In Memoriam

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross, c. 1820) died on this day, 1913-03-10.
From the Wikipedia entry (citing Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero:...
Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That's what master Lincoln ought to know.


Ravitch Review (Updated)

Joanne Jacobs collects commentary on the The Death And Life of the Great American School System, the latest work by Diane Ravitch. Harriet left this comment...

Diane Ravitch deserves respect for her energy and dedication, displayed in her numerous publications and for the endurance she displayed in wading through volumes of educationese while researching Left Back. Any normally compassionate reader will finish __Left Back…__ appalled at the arrogance of socialists (Dewey, Cubberley, et. al.) who treated other people’s children as their clay. Ravitch laments the abandonment of a rigorous classical curriculum in favor of a succession of fad reforms that reduced system performance and raised costs. While Ravitch criticizes the policies which self-appointed experts prescribed, she does not question the premise that some expert ought to prescribe curriculum.
In “School’s Out“, his review of the latest Ravitch book, Chester Finn writes:
“Diane and I go back a very long way–three decades, give or take–and in addition to the personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what’s awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren’t learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.”

That’s not a diagnosis; that’s a symptom. Why do schools fail?

Finn continues: …”She would undo most if not all of the “structural” reforms that have been put in place in recent years–mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing- and results-based accountability and more. She would, instead, look to the “great American school system” and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children.”

Umm…”Schemes”? Vouchers and charter choices enhance overall system performance. And when/where has “reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives” been tried?

Elsewhere, Finn writes: “Any successful redesign will require a clear-eyed assessment of what has and has not worked in the effort to achieve the last generation’s reform goals, and must open itself to new aims. It will demand long, concerted effort by experts, civic and business leaders, educators, parents, and policymakers. And while it must be realistic about politics and the difficulties of transition, any overhaul of American education must also be informed by an overarching vision of the kind of system it is after. That vision, more than the details of individual reform proposals, may be what is most sorely needed now.”

Finn does not hide his commitment to centralized (expert) control.

As Neal McCluskey observed, Chester Finn is no fan of market-oriented reforms. Ravitch and Finn may merit the term “conservative”. They in no sense qualify as pro-(school)choice.

Milton Friedman rejected the label “conservative”. He called his viewpoint “liberal” (in the classical, 19th century sense of the word, meaning pro-freedom).
Several lines of evidence support the following propositions:
1. As institutions take from individual parents the power to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum and the pace and method of instruction, overall system performance falls.
2. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically-adept parents.

Political control of school invites critics and defenders of the current system to imagine prescribing reforms to that system. Critics such as Finn and Ravitch do not address the obvious fact that their opponents occupy their current positions because of this system. Public-sector unions, their kept politicians, and Professors of Education won the contest for control of this system. Reform proposals which ignore the rules of the game that enabled this result must either accommodate the policy preferences of these interest groups, or fail.

Practically, this observation implies that effective reform will occur one family at a time, as parents decide to homeschool.

Update: A Volokh conspirator discusses the newspaper report on the Ravitch book. Harriet added 2 cents worth (comment 67).


Jay Greene on Education Research

Jay Greene initiated a discussion of federally-funded education research. Harriet would have left a comment, but it went over-long.

The tax-funded education research apparatus provides an endlessly entertaining playpen for the statistically literate puzzle addicts who become quantitative researchers and to the proponents of non-quantitative research such as Jim Horn, who's authority depends on the authority of the statistically literate empiricists. Both groups deserve the mistrust which Jay Greene advocates in his essay.

Professor Greene's recommendation, that legislators restrict the Federal role to accumulation and distribution of raw data, likely would lead eventually to the situation which he laments. What data would the Feds amass? Why suppose that the people who collect these data would perform any more honestly than climate scientists who report favorable data from non-existent stations in China and omit stations which yield data contrary to their preconceptions? Substitute "school" for "weather station" or "proxy source" (fossil tree, stalagmite, glacial gas bubble), and "standardized test" for "thermometer" or "tree rings", or "isotope ratio".

Some Texas financier once said: "Money is like manure: when you spread it around it can do a lot of good; when you heap it in one place, it stinks."

Government policy may effectively address problems which arise from free rider issues and tragedies of the commons, such as overfishing, or from other sources where free rider problems inhibit market solutions, for example, the threat from Earth-crossing asteroids. I expect, however, that, given a sufficiently large budget for a sufficiently long time, the Asteroid Defense Agency would spend its budget on plush conference venues and overpriced, redundant studies, and, come crunch time, perform as well as the French army in 1940. We're screwed, or we're robbed, then screwed.

Education does not belong in either of the above categories. Parents have an alternative to the wasteful and abusive, tax-funded K-PhD school apparatus. Homeschool. The market (meaning, whatever happens in the absence of State coercion beyond the protection of individuals and property) will generate more reliable information on effective practice than will PREL (nee the Pacific Regional Education Lab, once an offshoot of the Northwest Regional Education Lab and now the "Pacific Resources for Education and Learning").