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Government Don't Know Jack: Education

Public education has no carrots and no sticks for anyone.

By Will Offensicht  |  January 31, 2008

This is a multi-part series examining inherent conflicts in government and the ultimate goal of avoiding the Confucian Cycle.

This series examines ways the government ought to be able to help the economy, assuming that politicians want the economy to grow and assuming that the government is able to do what the politicians promise.  Our article on the Confucian Cycle draws from a pattern that has played out over and over throughout human history.

When governments are founded, there isn't much bureaucracy so it's possible to get things done.  As bureaucrats and other interest groups multiply, however, it becomes more and more difficult and more and more expensive to make anything happen.  Finally, there comes a point when government becomes so expensive that the society can't support it any longer and the civilization collapses.

This is not because government employees are stupid; they aren't.  The problem is that the peculiar incentives that come with working for the government have nothing to do with benefiting society, the incentive is to benefit the bureaucracy.  This gives bureaucrats every incentive to push costs up and reduce the amount of work they have to do by redefining their objectives over time.  This is sometimes called "dumbing down."

Bureaucratic excess is particularly ruinous in the educational system.  Our society must have a highly educated work force.  If our educational level declines so far that we can't maintain our high-tech agricultural system and our petroleum-based food distribution system, we'll go back to the productivity of muscle-powered farming and about half our population will starve.  In our case, having an educated citizenry is literally a matter of life and death.

The Old Ways

Our schools used to work well.  When wave after wave of immigrants arrived in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the children learned English very fast.  An article "New York, Immigration 101" on p 70 of the Winter 2008 issue of Wilson Quarterly makes this point indirectly.

For much of the 20th century, one in five New York residents was foreign born.  That figure reached 41% in the 1910 census, a level it's again approaching, at 36% in the last census.

At the time of the 1910 census and for many years afterward, the New York schools were effective at teaching English.  There were no issues of bilingual education, there was no whining about the number of foreign languages spoken in the schools.  Street signs, product labels, and instruction books were written in English.  Teachers rolled up their sleeves and taught the kids to speak English.

"Education" used to consist of learning classical literature.  Graduates knew enough about different ways of thinking to be able to manage society, and they knew how to learn whatever they needed to know to survive as the economy changed.

Today, "Western Civ" has been replaced by more specialized technical training.  Specialized training is OK so long as there's a market for the skills being taught, but if the market changes, skilled people who haven't gained a broad education which helps them adapt to new conditions may find themselves out of luck.  This is demonstrated by the increasing number of highly educated people who can't find jobs for which their credentials would appear to have qualified them.

The New Ways

Unfortunately, the American educational system has been hijacked by academics who'd rather write papers or socialize kids than teach.  Socializing children is a lot easier than teaching them, so the concept of a teacher as a social engineer has become popular.

Public education is free to customers, required by law, and still loses market share as parents switch to private schools and homeschooling.  The reason isn't hard to find - American public education is not as effective as it used to be, and some public schools are worse than no school at all.  Adult literacy was higher in colonial American before public schools were established than it is now.

Schools are particularly bad in large, heavily unionized cities such as New York and Los Angeles.  The New York schools got so bad that they were recently handed over to the mayor's office and the mayor is trying to make them more effective.  It remains to be seen whether he'll have any success; fighting a bureaucracy is worse than fighting kudzu.

The decline is partly because public education has been around long enough for the bureaucracy to take over from parents.  Teachers want bigger budgets just as you and I would like more pay, so they lobby the legislature for "mandates" that force schools to do something.

There was a lot of flak when New Hampshire first mandated that every school had to have a nurse, for example.  Did having nurses around make kids any healthier or make schools any more effective at teaching?  No, but it pushed up costs and gave school administrators bigger budgets to brag about.

Should There Be Consequences in Schools?

Our society has pretty much given up on the idea of kids suffering consequences for anything they do.  If a young person becomes pregnant, for example, the government is right there with a welfare check.  If someone contracts AIDS, the government supplies free treatment.

One of my friends is a selectperson in a small town in northern New Hampshire, the "Live Free or Die" state.  He told me about going through some old records.  When the town first hired a teacher for their one-room school, the selectmen (they were all men in those days) would ask how the kids were doing.  If a kid didn't learn or gave the teacher any lip, they'd take him behind the barn and beat the snot out of him.  For lesser offenses, they'd apply the board of education to the seat of learning.

People my age may remember the song "School Days":

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days,
readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic,
taught to the tune of a hi'k'ry stick...

It's difficult to motivate students to learn; traditional corporal punishment worked wonders.  The men who beat the students into submission and forced them to learn under pain of pain were responsible for collecting taxes as well as for spending them; they knew the importance of training kids to be taxpayers.

No Carrots, No Sticks

In the present social climate, schools can barely regulate what kids wear; there's no practical way to make them learn if they don't want to.  Instead of criticizing kids who don't learn, schools engage in "social promotion," which results in kids being pushed up to classes so far beyond anything they know that they can't learn anything at all.

When there are no unpleasant consequences for not learning, why should the kids bother?  Learning, like teaching, is a lot of work: why not just play Nintendo, particularly given that they can always go on welfare?

In addition to having lost the right to punish students for not learning, schools can't reward them for learning either.  Kids who got A's used to be honored; then some egalitarian decided that rewarding good grades made other students feel inferior.  With no carrots and no sticks, how can schools motivate students to work at all?  Coaches reward good performance by awarding slots on the starting team without making lesser athletes feel inferior, but recognizing academic performance is out of bounds in many schools.

This attitude leads to schools defrauding their students.  The implied contract is, "Sit here every day for 12 years and we'll teach you how to be a productive adult."  Social promotion teaches kids that all they have to do is show up; what happens when they get their first job and find out that merely showing up isn't enough?  They realize they've been lied to.

Instead of rewarding learning, schools reward athletics.  What happens to a high-school football hero?  Unless he's really good, he goes from hero to zero during graduation.  My town has ex-football quarterbacks who find occasional work driving snowplows; they didn't learn anything salable in school. By showering so much recognition and adulation on football instead of rewarding studies which would lead to careers, the school defrauded these kids.

No Management

Unions have lobbied for laws and union contracts which make it practically impossible to fire bad teachers and react negatively to any suggestion of rewarding good teachers for performance.  Thus, school administrations have no carrots and no sticks to use on the staff either.

The result is a hugely expensive education system which is ineffective in most places.  It's never provided enough technical workers at any time I can remember; my clients were importing programmers from England back in the mid 1980's.

The only cure for bureaucratic excess is competition.  Breaking up AT&T cut telephone costs and saved customers huge amounts of money, but 19,000 unionized workers were let go.  Deregulating airline fares has led to low-cost airlines like Southwest, but unionized carriers are in trouble.

Unions know that competition benefits the public but hurts them.  That's why they fight home schooling, charter schools and vouchers so hard.  We've described some hopeful signs that competition is beginning to have an effect.

As UAW membership declined in large part because the Big Three were not permitted to run their factories efficiently, lost market share, and needed fewer workers, so we may see teachers' unions decline as parents decide not to take it any more.  But it will be messy.