Normally I’m a big fan of Dan Willingham’s ideas but he does have some blind spots. In particular, Dan seems to miss the point on school choice. His argument is that for school choice to work, parents have to be rational in making choices:
The logic of school choice seems obvious. If parents selected their children’s schools, they would not choose bad ones, so bad schools would not be able to survive. Schools would have to improve or close, just as a store that offers poor service will lose business to a store that offers better service.
Here’s my problem with that logic: I think it’s highly likely that many parents will choose bad schools.
People often make irrational decisions.
Dan is mistaken in that choice does not require perfect rationality on the part of parents. All that it required is that parents, on average, will do better at picking schools for their children than the bureaucrats who design schools and compell children to attend those schools.
We all understand that human beings are imperfect and often make mistakes. Even all of the research on systematic irrationality produces results that are familiar to most people. The point is that the distant bureaucrat who assigns students to schools controlled by the bureaucrat also suffers from all of these same human foibles.
Nor can we simply assume that the distant bureaucrat will be focused on academic quality more than parents are. The distant bureaucrat, even more than parents, has interests that distract from the focus on academic quality. For example, the bureaucrat might be more concerned about protecting the jobs and incomes of the adults working in schools because those people influence the bureaucrat’s own job status and income. Just consider whether superintendents are free to do whatever works for kids regardless of the effect on adults working in the schools.
Some might counter that at least the bureaucrats are highly-trained and have access to a lot of information, while parents lack the expertise and information necessary to assess academic quality. If we really believed this made the bureaucrats superior at making educational choices, we should ask ourselves: why do we let people vote?
Rather than have individuals make choices about their leaders and policies, shouldn’t we let highly trained experts with superior access to information select our leaders for us? Regular people may be prone to systematic irrationality when they vote. In fact, there is a lot of research to support such a conclusion. For example, people are more likely to vote for more attractive candidates. Why should people be allowed to vote when: “it’s highly likely that many [voters] will choose bad [candidates]? ”
Of course, the reason why we have democracy despite our awareness of human irrationality is the same reason why we should have schools choice: on average, people are better at making decisions that affect their own interests than are others. Even poorly-educated people lacking information are likely to have more knowledge of their interests and how to pursue them than are others making decisions on their behalf.