Control Freaks

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell speculated that socialism may originate in a hypertrophied sense of order. Elsewhere ("Inside the Whale", "Raffles and Mrs. Blandish"), he suggested that a preference for authoritarian politics originates in vicarious sadism. In either case, some people find the fantasy of commanding millions of lives and billions of dollars irresistibly attractive. Today (2008-Dec.-01), we have an example from the Wall Street Journal, where Louis Gerstner recommends policies which will degrade the performance of the US pre-college school system.

He recommends:...
1) Set high academic standards for all of our kids, supported by a rigorous curriculum.
2) Greatly improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms, supported by substantially higher compensation for our best teachers.
3) Measure student and teacher performance on a systematic basis, supported by tests and assessments.
4) Increase "time on task" for all students; this means more time in school each day, and a longer school year.

This will make things worse.
1) Humans are not standard.
(a) A "standard" is a unit of measurement. Academic standards are to academic growth what measuring rods are to physical growth. Platinum yardsticks will not make children taller. Academic standards will not make children smarter.
(b) What "rigorous curriculum" should "all kids" pursue? Einstein opposed compulsory attendance at school. He argued that compulsory schooling kills motivation. Einstein was right.
2) "Merit pay" is an invitation to a protracted and losing argument. See Myron Lieberman's discussion of the issue in The Educational Morass. Unions object and administrators do not want the additional work nor the dissension it would cause. Who determines which teachers qualify for merit pay? Which subjects? Uniform pay scales produce over-paid teachers in over-supplied subjects (History, English, Biology) and under-paid teachers in shortage areas (Math from Alg. II onwards, Chemistry, Physics, Electronics Shop, some foreign languages).
3) We can assess student performance in Math and Physics. In English or foreign languages we have tests which reliably measure vocabulary and grammar, but that's about it. Literature? History? Art? Forget it.
4) Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery. Compulsion kills motivation. More compulsion will further degrade overall system performance.

It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).

"What works?" is an empirical question which only an experiment (a competitive market) can answer.

The US State-monopoly school system delivers wretched performance at high cost because it is a State-monopoly system. The education industry is not a natural monopoly. Beyond a very low level there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education industry as it currently operates. Education only marginally qualifies as a public good as economists use the term and the "public goods" argument implies subsidy and regulation, at most, not State operation of an industry.

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