Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bringing Creative People into Education

After having spent 15 years in K-12 education, starting out as a public school reformer, it is perfectly clear to me that creating a private market education is the single most important thing that we can do to make the world a better place.

For some, "market" has connotations of "for profit" and "greed." For me, "market" has connotations of "cool, creative people can actually get something done for a change." When I hear of those who are concerned about greedy people taking over a market in education, my first thought is "we just need good people to create better alternatives to the sleazy ones." Actually, the market does a pretty good job of this already and would do a much better job if more well-intentioned people became education entrepreneurs.

The absence of a real market in education and health care has created a situation in which talented, ambitious, creative people can have interesting, creative, highly-paid careers if they work for companies that sell liquor, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and many other things but - if they work in education - they face tedious, bureaucratic, frustrating lives. By allowing government to control education we have created an amazingly efficient filter that forces the most talented and best people out of the system.

Right now, without changing to a market-based system, more money for educator salaries will only mean that the existing people, many of whom I would not hire as educators, get more money. A few more talented people might enter education if salaries were significantly higher, but the real bottleneck is not money: it is the absence of a creative, inspiring, fun professional life. Cool, creative people do not want to work for public schools. When they try it, most of them leave after a few years. We are forcing the best and most dynamic people to stay away from our young people. Why?

We (join me, let's go do it!) can create new kinds of educational organizations that would be a blast to work at! The socratic discussions that I like to lead are more fun than anything that I have ever done! And you can create schools at which kids have a blast creating music, and websites, and screenplays, and gadgets, and more. Nothing about our nihilistic secondary school situation is necessary. Every day that we support "public" education, we thereby make a decision to support bland meaninglessness in the lives of our young people.

People enter other fields because they are cool and dynamic. Freedom is the sine qua non for creative people. Managing schools through multiple, competing, highly politicized, bureaucratic management structures (the national government, state governments, and local school boards, all of which are prey to media shocks, election grand-standing, and complex bureaucratic positioning to hide from the ongoing political firing squad) is simply a terrible, terrible idea.

Designed correctly, in the long run a K-12 education market will unleash more happiness and well-being, especially for the poor, than any other policy change that we could possibly envision, bar none.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Homeschooling as Growing a Nutritionally-Adequate Diet

If someone proposed that inner-city people should feed themselves by growing their own food they would be called all sorts of names implying that they were cruel and unrealistic.

When I listed the various options for obtaining food (Costco, Safeway, 7-11, restaurants, etc.) I initially balked before adding "growing your own." Indeed, I chickened out and wrote "growing some of your own food." What a ridiculous notion to grow your own food!

But homeschooling is exactly like expecting people to grow their own food and still have a diverse and nutritionally-adequate diet. The fact that some people manage to do this well is testimony to the amazing creativity and resilience of human beings. I suspect if similarly forced into a corner (as were people in communist regimes), people could home-grow their own food and actually do pretty well for themselves. Our pioneer ancestors did as well, of course, but in both cases the lives of the people so living involved harder work than most of us can imagine.

The fact that people homeschool, "grow their own," rather than send their children to be nourished on the free dog food-style education available speaks volumes about the effects of an absence of a market in education.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Envisioning a Market in Education

Markets provide diverse goods to diverse people. A market in education would provide much higher quality education to the poor at much lower prices. And eventually high-end innovations in education would become available at lower and lower cost to all.

Just as the grocery industry is very diverse, so too would an education industry be very diverse.

The second-fastest growing segment of the grocery market, and the one that will soon have dominant market-share, is the Sam's Club/Costco superwarehouse-style grocery. These places provide groceries that are amazingly cheap. They really do sell groceries at wholesale prices; most small retailers buy directly from these wholesalers. And while their selection may not compete with Albertson's or Safeway, they have a remarkable range of very high quality food at such cheap prices. And, of course, there is Trader Joe's, which is almost a mini-Costo for the gourmet, offering Whole Foods-style groceries at much lower prices. Meanwhile the main grocery chains are learning to provide a broader range of health foods, on the one hand, and lower prices, on the other. And we can buy food at 7-11s and gas stations; we can have it delivered to our doors; we can buy some things via mail order; we can eat at restaurants, we can grow some of our own food, etc. The "Whole Foods" analogy was a vignette of just one of many, many different educational niches that would blossom in an education market.

Right now, there is a for-profit chain that provides education for at-risk students (Ombudsman, Contrary to the claim that private education will "cream off" students, this chain specializes in educating in those students for whom the system has failed: drop-outs or near drop-outs. Often they rent space in a strip mall, install a room full of computers, and run four "school days," one from 8-12, another from 12-4, and a third from 4-8 p.m. Students complete the work for their high school diplomas by working on self-paced instructional materials on-line. A teacher is available to help the students if they get stuck.
At the one that I visited in San Marcos, TX, several years ago, the students were very focused and loved it. They loved the autonomy ("Don't have to do what the teacher tells me to do all the time."). They loved the self-paced aspect ("I can go as fast or as slow as I want.") They loved the schedule ("I have a job - or a baby - and can't go to school all day.") They were less bored and there were no discipline problems (and remember, these are the "at-risk" students who are usually considered trouble-makers in a normal classroom).

I have seen a lot of conventional at-risk programs run by public school districts themselves, and I would say that this bare-bones for-profit program was better than 80-90% of the much more expensive programs that I've seen run by public schools.

At the time that I saw the school in the mid-90s, the curriculum was relatively dull. But improving on-line curriculum is simply a matter of development, which is often limited by the extent of the market. I'm sure that the materials are better now and, if the market was, say, a $20 billion market instead of a $5 million market, one would see much, much better materials being developed. One of the top officers at a leading educational software company told me explicitly once that they did not design self-paced software that would replace the teacher - all of their software was designed to assist the teacher. He pointed out that public school districts wouldn't buy software if the teachers felt threatened.

And with better electronic teaching, human teachers can increasingly focus on the more human aspects of education.

The KIPP chain of charter schools,, is widely recognized for having created superior academic schools for inner-city neighborhoods. They have longer school years, better discipline, and better academic performance with the same students in the same neighborhoods. They have a distinctive training program for new principals in which the prospective principal is required to spend a full year as a trainee at an existing KIPP school in order to learn from the inside how to re-create the system at a new site.

I do think that it is very, very important for people to learn how to see how markets provide a simply amazing array of ever-improving goods at ever-decreasing cost. Once one learns to see the world in this way (and it is a way to watch the world around us, how to determine salience), one is constantly astounded. There is every reason to believe that a market in education would be as effective at creating an amazing array of educational options of ever-improving types of education at an ever-decreasing cost.

The poor today in the U.S. have refrigerators, televisions, phones, vacuum cleaners, stoves, and a host of other conveniences. Why don't we let the market produce good educations for them?