Friday, August 29, 2008

School Choice

Now that Obamafest is over and the Republicans have the spotlight for a few days, I would like to spend some time going over a few areas where I think the Democrats are going to fail us in the next four years.

Please understand, I will vote for Obama in November and consider him to be the better candidate. However, there is room for improvement. Most of my readers favor the Democratic Party and speaking ill of that which cannot be questioned may be considered blasphemous. However, I think that a better world is possible and would rather speak in defense of that world than commit myself to orthodoxy in matters of politics.

Plus, I will do the same to the Republicans when the Republican convention is over – showing why, even after acknowledging some significant Democratic Party failings, they are still better than the Republicans (for now). So, you’ll have something to look forward to.

I think that the most significant area in which the Democratic Party will fail us is in the area of education. They are committed to a form of education that has seen virtually no innovation over the past 200 years, where we seem to be spending more and more money to get less and less. The way out of this trap is a policy which Democrats tend to vehemently oppose . . . the policy of ‘school choice’.

The problems that we have had in public education are very much like the problems we had with respect to a public post office. The government set up the post office as a (virtual) government monopoly. One of the consequences of this was stagnation. The Post Office never came up with a single innovation in the realm of communication. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television, email, and the internet all came from elsewhere. All of them resulted in tremendous leaps in communication technology. And through it all, what we got from the Post Office was a continual set of demands that the government put up barriers wherever possible against whatever might threaten its existence.

Certainly, the Post Office adopted a few innovations. They moved from ponies to trucks, then to airplanes. They invented the ZIP Code, and adopted OCR technology and bar scanners as a way to help sort the mail. However, these were variations on a theme. None of these were new themes.

By now, I have almost entirely opted out of the “post office” system. I do not think that I have purchased a stamp in over 5 years, and almost everything that I pull out of my mailbox (when I check my mail) goes into the garbage. It’s a waste of time, energy, and paper.

What we see in the public education system is substantially the same problem. We see an institution that has not produced a single piece of innovation over the past 200 years, which still does things in substantially the same way as our great^8 grandparents, demanding that the government take measures to ensure that nothing happens that might threaten their viability Specifically, they demand that the government do what it can to deny potential customers a choice of whether to use their service, or to opt out.

We even hear the same arguments in these two cases.

The defenders of the Post Office would protest that if people had a choice as regarding methods of communication, that private industry would take away the most profitable options, leaving the Post Office with all of the inefficient and expensive jobs to do. Specifically, a private post office would lower the price of in-city mail (where economies of scale allow for economic efficiencies), but raise the price of rural mail, creating a rural stamp that would be many times more expensive than a city stamp.

To prevent this dreadful state of affairs from coming about, it was considered essential that we lock ourselves into a form of communication that would not change over 200 years, while the rest of the world sped by with new technologies. Until, finally, email and the web came along, and the Post Office could no longer hold back the tide.

However, innovation became possible simply because the Post Office could not eliminate all possible alternatives to its service. Email snuck in through the gaps in the Post Office conceptual radar, and was far too efficient for the Post Office to contain once it got out and started being used.

Similarly, in the area of school choice, we hear the argument that if people had school choice then the ‘best students’ would go elsewhere, leaving the public schools to take care of those who were particularly hard to educate for any number of reasons, from mental and physical handicaps to poor home environment.

Again, the result is that there has been as little innovation in the way we educate our children as there has been in the way we deliver mail. We are stuck using the same old systems.

The thing is, if we could restore innovation, some of that innovation would be put to work on the very “problem cases” that those who defend the status quo claim to be worried about. In communication, the innovations of the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the internet have reached and have benefitted a substantial portion of the rural community. Methods of communication have been invented that can broadcast information to rural areas almost as cheaply as it can transmit information within a city.

In fact, helping those who are “problem cases” is one of the areas where we are most in need of innovation – for their sake. So, it would be ironic to use them as an excuse for policies that stifle innovation.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe why innovations in education will not include methods of innovation that we can then apply to “problem cases” – giving even them a much better education than they get from us pursuing the same methods decade after decade after decade.

The key to innovation is to give people a choice. The key is to let people take their portion of the education budget (the amount of money that would be spent to educate their child) and tell the parents, “Okay, you have the freedom to look at alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar method of education.”

Another concern with school choice is that some people will not choose wisely. They will choose to mis-educate their children in myths and fairy tales that have no relationship to reality. In the extreme case, we may worry about people setting up versions of the Pakistani ‘madras’ – a school where nothing is taught but holy scripture, and that is taught in a way that makes the student a threat to the well-being of others.

These are legitimate concerns, but the concern does not carry very far. In effect, this argument states, “If we give a person a choice between A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, then some of them may choose J. J is a horrible choice. Therefore, we must compel everybody to choose A.”

Clearly the argument is not valid. It is possible to prohibit option J while still permitting options B through I. This type of argument is too often advanced by people who have strong reason to ban competition to option A, and they are using this piece of sophistry employing option J as a scapegoat.

Besides, among the community of non-believers, I think we are very much in need of schools where a child can go where they are not harmed by rituals that daily declare non-belief the patriotic equivalent of rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. They can benefit from a school that does not post signs that tell them, “If you do not trust in God, then we do not consider you one of us.” They can attend a biology class where the teacher is not the least bit nervous about saying, “Today, we will start discussing the theory of evolution.” A school where the history teacher is not trying to teach the literal truth of the Bible or that America is a ‘Christian Nation’. A school where the English teacher is not suspiciously keeping an eye on the atheist in the fourth row because, “We all know what kind of people those atheists are. They have no morals.” A school that teaches logic, where a Sophomore is expected to know the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning and can identify thirty informal fallacies.

There has to be a market for at least one school like this in every major city.

An argument for school choice will allow the possibility that these will be among the schools that a school choice initiative would support. If this type of school is truly a school of quality (as I expect it would be), the success of students who go to those schools would be a great inducement to others to seek the same type of education for their own children.

Anybody with a better idea should never be worried about a bit of competition.


Anonymous said...

I've been of a split mind on this issue myself for quite a while now. On the one hand, I see your point. On the other hand, we don't allow people to opt out of any other type of tax if they don't use the service offered. I, for example, am metro to the soul (pardon the expression) and don't care much about national parks or farm subsidies, yet I cannot opt out of them. I doubt I will ever have children, yet I must subsidize the education of other's children, and the tax-breaks that go along with breeding. I plan to work until I die (I can't imagine life without employment.... /shudder), yet I still pay my Social Security taxes.

In all honestly, I don't really have a problem with this. I understand that there are greater social goods at stake, and I have no problem supporting thim with a small percentage of my earnings. But why should parents who wish for a non-standard education be able to opt out of the educational taxes? I can't opt out, since I have no children. And no one could opt out of subsidizing the postal service. What makes parents of school-aged children so privledged? Don't they have privledges enough, what with the tax breaks and the social respect?

Anonymous said...

Just in case I came off sounding miserly, I want to reiterate I actually think that subsidising national parks, and the education of the next generation, and the welfare of old people, are very good things. I don't have much use for money, and I feel good that a portion if it is going to good works such as these. :)

I just don't understand what makes people who want to opt out of public education so much more special than everyone else.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You need not think of this in terms of opting out of anything.

Everybody pays their taxes. But the parents get to choose (within limits) what services they buy.

It's the same with the GI Bill. You pay your taxes. The taxes go to pay for the college education of soldiers. But the soldiers get to choose the school (and the major).

Or some plans of health insurance. You pay your taxes. The taxes go to subsidize health insurance. But the individual gets to determine which health insurance coverage to buy.

In this case, you pay your taxes. The taxes go to subsidize education. But the parents pick the school.

And I have no children either . . . never will have any. But, I recognize that it is better to live in a more highly educated community than a community of idiots. So, I'm more than happy to finance education, as long as the money is actually going towards getting people educated.

Anonymous said...

I have rarely read a post that I agree with as much as the original post.

I used to be very much pro-public schools---until I had kids and encountered the mediocrity and resistance to change that you describe.

I used to be anti-voucher, anti-school choice, until I realized that, if faithheads can operate schools and graduate smart kids (except for their fairy tale indoctrination---and even then, it seems that many adult atheists are former Catholic school students), then why aren't atheists doing likewise? The answer: most of my fellow atheists are either weenies who stay in the closet, don't have kids (and don't care), or are lazy
and don't want to make the effort and spend the money that private-school parents are willing to do....or a combination of those factors.

Our current local school system, where we have lived for the past 9 years gets wonderful test scores. Yet very few kids graduate with interests in science and math. Those kids who go on to Ivy League and other highly competitive schools usually do so because of some outstanding ATHLETIC ability, NOT because they are truly stellar SCHOLARS.

My own oldest daughter is now studying....ta-da....EDUCATION. (I'm trying to persuade her to at least focus on research into CHANGING the system, and I think she understands the problems.) She sort of resents going through 13 years of public education and graduating without a real PASSION for any subject area.

She might be someone who becomes nationally known for trying to change the system (her interest is in early intervention, special ed, etc.). Or she might just fall into
the 3-month-vacation, "sick" on Fridays and Mondays, go-on-strike-about-pay-but-not-about-academics cesspool that is the current state of union-protected education.

Believe it or not, I consider myself a liberal, and I want to post more about this later, and comment on eneasz, too, but I've gotta get some other stuff done this morning.

Let's keep up this discussion and try to draw others here from various atheist sites. I will do my best to do that, but not until a bit later.

Great topic, Alonzo.

anton said...


Great points! Eneasz and others with similar attitudes represent the "ignorant majority" who think that since they can't see any direct benefit to them, they shouldn't have to pay. The literary phrase is "they can't see beyond their noses!"

They would be the first to complain about the shortage of nurses and doctors, the quality of their food, their access to data (including the internet), etc. etc. but would not see the need to educate the young people to continue to develop and innovate in these areas, or simply to sustain and maintain them at least to the level of quality he/she has come to expect.

Or is his theory one of "let the other countries do the educating. US America will just import the best from the other countries?"

Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate in the Western world. It is also in the top three of educated nations in the world. It achieved this by "raising taxes" and cutting post-secondary fees in half. It is a "happy" nation. It enjoys a success that all of its citizens paid for, and can enjoy!

In Canada, we are trying to stop the "brain drain" to US America -- so far without success. What if we, and the rest of the world, are successful in stopping our dollars go to the US in the form of our educated young people? US America would still enjoy some progress but I challenge eneasz to envision US America without the contributions of foreign educated citizens. The "rest of the world" may be anxious to get to US America because that is where the bucks are to pay them. They, too, share eneasz's selfish attitude. US America's people as a whole, rank 20th or worse in the world in education, and it is getting worse!

You don't improve that statistic unless everyone pays their share, and everyone is active in making certain that the dollars are well spent. Instead, a large segment doesn't even want to spend the dollars!

Anonymous said...

Having seen how choice has operated in schools in the UK, I really have to disagree!

Choice can be a powerful tool, but only if the reasons for the choice are directly linked to the quality of the product. If not, distortions arise - e.g. because shoppers only see, but can't taste, the products they buy, their choices lead to them being offered shiny but tasteless fruit.

With education, the problem is the basis on which parents choose a school - it's hard to measure something as intangible as a good education, so they tend to look at exam results etc. Thus incentivising schools to produce good exam results through cramming rather than good education. It also incentivises schools to be selective in their intake.

So the less bright, or less-parentally-supported kids end up in dead end, failing schools that aren't getting any money because nobody wants to go there. And the brighter ones end up being crammed, told to take easier subjects to get better grades.

And if, as in the UK, you have a government that encourages entrepreneurs to run schools in the name of innovation (ignoring their often dodgy religious backgrounds) and I think there are some serious problems with the approach you outline.

It's hard to argue against choice, which is generally seen as a Good Thing, but it's important to ensure that the choice is a) meaningful, and b) available to all.

What is the solution? I don't have a complete answer, but in the interests of not being entirely negative, here are some suggestions. Focussing on value added rather than end product. Finding ways to reward teachers who are excellent because they inspire, not because they get good results, reducing testing, banning state-supported faith schools, finding some way to customise difficulty and stretch levels for each student.

Sheldon said...

"Great points! Eneasz and others with similar attitudes represent the "ignorant majority" who think that since they can't see any direct benefit to them, they shouldn't have to pay."

I am sure that eneasz can defend himself, but in case he doesn't return, I would like to point out that he doesn't say anything close to what you attribute to him. Just the opposite in fact.

On another note. I am wondering if there is a false dictotomy assumed between school choice and public education. Are we wrongly assuming that school choice neccessarily implies privitization?

So, for example can the buerucratic (sp?) structures of public school districts be loosened up a bit so that new approaches, schools, and innovations can be developed, but still remain in the realm of publicly funded and controlled institutions? After all, aren't alot of what are referred to as "Charter Schools", still public schools?

And lets not be so quik to blame the teacher's unions. Although it is a popular talking point often coming from the right, I don't think it very true that they are the primary stiflers of innovation.

Lets also be congnizant of the fact that in the name of school accountability, many teachers in public schools must place alot of time and emphasis on teaching to the yearly statewide assessment exams. How exactly does this encourage innovation? And schools that do poorly are then punished with less allocated resources. Often the ones who already had less resources.

I was a teacher myself for two years in an inner city schools. I entered through a "teacher in residence" program because I speak Spanish. I was constantly trying to come up with things to engage students, to be innovative. And it was never the union that was standing in my way.

Alot of the problems I had was simply with the issues of access to materials and resources. And we might also note that school district funding is based on the local tax base. So wealthy districts have much more resources than those of less economic affluence.

And then there are some of the parents.... but I won't get into that right now.

And FYI eneasz. Sorry, off topic. I now work for the National Park Service, and they hardly get anything that they don't generate from their own fees. Their infrastructure is pretty much falling apart.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is hard to make an argument against school choice on the grounds that the people making the choice are incapable of choosing wisely. Those same people are the people who are responsible for choosing members of the school board and for choosing school policies in public schools.

I have mentioned how public schools stifle choice. One of the ways it does so is that, in the public arena, you have to get 51% of the public to try something new before they will try it. Ther result is zero change (or lmost zero change) over time. Which is pretty much what we have seen in education over the past 200 years.

It is simply prohibitively expensive to try to convince 51% of the population to try something new.

In an arena of school choice, you simply need to convince enough people to create a viable project.

Results are hard to measure, and tests tend to be unreliable. These are both true. But it is a fallacy to say, "We cannot measure the difference between A and B and C; therefore, A is better than B or C." Difficulties in measurement is not an argument for or against any given option.

We do need better tools - this is one of the areas in which we need innovation. However, working to improve systems of measurement is much better than giving up and going with the status quo for no reason other than it is the status quo.

I also agree that there needs to be some filter on available options - just like I said in the post. There will inevitably be debate over what options should not be available. Yet, again, the fact that there is a gray area that will create policy debates within a population is not an argument for the status quo. That, too, is an option that generates a policy debate within a population.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There never is a clear line between 'public' and 'private'. Private organizations face a ton of regulations on what they can and cannot do and, to that degree, are still 'government controlled' to some degree.

Plus, the system that I described is still government funded. It simply opens up the set of options as to where the government funding will be permitted to go, and who is empowered to direct that flow of funds (giving more power to parents and less power to bureaucrats).

In my post, I did not mention 'yearly statewide assessment exams.' Every institution that attempts to measure performance in every field, public and private, from employee reviews to business reports to battlefield assessments, has to deal with the fact that people will perform to the test. So, we need to be careful in determining what we test.

More importantly, there is no valid argument to be made that starts with the premise, "It is difficult to make measurements so that we cannot know which option is best" to any concrete conclusion about what we should or should not do. This is the argument from ignorance fallacy. If it is difficult to determine the difference between two options, then why not make both options available? If we can measure the difference, then let's do so and rid ourselves of the worst option.

anton said...


Thank you for pointing out my error. Yes, eneasz didn't say what I thought he did and I apologize for my comments being directed at him. I do, however, believe that they could be pointed at a large percentage of the US American, and Canadian, complaining taxpayers. I, too, am an ex-teacher and my lament was that half the kids in my class should have never made it out of high school. In fact, many of them should never have made it into high school. Most of our education system is playing a "numbers game" that satisfies the "needs" of the players before it even addresses the "needs" of society. Since these "players" have the "podium", they can redirect any criticisms as they want. While I am at it, our problems were not only with the students. Many of our college teacher associates received their qualifications from the very systems of which we are talking. They achieved the marks necessary for a teaching career, but if "eduction" was a business, these types would only get jobs sweeping floors. They, too, play the numbers game and often end up in administrative positions and really make life hell for anyone NOT playing the game. For example, I was called up on the carpet more than once because my marking didn't result in a "proper" bell curve. That, my friend, was ridiculous and the major reason why I got of teaching! According to them, I wasn't a good teacher if my efforts didn't create a good "bell curve" even though my course was "filled" with students who would have never qualified for the course, but "filling" my class meant $3,500 per student from our province. In addition, edication of my authentic students was severly compromised by the presence of the "idiots".

Matt M said...


Isn't there a risk that school choice would reinforce segregation: Christians sending their kids to Christian schools, Muslims sending their kids to Muslim schools, atheists sending their kids to atheist schools, etc.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


We have a public education system that must please everyone. This means that you start with a set of things that you want to tell students, then you cut out anything that some section of the population might have a problem with.

The result is that there is nothing left.

School choice says, I don't have to please everyone. I just need to please some resonably large segment of the population.

So, not wanting to award grades on a curve would not mean dropping out of teaching. It would only mean finding a (type of) school that will allow you to teach the way you think would be best.

No "one size fits all" nonsense.

anton said...


"So, not wanting to award grades on a curves would not mean dropping of teaching."

If you are referring to my comment, you are missing the point I made that the majority of my students "didn't qualify for the course". In the early ears of the Community College system in Ontario, we were expected to create "graduates" out of any bodies that could "warm the seats".

If the educational system I was working in demanded that the entry requirements had to be met, then a bell curve would be appropriate. If you are teaching English and your students persisted in using adjectives where adverbs were required, a responsible teacher would give them a failing mark. When the administration insists that a student shouldn't be penalized because he doesn't know the difference between an adjective and an adverb, I would suggest that their are other agendas in play.

In my case, I went back to the business world, at more than 10 times the income. My original altruistism to give something back and "teach in a college" after a successful career was sadly misplaced. To suggest that I may have stuck it out by finding another school in which to practice my trade sounds good if it was the only thing I had to do with my life. At the time, all of our colleges were engaged in the numbers game and I chose not to play the game.

How many teachers out there in the blogosphere have been burdened with students who don't qualify for your course? It is somewhat like the Grade Six teacher who is burdened with the Grade Five graduates who, for one reason or another, failed to accomplish the requirements of the curriculum . . . but were passed along anyway! In order to teach Grade Six you have to first teach Grade Five.

Later in my life, I tried again, only at a University. Only one of my students had the required credentials to take my course! However, they all expected to pass the course. It was truly a waste of time!

Sheldon said...


Outside of the system you may describe, which may be different from actual practice. Don't most school voucher progams that flow to private schools also exempt those schools from the standardized state assessments?

I know that you did not actually address these state exams. I was just throwing that into the mix for consideration. Teachers do complain that the current fad of these statewide assessments curtail their ability to do creative teaching. And I was not neccessarily saying that we don't need to have those exams to make those measurements, but only suggesting that they haven't contributed much to innovation.

anton said...


School choice says, I don't have to please everyone. I just need to please some reasonably large segment of the population.

I totally agree with you.

Given US America's education ranking (which I hasten to add that nobody seems to want to comment on), could it be that the numbers players have high jacked your educational system just like religion has high jacked morality?

When you have a significant portion of your society insisting that the world is only 6,000 years old (along with other ignorant beliefs), what chance do their kids have of getting an "honest" education? If we let them establish their own schooling systems, they are perpetuating the ignorance to the point that they can elect a president!

If US America was not so obsessed with believing its own hype, it would be concerned with its world education ranking. And, US America does not get off the hook by blaming their low scores on "illegal aliens"!

Freedom of choice is only a temporary solution for a problem with serious implications. I repeat, how many US Americans want to accept the "Republic of Ireland" approach.

Perhaps the "rallying cry" should be "We demand our rights to be properly educated!" followed by a declaration that "We accept that as day-time baby-sitters, you can spank my child when he misbehaves!!!!"

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not think that I missed your point. You want to teach in a particular kind of environment - one in which the students come to our course at point A, and leave at point B. But you get students who are not at point A.

So, what is wrong with having a teacher who says, "If you come to me with these qualities, I will then teach you X?"

As far as I see, nothing is wrong with it. And those students who do not qualify . . . well, they should try something they do qualify for.

If you think that you have something to offer perspective students, then offer it, and those who want to take it can take advantage of the government education budget to help pay for it.

anton said...


I don't know what kind of educational system you are used to but in the ones with which I have been involved, you had to teach a course of study. Society expected that a degree meant something. There were "curriculum descriptions" for which students DID qualify. If I were to teach "two" courses of study, or even "three", my effectiveness would be substantially depleted. I was "hired" to teach a college subject for which minimum skills and talents were required. How would you like it if your college class time was compromised by the class being required to "listen in" on other students getting lessons for what they should have learned in Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12?

Also, I am not familiar with the number of class room hours a US college "teacher" is required to teach. My college system expected us to spend 25 to 35 hours per week in the classroom. And then, we had to prepare the lessons, mark papers and perform "community" services.

If you are hired by an airline as an engine specialist, I don't think they would pay you to clean out the cabins because you are really not qualified to work on engines! If you have a degree from a College in aircraft maintenance, an airline expects you to be able to fix the engines! Our comment was "if our students were airplanes, would we want to fly one!"

My solution was not to abandon my students. I divided them into two groups -- the ones who were qualified and wanted to make a career of my subject -- and the ones who were just looking for a credit. The latter group were "our" gophers. They all got the minimum passing grade. With only two exceptions, they understood and accepted that we couldn't waste our time on them.

One of our colleges did the "X" thing when they dumbed down one of their courses. The only client for their services was the same Provincial Government that employed us. The Province wouldn't hire any of the graduates. They couldn't meet the standards required to do the job.

Teaching "X" instead of "A" to "B" may be why US America is 20th in the world in education.

Like I said in an earlier comment, as long as you keep coddling kids in the elementary schools, you will end up with my other comment . . . US America will continue to require foreign educated people to fill the jobs demanding a real education.

Anonymous said...

Sheldon - I was away over the weekend, and I'm catching up now. Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I'm a bit confused over this issue regarding school choice. At what point in time have we not had a choice in where to send our kids to school? There are public schools and there are private schools and have been for as long as I can remember. Jefferson set up the public school system. It's been around for a long time, but it's never been the only option for an education.

Growing up in the Chicago area, I attended public schools. Some of my friends attended St.Bernerdine Catholic school. Some St. John Lutheran School. Some attended private school non-denominational prep school. Some went to military schools. Same thing throughout high school, and of course college as well. It wasn't unique to the Chicago area. You could very easily opt out of the public school system and send your kid to a private school.

The choice has always been there. If people aren't happy with the public schools, they can certainly send their kids to a private school. Today they can home school. In fact scholarships are available to families that need assistance to private schools. I hear this noise about school choice, and I don't understand the complaint. If you don't like the schools that are provided to you for a free education, then what is stopping you from paying to get what you want? Everything of value comes with some kind of cost. In general you get what you pay for.

I would like to see more course offerings made available, and some required as mandatory, such as logic, and ethics and critical thinking. I was in one of the pilot courses in my high school ( a Humanities course )that was later used as the model for similar courses throughout the country. It was probably the first AP college course. My same high school was the first school to offer computer courses in the country as a test model. That was in the 60's. That same high school offered German, French, Russian, Spanish, Latin as languages and a couple of other high schools offered Japanese and Chinese as well. My high school also offered courses in vocational studies such as auto shop, wood shop, drafting.

The only issue I have with the public schools is that they don't offer enough courses that address critical thinking skills, basic logic, and ethics.