Saturday, January 14, 2006

Stupid Ib Anerica

I (along with I'm sure many others) caught John Stossel's piece 'Stupid in America' about American public schools. If the piece had a weakness, it was that Mr. Stossel was a bit ambitious and tried to cram a comprehensive look at American public education into a little over 40 minutes worth of video. Excluding that fault, he did touch on a great many points with which we are all familiar when it comes to American public schools. I'll only bring up two minor quibbles:
  1. I think he dumbed down his explanation of competition a bit too much. Yes, a lack of competition leads to a bloated, lazy, over spending system. What also happens though is an institution or business has no idea what to sell beyond their original mandate. It could be the biggest hearted, most well intentioned monopoly on the planet, but without a direct competitor, no one is taking chances on new ideas so no new ideas get produced. John Stossel brought up the good old USSR, and it was well known that they only sold two flavors of ice cream: chocolate and vanilla. The flavors that ice cream can be made into and the demand for different flavors are limitless, but without someone risking the sale of different flavors, the monopoly has no idea what other flavors to make or, given that, what flavors can generate the required market saturation to make their manufacturing worth while, even if it was given to such an idea. Of course Mr. Stossel pointed out the end effect when he noted that the performance of kids who attended in Milwaukee 'voucher' schools improved, but so did the kids in the regular public schools.
  2. Stossel went after the big bogeymen: lazy, evil edu-unions and ignorant, lazy bureaucrats. One piece left out of the puzzle though was the parents. I'd written previously about the school where white people were leaving because the influence of the Asians that attend the school had made it 'too difficult'. I'll point out again, if I was to take the Asians at that school and swap them with the students at the worst school in Cleveland, which school would be then be the failing school and which one would be successful? Mr. Stossel himself interviewed a mom who was concerned that the school hadn't yet taught her son to read, and although the school certainly bears some blame, I couldn't generate much sympathy for the lazy mother.
This article from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel makes a related point:
Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools - and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing. This has allowed some of the weakest schools in the program to remain in business.
This is the double edged sword of competition, no? For every Ben and Jerry's ice cream, there's some no name brand that either doesn't make it, or struggles along by selling five gallon buckets of cheap crap. For many people, that some would succeed while others fail is simply unacceptable. Better that everyone is brought down to the lowest common denominator.

It was interesting that such great points were made, and generic public support seams to be there for school choice, but the politicians who publicly stand against it rarely if ever pay a price. Working against any reform movement is the fact that:

A) The lazy and mediocre gain more from the system than they would under a real merit based program, and these people are more numerous than any of care to admit (...the majority even maybe?)

B) Socialism has a way of blinding people to the possibilities. They may hate the current system, the way most people hate government monopolies, but to all too many people the vision of a capitalist, competitive based education system means less a bright, sparkly grocery market of choices, than a black pit of unknown from which will spring mankind's worst urges. This is, more often than not, projection. Such as when the union thug says that too many people will exploit a free choice system for personal gain. "Oh really....?" says I.

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