Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why not Just Fix The Public Schools?

Your humble narrator is in Palo Alto this week, not for a postdoc search quite yet but instead to spend a week with the woman who'll be his wife as soon as he graduates. Such trips have side benefits; I've made several scientific contacts, sat in on concerts and lectures, and even get to see how local politics works elsewhere.

I am an advocate of the separation of school and state, and have been since long before I started this 'blog. Correspondents and left-leaning colleagues have often asked why I support a total change in the way education is provided in most of the U.S. instead of Just Fixing The Public Schools.

It's less dull a question than it seems on its face. That private schools of various sorts outperform traditional government-monopoly schools has gone from a speculation in Capitalism and Freedom to empirically established fact, incontrovertible except by the sort of study that "controls for" all of the private schools' usual advantages. Where I grew up--Cook County, IL, a stone's throw from Chicago--middle-class families in many neighborhoods, and especially middle-class Catholic families sent their children to private high school almost as a matter of course, to the point where attending the legacy public school was a matter of conscious choice. This was good for all: people with alternatives have high expectations. But in most places, most children are educated in the public school, and most of my highly educated colleagues are the products of public schools. (I attended a mediocre public grade school and junior high for eight years, followed by one of the area's more prestigious prep schools, where I had some major catching up to do in my first year.) Many of the legacy public schools are doing "good enough", and since most children are in public schools, the way to improve things for most children right away, without any switchover costs and without any late-adopters being left behind, is to Just Fix The Public Schools.

The problem is that the legacy public schools are tremendously difficult and in ways impossible to fix by their institutional nature. Democracy--a ten-dollar word for "majoritarian voting"--is a fine way to run a club whose members have common interest, a fairly good way to manufacture and maintain consent and legitimacy of a government acting within certain bounds, a somewhat poor way to determine public policy, and relative to how either for-profit or non-profit schools run, a downright wacky way of determining how a service such as education is to be provided.

In both the local Palo Alto paper and one of the area's larger news websites the hot topic for some time has been the mathematics curriculum in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The question raises itself, why not just let teachers teach math, but it's not that simple. The State of California allows districts only nine choices of mathematics textbook, and each district must seemingly choose but one of these. The committee tasked with this in Palo Alto, composed of forty-one teachers, three parents, two school principals, and a few administrators has nearly settled on the University of Chicago's Everyday Mathematics series, provoking strong objection from many parents concerned about the series's use of electronic calculators and de-emphasis of standard algorithms and problem solving in favor of constructivism and possibly confusing early presentation of multiple algorithms. (Arizona schools are not quite as micro-managed but still make curricular decisions by committee. I am participating as a consulting scientist in TUSD science curricular reform; the emphasis on buzzwords and abstraction and fad makes it as pleasant as pulling teeth.) One parent from nearby Menlo Park remarked that Everyday Math is one of the reasons her family moved from its previous place of residence, and quite a few others are sharing similar negative experiences.

The excuse commonly made for Arizona's public schools, especially urban districts like TUSD, is that their problems stem from poverty, parental illiteracy, lack of positive parental engagement, and anti-intellectual family culture. Speaking as someone who's had contact with TUSD teachers as a speaker, I can say that there's some truth to that, but it isn't the whole story. The trouble is in part simply that public schools are public schools. As the people of Silicon Valley are on average considerably more affluent and educated than Arizonans--Silicon Valley is one of the most highly educated areas in the world--the usual excuses don't apply here. Parents are demanding excellence, and there is considerable popular sentiment in favor of the adoption of "Singapore Math" texts based on that small country's rather successful curriculum. The nearby Las Lomitas School District, Palo Alto's private Keys School, and many homeschoolers have successfully adopted this program.

Excellence, however, is not what public schools are about. The public schools do not have as their mission to educate to a very high standard or even to tailor education to the individual child so as to help each one achieve his potential. The governing principle of public schools is, at best, "One Size Fits All" and, at worst, if one takes the radical egalitarian rhetoric of opponents of vouchers and tax credits seriously, "Cut the Tall Trees Down." The committee was apparently hamstrung by its decision early on to require that the text adopted be suited to teaching struggling students and fast learners concurrently. Apparently selecting one text for average and excellent students and an alternative for the strugglers was out of the question, as was bringing the strugglers up to speed by intensive KIPP Academy-style intervention. As a result, unless Palo Alto's school board reverses the committee decision next month, local public school students will be taught mathematics in a way that shortchanges talented and average students and possibly the difficult ones, too.

It's worth emphasizing again, that neither poverty nor parental ignorance are at work here. Opponents of private education like to speak of private school and homeschool parents as failing in civic duty by doing better for their children and therefore not being there to complain at PTA meetings and the like, but presuming for the sake of argument that that's a just complaint, flight is certainly not at work here, either: the parents who are speaking out are highly educated and relatively affluent--engineers, computer programmers, scientists. The trouble is that public schools are public schools. The best parents can do is to complain at meetings. If they pull their kids out, the schools are guaranteed funding by law. They can try to effect change through the democratic process, but school board elections are usually more about party affiliations, loyalties, and slogans than about the issues, and by the time proponents of more sound curricular ideas have a majority, children have already had several years of substandard education and may be permanently behind their peers in prep school or college.

It is simply not just to ask parents to sacrifice their children's education to preserve a clumsy institution. The trouble with public schools--besides their being run by electoral democracy--is that there is no meaningful right of exit. Parents can't say "I'll educate my kid myself" and get their taxes back, meaning parents who want to leave must pay twice for education. The result is that, except in places like Cook County where it is the (sub)cultural norm to send children to private school, most parents, not wanting to pay twice, keep their kids in the public school unless it gets very bad. Many parents can't afford to pay twice. Not only do the kids not leave, if they do, it doesn't matter. The public schools are guaranteed funding, and both school board re-elections and administrator contract renewals are hit-or-miss. Individual teachers--the good ones, anyway--are motivated by their convictions and pride, but structurally, for administrators, school boards, committees, the teachers' union, and everyone else making decisions about how to hire and fire teachers, purchase books, and (often needlessly) constrain what the teachers do in the classroom, the incentives make no sense. On the other hand, both traditional private schools and charter schools, which receive funding from the government but operate as contractors, must succeed or shut their doors.

Do poverty, parental ignorance, and the like negatively affect the performance of the public schools? Probably. Does low funding? Under certain circumstances--we must avoid considering it underfunding every time the dollar amount is too low for the legacy public schools' somewhat ideological supporters. But care must be taken to recognize that much of the trouble with public schools comes from their being public--run by democracy, funded by the State, and not allowing meaningful exit. Some very serious troubles concerning curriculum and exit are invariant, whether one is in Tucson or Silicon Valley. Replacement of the legacy state-run school system with a market driven by parental choice--the development of which can be jumpstarted by a high-cap dollar for dollar individual use tax credit--would provide instant mitigation.

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