Saturday, May 28, 2005

Government Is Best at Simple Objectives, and Education is Not a Simple Objective

Some people believe that if we devoted the same resources to educating the poor then we would "win" in the same way that we win wars. It is not the case that if we "valued education as we do the military" that outcomes would be successful. Government is at its best when it strive to achieve limited, simple objectives, like winning wars. In the case of the military, national defense is a relatively well-defined objective. Education is not a simple, well-defined objective, although people try to get us to think so. (Discrete skills, such as reading, are relatively well-defined, but education includes much, much more than the teaching of discrete skills).

In education, we face radically different, and passionately held, views on what should be going on there. Once, when I was introducing socratic practice in a public school, a parent confronted me and told me that she was going to make sure that this did not happen in her school district. She then gave me the following syllogism:

1. Confusion comes from Satan.
2. Your questioning causes confusion.
3. What you are doing is Satanic.

And, indeed, she (one vocal parent) stopped the implementation of socratic practice in that district.

This is but one vignette of a profound set of differences in parental views regarding what is appropriate in education: What kind of sex ed should take place? What kind of math ed should take place? What kind of history should be taught? What kind of biology should be taught? And on and on and on.

To complicate the situation further, children really do learn in different ways. People who are educated well enough to debate educational policy are, for the most part, those for whom the system more or less worked. People who are in prison, addicted to something, or miserably poor are not those for whom the system worked. Although I wouldn't quite say that different kinds of schools could save all kids, at present many kids are destroyed by our existing middle schools and that this phenomenon is entirely unnecessary. But we have to be able to create dozens of different kinds of schools that approach life and learning in dozens of different ways and we need to innovate radically on all of these all the time.

Magnet schools were proto-charter schools for the elite. Upper middle class professionals had the political clout to get magnet schools set up so that their kids could escape the local dog food schools. For some of those people to have the nerve to be against school choice reminds me of someone in the Soviet nomenklatura claiming that communism worked.

When people think of "private education" they seem to think of Channel One or McDonald's. But "private education" means that you, if you really want to give back to the community, could begin working on a new, more wonderful type of K-12 experience in conjunction with dozens of other young, bright, cool, anti-authoritarian people. Your schools could liberate dozens of kids, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions.

If a new school model that starts with 100 students doubles every year for 30 years at the end of that time all students in the U.S. would be educated under the new model. Don't think of some mean corporation taking over U.S. education. Think of the very best human beings you know having a blast and doing good and bringing more human beings in because all of a sudden K-12 education is a fun, cool world in which you can be creative and create a better world.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs' pitch to John Sculley: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life programming computers, or do you want to change the world?"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Creating an Innovation Dynamic in Education

Sometimes people try to convince me that there are very good public schools right now, and very poor private schools right now. I do not disagree with this point at all. Of course there are good public schools and bad private schools.

My core point has much more to do with the importance of creating a large scale process of ongoing mutation and development.

Silicon Valley was built on math, sand, and freedom. The Soviet Union had the best mathematicians and lots of sand, but no freedom. By the mid-1980s a decent U.S. university had more computing power than the entire Soviet Union.

For me, this is a profound parable for educational freedom as well. There were individual Soviet computing projects (i.e. a supercomputer project) that were actually quite good. But while the Soviet system, by means of individual exceptionalities or devoted state power, occasionally did manage to do great things, it was utterly incapable of creating a massive, evolving system of creation that could result in ubiquitious, cheap computer power and ever-more amazing applications and advances.

Sure, there are great individual teachers, principals, and public schools. But a sufficiently open market in education would create an innovation dynamic in education that was just as powerful in education as has taken place in the IT industry in the last forty years.