacher.
    Another reason is parents must be more involved to get their kids in charter school in the first place. Higher parental involvement helps.
    As for overcrowding of good schools, that is not happening, which is why they have the lottery system and are building new schools on same model when states allow.
    There will always be speculations about class size, money, teacher quality, student socioeconomic backgrounds, content curriculum, school atmosphere, etc... but when schools like KIPP do the impossible with low SES Kids, that is incredible and should be replicated. KIPP may not do so well in the rich districts (they aren't building there anyway), but it has hit a home run in the poorer districts. In my opinion, it is pretty clear what works for bridging the gap between the races and socioeconomic classes in educationa achievement, it's schools like KIPP and their approach that works.

  4. Hi Anonymous

    If the challenge charter schools are seeking to meet is that of reaching those who the current system is failing, then typically we are talking about those with disruptive behaviour patterns, and those with disengaged parents. If, as you suggest, charter schools are succeeding by effectively bypassing those most in need, then it is perhaps something of a hollow victory?


  5. Bernard,
    That is incorrect. Those with disruptive behavior patterns are disrupting education for EVERYONE in the classroom. I am not suggesting they are bypassing those most in need because the schools are failing students even when strong parental support is present... usually because the parents live in poverty and cannot remove their children (Thus, lottery systems). So, KIPP, for example, is reaching students in great need. Research just one successful charter school:

    I think there are other successful charter schools. Some Harmony Science Academies, for example, are making waves, even with the "Islamic" Controversy.
    Anyway, Meeting these kids and talking to their paernts make it clear to me that it is not a hollow victory. It is substantive and inspiring.
    On the other hand, I have also researched some really horrible charter schools (open concepts schools etc).