Just a Mint? One Mint?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Great news! Our schools are saved.

Billionaire Eli Broad is spending $44 million to start up a new Harvard center to figure out what’s wrong with public schools.

That’s right; the first $500 billion a year we spend on K-12 education didn’t do the job, but spending another $44 million (not per year but only once) will put us over the top.

Just like that after-dinner mint in the Monty Python sketch, I guess.

Larry Summers will head the center’s board. The Wall Street Journal reports that Summers was asked whether opening the new center was a rebuke to all the other education research centers which have been doing exactly the same thing for decades and have produced no tangible improvements in education to show for it.

Summers replied: “It’s not a rebuke to any individual.”

With respect to the fine people who work at these cushy “education laboratories,” the real education laboratories are the private and charter schools taking advantage of school choice programs to experiment with new approaches to education.

Milton Friedman always used to comment that education is the only thing we still do the same way we did it 100 years ago. Innovation in education has been stifled not because we lack comfortably endowed research centers but because education is controlled by a government monopoly. He would go on to comment that the real innovation in education won’t come until school choice programs are expanded to include all students – because only with universal choice will you get a more robust market that will produce bigger innovations. And once free-market schools begin discovering better educational techniques, others can copy them. Doctors improve care by copying other doctors who devise new and better treatments – and it’s not the doctors who work for the free, government-issue providers who devise new and better treatments, but the doctors who serve the middle and upper classes and have the opportunity to make more money if they provide better treatment.

The best thing we can do for the education of the poor, Milton would conclude, is to extend school choice to the middle class. Schools for the poor can’t improve service until the education sector as a whole figures out how to improve service, and that isn’t going to happen without a universal market.

4 Responses to Just a Mint? One Mint?

  1. Milton Friedman said that a program for the poor only is a poor program. I like to ask supporters of the current State-monopoly system two questions:
    1. What Math should eighth-graders study?
    2. What Math should my neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter study?

    It helps to ask these questions perhaps 15 minutes apart in the conversation. The result indicates a problem with popular opinion. Many people accept the invitation to prescribe for an undifferentiated mass of students, but will request details before addressing the specific case. Why? That undifferentiated mass is composed of 5 million or so specific cases.

    “All rock music sounds the same”, to people unfamiliar with rock. Similarly, “all classical music sounds the same”, to people unfamiliar with classical music. “Vivaldi wrote one concerto, 100 times”. “All orientals look alike”. People find it easy to compose generalizations in the absence of details. Perhaps the common willingness to prescribe the curriculum for others follows from this…sloth(?)…combined with indulgence in the cheap power fantasy of ordering society.

    Terry Moe wrote a book on popular attitudes toward vouchers, which I just started reading. He notes that vouchers succeeded where market advocates (“ideologues”) allied with poor and minority parents, whose children receive wretched services from the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s schools (the “public” schools). Practical politics may require that voucher legislation initially support escape options from the worst schools only, but it should have expansion built into it. The public ideological contest cannot be avoided. Voucher advocates cannot hope to fool the NEA; they calculate their interests farther ahead than does the public mind.

    http://thecurrent.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/09/not-buying-it.

  2. Sorry for the distracting link. I was saving that for an e-mail and needed to copy and paste in my comment, so I stored the link at the bopttom and forgot to delete it.

  3. I have a chapter in Rick Hess’ edited book, “With the Best of Intentions,” that documents how small education philanthropy is relative to government spending and how few of those private donations are designed to make a systemic difference. I liken them to pouring buckets into the sea.

    See http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.839/book_detail.asp .

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Well, to be fair, I may have been a little too sarcastic (snarky?) when this news item arrived in my inbox. The headlines emphasized $44 million as though it were a big number, and I was reacting against that.

    In that same book chapter, Jay, you argue that money spent on “leveraged” reform efforts is the way to go – by which you meant programs that seek to affect public policy debate and decisionmaking. If done right, this new center would fall into the category of “leveraged” reform efforts.

    I’m just skeptical because it’s very difficult to do this sort of “leveraging” right, and previous centers along this sort of model have thought that they could just “find what works” and publicize it and that would be all they’d have to do.

    But maybe this center will do better. I just didn’t see anything in the publicity that indicated this was going to be significantly different from previous efforts, and I thought it was priceless that somebody (the WSJ reporter, perhaps?) thought to ask Larry Summers about that – and that he gave this carefully worded response.

    And then there’s the problem that they’re locating the center at Harvard . . .

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