Rational Optimism on K-12 Reform

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist powerfully makes the case that market exchange is the driving force of human progress. Starting his argument in the far gone reaches of prehistory, Ridley builds a persuasive case that so long as people are out there developing new products and services, grinding on problems, that the human condition continues to improve. Government can certainly do things to speed things along (by perserving property rights) or slow things down in a variety of idiotic ways, but progress has proven to be robust in liberal market based societies. For instance, despite the collapse of a market bubble, horrible policy decisions by the Federal Reserve, Hoover starting a global trade war, too many policy mistakes by the Roosevelt administration to count and the onset of a World War, the average American was still better off in material terms in 1939 than they had been in 1929.

The reason why was simple- through all of the turmoil, there were still people out to make a buck grinding on problems. Technology continued to evolve and improve despite bipartisan political blunders of truly epic scale. Along the way, Ridley helpfully demolishes the conservative meta-narrative of decline from an imagined lost golden age. We live in an age of wonders compared to that of our ancestors. The problems we face are largely either overblown (global warming) or else getting substantially better at an unprecedented pace (global poverty).

Ridley’s journey through history and prehistory imparts a perspective on our struggles over education reform. Progress occurs in unpredictable ways and at its own pace. The key in the long run is to have a large group of people grinding away on a problem. Along the way, there are innumerable failures and false starts, but as long as people are out there trying to build a better product, sooner or later, they succeed and establish the next baseline for the next innovation.

In a primordial JPGB post in 2008, I wrote:

Our students need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success and either improves or eliminates failure. This has been sorely lacking in the past, and will be increasingly beneficial in the future. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status-quo.

New technologies and practices, self-paced instruction and data-based merit pay for instructors, may hold enormous promise. Before the current era of choice based reforms, they didn’t fit the 19th Century/unionized model of schooling, so they weren’t seriously attempted. Bypassing bureaucracy, a new generation has begun to offer their innovative schools directly to parents. Some have already succeeded brilliantly. Some states have been much keener than others to allow this process. Expect the laggards to fall in line eventually. We can hardly continue to cower in fear that someone somewhere might open a bad school when, in reality, we are surrounded by them now.

A market system will embrace and replicate reforms which work, and discard those that fail to produce. A top-down political system has failed to perform this task. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed miserably, however, a market of parents pursuing the interests of their children will succeed in driving progress.

This process is underway but it is proceeding at a maddeningly gradual pace, from the perspective of an individual lifetime. Some problems take more than a lifetime to solve. Consider the struggle to end slavery and provide equal rights for African Americans. Lyndon Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights Act came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed over a period of centuries.

Milton Friedman, the originator of harnessing the power of markets to improve education, lived to see only the faint outline of his vision come into practice. Incremental victories such as lifting charter school caps and creating new voucher and tax credit programs are hard fought and to be celebrated, but in the long run the important thing is that we now have people working on new school models and the delivery mechanisms to allow educators to build them and parents to choose them for their children.

It took the charter school movement 20 years to come up with the idea of hybrid education. It’s no accident that it happened out among the charters. Both districts and pre-existing private schools suffer from far too much “that’s not how we do things around here” inertia. Jay covered this quite well-philanthropists should build new, don’t reform old.Hybrid learning may prove to be the next big thing, or something else might. As long as people are trying to build a better mousetrap and have the means to get it into the market, our future will be brighter than our present.

14 Responses to Rational Optimism on K-12 Reform

  1. Greg Forster says:

    This is a great point, but may I offer one disagreement and one semantic quibble?

    1) Self-interest is not the primary driver of this process. For most of your post you stick to describing entrepreneurs as people who are working hard to invent better solutions. However, when you first introduce the main point you describe them as “people out to make a buck grinding on problems.” But very few entrepreneurs, and almost none of the highly successful ones, are strongly motivated by money. The drive to invent the new thing and see it get out there in the world and have a positive impact is its own reward. The people who are highly motivated by their own gain are primarily the unproductive people. This point is of much more importance than most people realize.

    2) I really do wish we would stop saying “market” so much.

    • Minnesota Kid says:

      Hey, Greg:

      Market, market, market, market, market, market, market, market!


      • Greg Forster says:

        Hey, that’s another promising approach! Say it so many times that it degenerates into a nonsense word, just a meaningless noise we all make and no one really hears it.

    • Daniel Earley says:

      I believe you’re right, Greg that self-interest is not the primary driver for the better entrepreneurs. Both Carpe Diem and Cristo-Rey come to mind, but they also underscore the radically diverse potential solutions for niche markets, each potentially even quite scalable. But alas, there’s the M word again, which I also agree rubs the public badly at least half of the time at this early stage of the evolution of school choice. I do like Matt’s point though, that there’s abundant reason for optimism when looking at the big picture, as long as that view doesn’t foster complacency and dampen the intensity of our individual efforts along the way.

      I suspect that in the information age we are entering, that the landscape (a more palatable word than marketplace?) may evolve to a point within a generation from now in which entrepreneurs of all stripes, for profit and non-profit, will be more attuned and effective at shaking up the terrain with highly visible and parent-scrutinized innovations.

    • Matthew Ladner says:


      I am sure you are right about entrepreneurs, but let’s not forget the financiers and venture capitalists. They play a vital role in bringing new products and services to market, and they are motivated by profit, and perhaps other things.

      I do take your point however that the word “market” carries significant baggage for many people. Ridley in fact seems to prefer to use the term “exchange.”

      • Greg Forster says:

        I’d guess even the venture capitalists and financiers are not primarily motivated by money. They place a high value on returns, but then, they’re people who know that an enterprise that doesn’t produce returns can’t thrive in the long run. So how do you tell how much of their emphasis on returns is self-directed and how much is other-directed – concerned for the success of the enterprise rather than their own personal success? Is that even a meaningful line to draw?

        However you answer those questions, the larger point is that in the long run it’s the other-directed motivation that keeps these people doing the productive but arduous work of making venture investments rather than, say, playing the derivatives markets – which is unproductive, but more conducive to the self-directed lifestyle toward which self-directed people will naturally gravitate.

        It’s worth noticing that Ayn Rand has almost no fans among real entrepreneurs – the “productive class” whom she obsessively idolized, and therefore radically misunderstood (no one misunderstands a thing more totally than the person who idolizes it). The Rand fans tend to be clustered among the unproductive, irresponsible playboys of Wall Street who think they’re part of the productive class but really aren’t.

      • Daniel Earley says:

        Great insights on Rand, Greg. As much as I do appreciate her contribution, her denial of altruism renders her strictest followers morally bankrupt — even from a non-religious perspective. Of course, she had no way of knowing the documented altruism even of numerous animal species that share a subgenual cortex/septal region of the brain similar to our own, which becomes highly active during functional MRI testing while performing acts of altruism — so I do forgive her that oversight. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

        But even through the lens of her semi-militant atheism, she and her groupies should perhaps still have recognized that humans are closer in bio-psychology to highly social species like wolves, apes and dolphins than solitary, purely opportunistic varieties of bears, sharks and lizards. Oops.

        That said, entrepreneurs and their financiers who are emotionally balanced, more other-centered and mature will unquestionably be the ones who distinguish their work and make the greatest impact.

  2. allen says:

    A maddeningly gradual pace? Compared to what?

    If the comparison’s to the establishment and eventual victory of the district-based public education system then the pace is positively dizzying. Not to say that the movement away from the current model couldn’t hang up at Greg’s “public/private oligopoly” but there are some pretty potent forces that make that outcome unlikely.

    • Greg Forster says:

      What forces are you thinking of? That’s not a rhetorical question, I really want to know. I’d love to hear that the oligopoly is destined for destruction!

      • allen says:

        Well let’s see.

        Right at the top of the list are black parents who, I’m pretty sure you know, support educational alternatives in significantly higher percentages then white parents.

        Without the current virtual lock on the black vote the Democratic Party loses control of the House, Senate and White House. Permanently. Think that might put a little strain on the relationship between the Democratic Party and the teacher’s unions? I think it might.

        Then there are charter schools whose primary service in the upending of the public education status quo is in providing a comfortingly short stepping-stone to the notion of parental choice. Vouchers will do the same thing but I believe they’re inherently scarier, especially to poorer parents.

        It’s the realization that educational choice isn’t exclusively the privilege of the wealthy that gnaws away at the apathy and acceptance of public school parents upon which is built the inertia that buttresses the district system.

        Next in our bombastic review is technology.

        Yes, I know. Technology in education is like fusion power – it’s destined to revolutionize things in ten years and has been for the last seventy or eighty years.

        But along with technology becoming cheaper, more capable, more convenient and more nearly ubiquitous the reasons to ignore technology – that blessed monopoly enjoyed by the public education system – is starting to fracture and the little pieces, like charters, don’t enjoy the invulnerability to parental demands that district-based schools have enjoyed. As the option to ignore parental concerns erodes so will the option to ignore technology.

        You can see some of what technology will do to education in Khan Academy.

        The zillions of lectures-on-demand are important but the real dynamite’s in the little tests that are part of every lecture. Those tests are funneled into a “dashboard” that provides a nice, graphic means for parents to determine where Junior is in his lessons. That’s today. Inevitably parents are going to want to know how good the teacher and the school are. How Junior’s doing relative to other kids his age or socio-economic category or city. That kind of information’s realatively trivial to mine once you’ve got the vein of information provided by the tests. And of course the tests provide the information necessary to determine which lectures need to be aggregated, broken up or otherwise improved. It’s a rockin’, hi-tek world.

        Then there’s the *other* political angle.

        At some point some bright mayor, money-hungry municipal union president or tax-cutting organization leader is going to notice that charters do very nicely without the expensive services of a central office and attendant staff. As charter caps are loosened and the percentage of kids going to charters climbs – and the number of kids using vouchers climbs – the question will want an answer too is what value do all those expensive bureaucrats and support personnel bring to the party? The answer implicit in the success of charters and vouchers is – nothing.

        How important this last point becomes is a function of how long tax receipts remain depressed and how quickly the power of the public education system erodes. Not this year, probably not next but within ten years covetous eyes will begin to be cast at school district tax receipts. I’d give odds on it if I could figure out some means of doing so.

        Oh, and the poor people who have the most to gain in a good education system and the most to lose in a lousy education system don’t necessarily have to be American to kick off a revolution in education. If you haven’t read “The Beautiful Tree” you ought to and you ought to think about how averse the people the book’s about are to seizing any opportunity they can.

  3. Matthew Ladner says:


    Maddeningly gradual compared to the pace we’d like to see.

    From the perspective of an individual who wants change and wants it NOW it is highly annoying that it took the charter school movement two decades to develop a high quality lower cost school model.

    From the perspective of human history, it happened in a blink of an eye, and it might never have happened without the development of alternative delivery mechanisms like charter schools.

    • allen says:

      Hey, no argument here about the maddeningly slow pace of change. I snap my fingers regularly to see if that’ll have any impact but so far, no joy.

      Part of the reason for the pace of change is simply awareness that there’s any other way to do public education. School districts, as far as most people are concerned, have been here since dinosaurs roamed the earth. They’re a fact of life and less worth talking about then the weather. But charters, and then vouchers, will change that. Slowly at first, as has been happening for the past twenty years but then very quickly.

      • Daniel Earley says:

        Great comments, Allen. Indeed, a number of surprise catalysts are on the move as well. I wish I could say more.

  4. Nadia says:

    The coorprate ed reform powers that be who supported all the incumbents (including the Seattle Times, which prematurely declared one of the losing incumbents the winner) are not happy, and have tried to dismiss the victories as solely due to teacher?s union support, or disparage voters as simply being silly.

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