November 10, 2008

We need a diet

I'm a big plan of efficiency. So instead of analyzing all the bad education plans out there, I'm going to point out the shortcomings of the best -- Andy Rotherham's and Sara Mead's policy paper Changing The Game: The Federal Role in Supporting 21st Century Educational Innovation.

Here's the short version for the lazy:

Bad federal governmental intervention is the cause of much of our education woes, so we propose more federal intervention, but the good kind, i.e., the kind we like.

Now I like Andy and Sara. They are smart commentators on education policy. I am at least sympathetic, and often agree, with many of the views on education policy. But this time around Andy and Sara think that they can foster educational innovation and free-market-like solutions by putting the federal government's thumb on the scale and ignoring the reason why the free-market works in the first place.

Andy and Sara think they'll do a better job guiding the thumb than their equally smart predecessors. What they don't realize is that the thumb is the problem in the first place. This is a mistake that smart people tend to make. They think that they are smarter than the accumulated wisdom of the market. History shows they are not.

People, even smart people, are bad at making accurate predictions with respect to which innovations will succeed and which will fail. The recently deceased Michael Crichton makes a similar point with respect to finding solutions to the pollution problems facing people a hundred years ago.

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS… None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

Now. You tell me you can predict the world of 2100. Tell me it's even worth thinking about. Our models just carry the present into the future. They're bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment's thought knows it.

So where does the free market come in? I'll let P. J. O'Rouke explain:

What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That's not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. "Jeeze, 230 pounds!" But you can't pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. And voters--all the voters, right up to the tippy-top corner office of Goldman Sachs--think so too.

With NCLB we finally bought the scale and made sure everyone weighed themselves. Many in education think that was a mistake and want us to throw out the scale. That's silly: how are we to know the diet works without a scale.

Others don't mind keeping the scale provided they can erase the objective markings and replace them with their own subjective ones. That's equally silly: you don't let the purveyors of the diet regime determine how to measure their own success.

And still others thought that merely weighing everyone and reporting their weights once a year would be sufficient to drop all those pounds. You still need a sensible diet in place for that to work. We didn't get many sensible diets. We got lots of excuses and test-prep diets: the kind of temporary diets that boxers do right before the weigh-in before a big fight.

What Andy and Sara want to do is legislate. i.e., fund, the "innovative" diets they think work best. That's only a small part of the problem. The bigger problem is getting the failed diets off the government teat and, unfortunately, that will include many of the diets Andy and Sara like. Andy and Sara's pseudo-free-market approach doesn't provide such a mechanism. And that is its fatal flaw. A real properly-functioning free-market works by ruthlessly eliminating the losers which involves a lot of short term pain, just like a real diet. That's the part that Andy and Sara leave out. Government won't defund, or starve, its losers voluntarily. That's not the nature of politics. And that's why political solutions, like Andy and Sara's, won't work.

1 comment:

TurbineGuy said...

Or what they could do is to get the government to sponsor a really big study where all these programs are fully implemented for a few years and the results are measured to settle once and for all which school reform model works best.

I mean it's not like it's been done before, right?