(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.