Friday, February 19, 2010

A short rant on education

This extends a comment I made here.

I remain amazed that when it is fairly clear that government production of food is a bust, government production of cars is a bust, etc there are still adherents of the notion that somehow government production of education is so terrific it should be The One And Only System.

Particularly as it would clearly reduce the total resources available to schools, since there would no longer been private income being added in.

One of the effects of private schools is to put more pressure to perform on public schools. The issue of “dumping” of problem students (and toxic kids are an issue) is due to the failure of government school systems to develop effective ways of dealing with them.

Why might that be? Not due to lack of resources, which have been going up over time, but to pretty dreadful incentives. Inevitable, when the regulator is also the main provider: a conflict of interest that does much to explain the generally poor record of government production. (Including a well-established tendency to falling productivity over time: which eats away at the effectiveness of the spending. A tendency that appears to apply to schooling, both in the US and in Australia [pdf].)

One reason parents like private schools is the sense of greater control, if only in the sense of picking a specific package rather than the generic model. A system where the main “input” is electing a parliamentary majority who will pick an education minister who will supervise a department responsible for both regulating all schools and administering some of them is not exactly a great control mechanism. But, of course, that is part of the appeal for those who wish to game the system.

For so much of this is not actually about inculcating skills but controlling the socialisation of belief (pdf). Hence the biggest providers of schooling after the state are religious bodies: hence also totalitarian systems do not allow private schools. While educational theory is an intellectual slum dominated by theories about how to, you guessed it, inculcate “appropriate” beliefs.

Remember, if a student screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher screws up, the student pays the price. If a teacher trainer screws up, the student pays the price. If an educational theorist training the people who train the teachers screws up, the students pay the price. There are lots of bad incentives in education, and setting up a monopoly provider who is also the regulator is, as they say, not helpful.

The paucity of government-funded research on what makes for good teaching is another telling indicator. A vital issue, one would think, for governments who spend billions on schooling. But not so much, it turns out. Though a service-oriented NGO has done some interesting work.

The real solution to the problem of government schools is not to have any. To have a regulator who is completely independent because they are not running any schools.

Then we can fund students, not schools. We could pay premiums for students with educational disadvantages. We might even consider paying by results! (Adjusted for the profiles of the students.) Who knows what might happen then ...

ADDENDA: And the notion that an all-government system means everyone gets the same schooling quality is nonsense. Government schools from higher socio-economic areas tend to be better than government schools from lower socio-economic areas because the parents tend to be more education-motivated, lobby better, their children tend to be more pleasant and easier to teach. To the extent that areas with good schools acquire housing-price premiums.

Which goes back to the point that it is really about controlling the socialisation of belief combined with minimising accountability. With the latter having the added effect that the belief-set in question becomes whatever has captured teachers, teacher training and curriculum setting. If your belief-set has done that, then you really want a monopoly provider with minimum parental (or, for that matter) voter control, which is what an all-government the regulator-is-the-provider system delivers. Either way, eliminating private schools is about eliminating rival belief-sets from the education process.

FURTHER: A comment I made here:

Public primary education is a fundamental link between people and government, and schools are where civic education most often begins.
But often not in a good way. States and religious bodies are the biggest providers of schooling because they want to control the belief formation of students (pdf). People who are against private schooling are typically so because they want to eliminate rival belief sets in education. (The claim that it is about “equality” is a nonsense; government schools vary enormously and inevitably in quality because, given a standard model, the demographics particular schools draw on will profoundly affect quality.)

Weak states are typically bad regulators and poor providers. A regulator who is also a provider suffers a conflict of interest that makes them a worse regulator AND a worse provider than they otherwise would be. What is an endemic problem in developed countries schools is hardly likely to be less of one in developing countries.

That private and unregistered schools do best is itself an indicator of the problems of governments regulator-plus-providers being compromised in both functions.

150 YEAR OLD WISDOM: John Stuart Mill had it right 150+ years ago (via):
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

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