Sunday, September 28, 2008

Public Education

There is widespread agreement that our system of primary and secondary education is in dire need of reform. The most distinctive feature of this system is competition for students and money between public and private institutions. But, unfortunately, the competition is not fair. Usually, private schools are financially supported by a combination of tuition and charitable giving (e.g. parochial schools), while public schools can (at least temporarily) dip into an unlimited source of tax revenue. In Ohio, public schools are funded via a property tax based on the value of one’s home. What is the justification for public education? Ideology states that an educated citizenry is a public good that is best distributed equally via tax-supported, governmentally-operated monopolies. Before we explore the question of whether public schools, in fact, distribute education equally (see next blog), let’s look closer at what they actually distribute. Ideology conveniently obscures the fact that school boards distribute contracts to purchase more tangible commodities such as: classroom buildings, classroom furniture, libraries, books, computers, sports stadiums, and parking lots, and food. They also distribute service contracts for not only faculty, but also an army of support staff: librarians, security officers, nurses, bus drivers, and custodians. The contracts for all of these providers are highly coveted due to their generosity. Ideology states that contracts are based on a transparent, competitive bidding process that balances quality and cost negotiated by impartial, civic-minded superintendents and board members. However, in the real world, school boards have little incentive to engage in hard-nosed bargaining with providers. Moreover, the bidding process is usually less-than transparent and undermined by cronyism. Try to find out exactly how much your local school district actually paid for that new air conditioning unit, desk, social studies textbook, or football helmet. As for hiring personnel, entry into these positions is restricted by governmentally mandated licensure requirements and/or labor union contracts. In order to gain access to the “teaching profession,’ you must earn a state-mandated license, which requires graduation from a public or private college or university with at least a bachelors degree in education. Most of the educational curriculum at colleges and universities is designed by government officials that are sensitive to well-funded lobbyists. For example, the more credit hours required for a degree, the more students have to spend on tuition, which usually means heftier student loans from banks. Teachers unions lobby for more stringent requirements, which tend reduce the pool of potential teachers competing for jobs. Now back to the competition between public and private schools. Unionized urban and suburban teachers usually earn hefty paychecks, generous tax-supported retirement pensions, and health insurance coverage. The largess of public school teachers has little if anything to do with the quality of education. In fact, some dreadful urban school districts (Cincinnati) pay their teachers very generously. But don’t blame the teachers. Teaching is a pretty crappy job. State and local school boards tell them what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. They also lack the authority to discipline unruly students that interrupt their classes. Little wonder that the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers leave the profession within five years of graduation. What I worry about are the few that choose to remain in a profession that is micromanaged by elected school boards.


Dr. Frank Serafini said...

In an interesting, but alarming move, in 2000 the US government set up the National Reading Panel to review the current research in reading education, primarily beginning reading education. The panel was headed by Dr Langenberg a physicist (or chemist) from Maryland. Few reading educators were actually on this panel, which decided that only "true experiments" or research that used methods aligned with medical research would be included. There is a whole series of articles challenging this move, but my point is more about where this headed. The NRP report allowed state departments of ed to justify public schools to only purchase educational materials that aligned with the NRP research. This created an informal endorsement of certain materials (synthetic phonics programs in general) and only certain publishers were given the NRP seal of approval. Several of these publishers of reading programs have been indicted under allegations of influencing the panel, no bid contracts, manipulating state funds etc. What is interesting for me was the way this was done using science as the evidence for effectiveness, but only a limited amount of science, disregarding a lion's share of the research on reading ed. To the public No Child Left Behind was based on science and therefore had to be trustworthy.

Freedom's Philosopher said...

Professor Serafini, you have identified a major puzzle in the philosophy of science: namely that in the real world scientific objectivity is often (if not usually) trumped by political and economic self-interest. The historical examples are legion, but we can certainly include sex education research, research into missile defense systems, and pharmaceutical drug research. Libertarians like myself argue that government is the primary source of corruption in science. RON