(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Matthew Miller’s book The 2% Solution utilizes the philosophy of John Rawls to make the case for parental choice in education. I’m more of a Nozick guy myself, but let’s follow the Rawls rabbit-hole down to the bottom.
John Rawls’ hugely influential work A Theory of Justice argued that societal ethics ought to be decided as if we were behind a theoretical “veil of ignorance.” Behind the veil, no one would be aware of what his or her position would be in a forthcoming society. You would not know whether you would grow up the child of a billionaire or poor in the inner city. The veil creates an incentive to leave a path out of the latter scenario. While many contest Rawls’ philosophy, it is hugely influential in left of center thinking. Does today’s system of public education remotely approach the Rawlsian ideal?
No, not even close. In fact, today’s public education system closely resembles the opposite. Today’s system systematically disadvantages the poor.
Consider the expanding body of research on teacher quality. Researchers have shown that the effectiveness of individual teachers plays a huge role in student learning gains. Examining test scores on a value added basis (year-to-year gains) has revealed that some teachers are hugely effective, while others are much less so.
What we have not had before is quantifiable evidence regarding just how important high quality teachers are in driving outcomes. Researchers examined the differences between teachers succeeding in adding value (the top 20% of teachers) and the least successful teachers (the bottom 20%). A student learning from a low quality teacher learns fifty percent less than a similar student learning from an effective teacher during the same period.
The question then quickly becomes: how do we get more teachers that are effective into the classroom? Only by making big systemic changes. Teaching is a profession with many rewards, but which has been tragically divorced from any recognition of merit. The teacher who works effectively and tirelessly is paid according to a salary schedule that will treat them identically to someone who does neither.
Job security and summers off are not big lures for the capable and ambitious sorts of people we need to attract into teaching in droves. To be sure, we have such people in our teaching ranks now, but the system treats them poorly. Our public schools do not pay them according to productivity- no rewards for success, no sanctions for failure. In short, we treat teachers not as professionals, but as unionized factory workers.
Most of our capable teachers will leave the profession frustrated, or go into administration. Those that we do keep in the classroom cluster in leafy suburbs far from the children who need them most.
What does the public system do for those children losing the Rawls lottery, who find themselves growing up in poor urban school districts? All too often, it assigns them to schools with decades long histories of academic failure. These children will serially suffer ineffective instructors.
Frighteningly high percentages of these students will never learn to read at a developmentally appropriate age. Many will never learn to read. Such students fall further and further behind each year. Unable to read their textbooks, never envisioning themselves advancing on to higher education, they will begin to dropout in large numbers in late middle school.
Fortunately, it is not hard to envision a better system. Public schools today are spending beyond the dreams of avarice for administrators from previous decades. We simply need to get a much better bang for our buck. A captive audience of students sponsors and promotes adult dysfunction in our schools. We should radically expand parental choice options for parents, especially for those for disadvantaged students.
More broadly, our students desperately need a complete overhaul of the entire system of human resource development and compensation for teachers. The system we have today largely reflects the preferences of the education unions. The education unions oppose parental choice, merit pay for teachers, alternative certification or differential pay based on teacher shortages. All of these positions are rational for a union boss, but detrimental to children.Progressives have traditional ties with organized labor, including the education unions. This marriage will not last.
Ask yourself if you would risk today’s education system from behind Rawls’ veil. There’s a good chance of being forced to go to school in the Dallas, DC, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark or the_________ (fill in the blank with the closest large city) inner city public schools.
That sickening feeling in your stomach is telling you that those schools would not equip you with the skills you need to succeed in life. Rawls would say if those schools are not suitable for you in theory, then they are not suitable for inner city children in practice. Liberals should work closely with the education reform community in order to secure equality of opportunity for all children. Progressives can either have progress, or they can have an alliance with educational reactionaries, but they cannot have both.