Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beyond School Choice

As the nation's education system continues to rot, President Obama has come up with a revision of No Child Left Behind that rewards success, lets states define their own standards, and fires teachers at failing schools (maybe).

Conservatives continue to advance school choice, principally in promoting charter schools, public schools freed from some bureaucratic standards. Paul E. Peterson, in The Wall Street Journal, discusses the need to ramp up charter schools from 3 percent of students to 50 percent in order to get US education to compete with the rest of the world.

Harvard's Martin West and German economist Ludger Woessmann examined the impact of school choice on the performance of 15-year-old students in 29 industrialized countries. They discovered that the greater the competition between the public and private sector, the better all students do in math, science and reading. Their findings imply that expanding charters to include 50% of all students would eventually raise American students' math scores to be competitive with the highest-scoring countries in the world.

Peterson adds that education is about to be revolutionized by "powerful notebook computers, broadband and the open-source development of curricular materials (a la Wikipedia)." Competition in education is bound to improve results.

Not to mention the YouTube videos of Kahn Academy.

But I want to go further. I want to challenge the very notion that the best way to raise children is by compulsory incarceration in schools for K-12. For inspiration I have looked into the past, in the era before the centralized bureaucratic method had triumphed.

I found that the typical childhood education experience included two to four years in a school that taught basic literacy and numeracy, followed by apprenticeship at twelve or thirteen. Very often, of course, the child (usually a boy) would leave home at that point.

In other words, work started in the early teens, but education continued. The whole idea of the apprenticeship system was a contract between master and apprentice in which the apprentice would provide cheap labor and the master would teach a trade.

The big advantage of this system, it seems to me, is that most people can afford it. It is ludicrous to expect parents themselves to fund twelve years of indifferent incarcerated schooling. But most people, I'll bet, could afford a few years of elementary school, especially if they pitched in as volunteers.

And most people really don't want to go to college. That's because most people aren't interested in the best ideas that have been thought. They just want to get a job. In practice, of course, most colleges are just teaching job preparation skills. Most students want a vocational education and major in business, health care, or some technical subject. It's just that a century ago, children started on their job skills ten years earlier.

It would be quite simple to set up a system that allowed kids to transition into a practical education in their early teens. All that we would need is to adjust the child labor laws and the minimum wage. And there lies the rub.

If you look under the blanket you realize that the whole point of child labor laws and the minimum wage is to push kids and unskilled people out of the labor market, to eliminate their competition. It's not the kids that are yelling for restrictions on their labor market participation. If you check out anecdotal stories of child labor you'll find that kids prefer work to school.

The overriding principle of social policy should be to make it as easy as possible for people to live and work without having to lean on government. If you look at government's big programs, you notice that the maze of subsidies and assistance tends to make it at first difficult, and then impossible for people to function without government. The rules, the requirements, the certifications all combine to make schooling, health care, housing very expensive. They make it so expensive that the average person can't afford it without assistance.

I have a vision. It's a vision of a sociable society where Americans combine a sturdy independence with a generous safety net of cooperative and sociable associations. It's so independent and so generous and so sociable that it doesn't need any help from government. Government keeps to its core functions: defense against enemies foreign and domestic.

What a concept!

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