Monday, October 07, 2002

Andy writes:
I'm starting to lose my enthusiasm for vouchers. It's curriculum that matters, not the teachers or school. Education isn't going to improve by shuffling kids among the same curricula. Instead, we get busing (recently in Chicago area), dumbing down tests, and an incentive for bilingual education (to exempt students from tests, as in Florida). Political benefit of vouchers is still good, though, so I wouldn't oppose them. I just don't see them as a clear winner anymore. I suppose breaking up the monopoly is good, and may have secondary benefits.

The idea behind vouchers is that more parent choice will pressure the schools to be more competitive, and hence better. But better in what sense? They should be better in the sense of better meeting the demands and expectations of the parents.

Some parents want different things. Maybe some want better teachers, some better sports, some better art classes, some better curriculum, etc. Vouchers just make the schools more accountable to parents. If what you want in a school is radically different from what everyone else wants in a school, then competition doesn't do you any good.

It is just like anything else in the market. If you like cheeseburgers like most people, then competition between burger joints will get you better, faster, tastier, cheaper cheeseburgers. If you are a vegetarian, then competition between burger joints doesn't do you any good.

Andy writes:
Vouchers don't bring competition in curricula, which is all that matters. Multiple products in a market don't guarantee real competition. You might say that it is better than having only one product in the market, but sometimes the improvement is insignificant. It's like moving deck chairs on the Titanic.

In grade school, there is some choice. The public, Montessori, Waldorf, Carden, and others have different philosophies and curricula.

Eg, Montessori emphasizes self-paced instruction. Waldorf says:
Some distinctive features of Waldorf education include the following: Academics are de-emphasized in the early years of schooling. There is no academic content in the Waldorf kindergarten experience (although there is a good deal of cultivation of pre-academic skills), and minimal academics in first grade. Reading is not taught until second or third grade, though the letters are introduced carefully in first and second. ... There are no "textbooks" as such in the first through fifth grades. All children have "main lesson books", which are their own workbooks which they fill in during the course of the year. They essentially produce their own "textbooks" which record their experiences and what they've learned.

Vouchers bring competition in curricula if there is demand for it. That is the way with any market-based solution. It only brings what people want.

In Calif, private schools can teach whatever curriculum they want, but most of them voluntarily take the same standardized test that is given to the public schools, and which is tied to the public school curriculum. So any school that deviates too much runs the risk that it might have to parents why the scores are below par.

John writes:
The empirical fact, however, is that competition among burger joints has not produced better, tastier burgers. It has merely produced a vast proliferation in the number of burger outlets, which differ only in the most superficial ways and make no pretense of competing on the quality of the product.

Contrary to Roger, I would suggest that the fast-food industry serves as a warning and object lesson, not a model, for school-choice enthusiasts.

Here we have what is seemingly one of America's most dynamic and competitive industries. It has blanketed the world with probably 100,000 retail outlets (McDonalds alone passed the 25,000 mark over a decade ago). But the quality of the product is basically the same as it was in the days of Ray Kroc - unfit for human consumption.

I admit I have not eaten a fast-food burger in 25 years or more, but I am certain that today's burgers are identical to the ones I was unable to eat 25 years ago.

The giant fast-food purveyors surely go through the motions of competing with each other, but the evidence refutes the idea that competition has brought "better ... tastier" meals. At McDonalds and its many so-called competitors, the only thing you taste are the MSG-spiked condiments with which your food is slathered.

Competition, indeed! Fewer Americans today than ever before in history have ever even tasted a decent burger made from fresh well-seasoned ground beef cooked to order, or french fries made from a real potato instead of frozen cardboard.

Conclusion: it takes more than competition to improve the schools.

My conclusion is that John is not in the target market for McDonalds. McDonalds keeps its customers happy, even if John doesn't like it.

Yes, it is likely to be the same with schools. What some people want in schools is not what others want.

John writes:
Roger still doesn't get it. I am in the market for fast food of decent quality. Because McDonalds is ubiquitous, nearly every day I pass by them looking for something fast and edible. If McDonalds decides they don't want me as a customer, what does that tell you about them? I am a prospective customer who is definitely not happy.

It is disturbing that a school choice advocate holds the fast food industry as a "likely" model for education. The purpose of education is not to give people what they "want"; that is the standard that has given us network TV, rap music, junk food, and casinos. The purpose of education is to improve and elevate what people want. It is to teach people to appreciate and value what they initially may not want.

When did John become such an elitist? You want to gubmnt to shut down commercial TV and replace it with Masterpiece Theatre reruns, so the people can be improved and elevated? You want to eat at gubmnt cafeterias and listen to the Air Force marching band?

My complaint with the public schools is not the quality, but the fact that policies are driven by what some bureaucrats think are good for the people, rather than what they really want.

Joe writes:
But the quality IS lousy. And it's not just a few bureaucrats who are imposing their ideas - it's a whole mindset that is remarkably similar everywhere (just look at all the colorful, PC, "there's no right answer"/every construction person shown is a woman) - a mindset that is defined by the whole agenda of liberal/left/union/environmentalist/feminist...... democrat ideas.

Andy writes:
I'm not opposed to aptitude tests. But I don't find them very meaningful. They don't assess motivation, inquisitiveness, independent thinking or creativity, all of which are more important than basic problem-solving or memory skills.

Joe replied, "That's the sort of stuff that liberals always say in order to discredit IQ tests. So you end up with all this fuzzy stuff that is designed to measure all these other 'types of intelligence.' Added to aptitude tests, OK. But they should not be a substitute."

White liberals have traditionally been big fans of aptitude tests, tracking, elite programs, etc. I don't hear them extolling motivation or independent thinking. Dissent is the last thing they want.

If you pick a group of students based on scores on aptitude tests and I pick a group of students based on motivation, inquisitiveness, independent thinking and creativity, which group do you think will accomplish more? Which group will produce more intellectual breakthroughs? I would say the latter. China has a higher national aptitude than the US, but we have more intellectual breakthroughs. And Europe has had more than us.

Priory is a fine school and I would probably send my son there. But my view is that the admissions officer is making a mistake in filling the school based on the best aptitude and grades of 5th graders.

The debate between John and Roger is somewhat moot, because under either view vouchers are not likely to make a significant difference. Vouchers are a cumbersome libertarian way of ducking the real issue: what and how children will be taught. That battle needs be to fought directly, not indirectly.

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