The Argument, continued

My comments in italics. Dilan Esper's in bold type.


Your goals do not match your means. I suggest that they are mutually exclusive.

People normally advocate for multiple principles, and since these principles are not restatements of each other, they differ and must inevitably involve trade-offs in some circumstances and occasionally conflict. For example, honesty and compassion are both virtues and do not inevitably conflict, but sometimes they do (what do you say when the Nazis come to your door and ask if you're sheltering a Jew?). That's okay, but "everyone must learn X" and "people should learn to tolerate differences of opinion" seem to me to conflict pretty directly from the start. As I wrote earlier, the way to teach tolerance of diversity is to tolerate diversity.

You wrote: "Look, the cure for indoctrination is to have a diverse educational environment with lots of teachers, not one teacher at home who has no professional certification and thus is LESS likely to be able to avoid indoctrinating the student."

As Milton Friedman once said: "I'm on your side, but you're not". The cure for indoctrination is to have a diverse educational environment, where millions of parents, applying their unique local knowledge of their children's interests and aptitudes, determine for their own children the course, the pace and the method of instruction. Again, homeschooling parents have chosen to homeschool, not to move to Mars. Their children will inevitably encounter others.

That depends. Some parents ensure homeschooled kids socialize with a wide variety of other kids. Other parents have homeschooled kids only socialize with other kids who are homeschooled. And, of course, on the extreme end you have religious groups like the FLDS which actively prevent their kids from interacting with anyone who might disagree with them. But further, you miss my point about indoctrination. If you have a kid who is indoctrinated by teacher A, it's really useful for him to have teachers B, C, D, E, and F, who have different views, and then the next year for him to have teachers G, H, I, J, K, and L. At homeschooling you only have one or at the most two teachers, and there is therefore a much greater chance of successful indoctrination. Indeed, one reason some people homeschool is precisely because they WANT to indoctrinate their kids.

Further, as I previously observed, your preferred means do not yield your stated ends. Laws in every US State compel attendance at school, yet the American public does not exhibit a high level of scientific or historical knowledge. As an aside, here, evolutionary arguments apply directly to economic policy. I have not read Herbert Spencer, but I have read that "progressive" (i.e., socialist) critics misrepresented his position. This would not be the first nor the last time that has happened. Unless you approve waste and fraud, you should welcome the institutional evolution which competitive markets promote...
Markets are good at what they do, but there's plenty they don't do well. And Darwinian competition, especially, is a very brutal way of achieving many social goods. Essentially, Pareto-optimality is a heck of a lot better than Kaldor-Hicks optimality. In any event, your position is a curious one coming from someone who is defending parents who choose NOT to expose their children to a free marketplace of ideas.
...Society as a whole benefits when inefficient suppliers of education services fail.

Last I looked, no country on the planet spent as much per student-year as the US. Switzerland is the only other country in contention. Further, according to John Gatto, this statistic vastly overstates the Swiss school system's burden on taxpayers, since Switzerland allows apprenticeships after 6th grade.
Those numbers are misleading. You need to look at percent of GDP. We can afford to spend much more than we do, just like other countries do.

All schools which rely on compulsory attendance statutes to generalte their enrollment suck, some more than others. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery.
That's an interesting position, but you are never going to get any traction with it outside of extreme libertarianism. Most of us think that it isn't a particularly bad thing that kids have to get an education. In any event, by your definition, homeschooling parents (and other parents who have their kids do any sort of work) are also enslaving their kids. Remember, the 13th Amendment prohibits private slavery, not only governmental slavery. Your argument proves too much.

Students work, unpaid, as window-dressing in a massive make-work program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel. School is a huge waste of time.
Again, Beverly Hills High School, or Boston Latin, or many other public schools, are not wastes of time.

It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute.
Depends. It takes a lot more than 12 years to gain expertise in any complex human endeavor in a modern technological society.

Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classtroom. State provicion of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).
Again, this is just not an argument that is going to sell outside of extreme libertarian circles. Lots of non-totalitarian, reasonably democratic countries teach history and civics, and there's all sorts of good reasons why we would want people to have a common base of knowledge on these subjects. I can only imagine how Balkanized society would become if we didn't do this.

The principle-agent problem:

Parents, as a class, are more likely to represent taxpayers' interests than are government employees (or, in a voucher-subsidized competitive market, school employees) as a class, for the reasons I gave earlier. Yes, there are incompetent, indifferent, and/or abusive parents, but there are incompetent, indifferent and/or abusive teachers, so the issue is: which group, in aggregate, yields the greater benefit/cost ratio?

Teachers. They are certified, regulated, evaluated, supervised, and accountable to parents and taxpayers. Parents, in contrast, are very hard to regulate, because of entirely correct and understandable concerns about interfering in the parent-child relationship. To pick a nice example of this, very few teachers have been caught sexually abusing elementary school students. However, parents and caretakers who are close relatives are responsible for the vast majority of sexual abuse of elementary school-age children. Why? Because a teacher who did that is much easier to detect and prosecute.

Considering the superior performance of homeschoolers, the wretched performance of conventional schools, and the observed seasonal (i.e., school related) variation in juvenile arrests for assault, drug possession, and drug promotion, and of juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma, I'd say there's no contest. Gandhi opposed compulsory attendance at school. Einstein opposed compulsory attendance at school.
That doesn't mean they were right; also, 21st Century America is different than early 20th Century America or the colonial Raj.

The system's origin in anti-Catholic bigotry, and the role of bigotry in it's survival.

The victims are different (poor and minority kids), but the result is the same. The system imposes enromous costs on people who have least to start with. Currently, wretched instruction in State-monopoly schools and the lost opportunity to learn vocational skills on the job impose lethal (quite literally) costs on poor and minority kids trapped in wretched schools. The systematic institutional lobotomization of bright children of poor minority parents gives mediocre children of high-SES parents an advantage in the contest for admission to elite colleges and professional schools.

We are clearly failing to educate minorities in this country. That's the single best argument for vouchers. I would also note, however, that relatively uneducated urban poor, working class minority parents are the least likely to be able to homeschool their kids successfully. More broadly, though, the fact that we are failing minorities doesn't really connect with the claimed anti-Catholic origins of public schools. You clearly like that talking point, but it doesn't have any modern relevance to our current problems.

Economies of scale

Across the US, the coefficient of correlation(mean district size, $/pupil) is positive. Within States, the coefficient of correlation (%20K+dist, $/pupil), where "%20K+dist" is the fraction of total State enrollment assigned to districts over 20,000 enrollment, is positive. Across the US, within States, the coefficient of correlation (enrollment, $/pupil) is positive in all but three or four States with five or more districts over 20,000 enrollment (or 15,000 enrollment, depending on which year of the Digest of Education Statistics you use).

State level standards are bogus. Some years ago, I took the grades which the Education Trust gave to States for ttheir curriculum standards, converted them to numbers on a 0-to-4 point scale, and computed (EXCEL did the work, actually) the coefficient of correlation between standards and NAEP 8th grade Math composite scores. It is negative.

Teacher standards are bogus. Apply the EXCEL correlation function to the Digest... table on credential requirements. Across the US, the higher the fraction of districts in a State which require a Ed degree or Praxis test for teacher applicants, the worse the State's NAEP 8th grade Math performance.

Look, there are good arguments as to why one could claim that standards that are in place NOW are bogus. That hardly is the same thing as saying that the government could not impose SOME standards that are not bogus. Indeed, you conceded in an earlier e-mail that there is some room for, e.g., testing. So I don't think you really deny that there are probably ways to come up with better standards than we have now.


Professors of Education are not experts. Please read Diane Ravich, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. These are the people who gave us Whole Language reading instruction, discovery methods in Math instruction, portfolio assessment, block scheduling, and countless other lunatic fads.

That's just anti-intellectual claptrap. Look, experts come up with bad things. The Harvard educated US foreign policy establishment came up with the Vietnam War. That doesn't mean that Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara are idiots who don't know anything about international relations. It's also worth noting that a lot of the criticism of such "fads" also came from other academics in the field. You see, that's how academia works. People hypothesize. They publish. Other academics criticize. We get data. We revise hypotheses. And we lurch forward towards the truth. Now this isn't your beloved Darwinian natural selection, but it is a tradition that is equally as theoretically grounded-- the scientific method. One of the most dangerous ideas to take hold among right wingers and libertarians is the idea that intensive study and expertise is meaningless, that experts should not be believed, and that anyone can do anything as well as an expert can. That's completely bogus. Experts can be wrong, which is why we have a process for correcting error. But expertise is also extremely worthwhile. Indeed, the scientific method, i.e., scholarship, produced the very Darwinian theories that you are enamored with in the economic arena.

In conclusion

I often encounter people who suport compulsory attendance laws with the assertion that "it's important that everyone learn X" (for some X). For some, X is democratic values. For some it's mathematical and scientific literacy or diversity or global citizenship or environmental awareness. What I find strange is that they must see that X varies widely and that I see no reason why they should suppose that their particular X will win the political contest for priority. Also, this compulsion to centralize is either quite explicitly anti-democratic or there is little reason to suppose that the result of aggregation of curriculum decisions and resources would be superior to the aggregate result of millions of individual parents' decisions.

There's still a big difference that you are eliding between requiring people to go to school and centralizing everything. There's a heck of a lot of local control, there are debates about whether there should be more or whether we need more federal and state standards, and there is also a process for opting out through charter schools and a live debate about vouchers. That encompasses a whole spectrum of approaches to the issue of centralization. And establishing that there may be some problem with federal imposition of education policy-- or even state policymaking-- does not prove that we should go to homeschooling. There's plenty of levels where one can place the relevant controls, at varying levels of centralization. You'd have to prove that there is no level where they could be placed that did not result in the claimed harms of centralization before this argument could be used to justify homeschooling.


Anonymous said...

Malcolm - thanks for your blog - I appreciate your perspective. I value your opinion and know you've interacted with many of the current school board candidates. I plan to hold my nose and vote this year - but I'm having a difficult time deciding who is deserving. Any thoughts on these folks? thanks, Dave

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Normally, I would say: vote for whomever the HSTA does not endorse, but this time, in the Honolulu District race, it's a tossup between Matsumoto and Lee. Matsumoto defended the Baker and Taylor contract in legislative hearings (so I was told), and opposed Governor Lingle's proposal to break the DOE into smaller districts (I saw her performance before the Legislature on this issue). Lee has perfect insider credentials and the endorsement of the HSTA.

Although none of them says anything I approve, I may vote for Lei Ahu Isa, Randall Yee, and Janis Akuna. These people have some demonstrated understanding of finance and some demonstrated independence of mind.

Miss Ahi Isa has a doctorate in Education (not good), and apparently subscribes to the belief that the system could use more money (also not good). On her website, she used "mute" when she meant "moot" (and used that word incorrectly).

More important, if you vote "yes" on the Con-Con, be sure to turn out and vote for system opponents in the special election for delegates. Last time, the people voted for a constitutional convention, then turn-out was light in the delegate election, so we got the crystalized essence of the insider network as delegates.