December 28, 2006
Yet Another Report on the Education CrisisBy Christopher Chantrill
It is nearly a quarter century now since the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its somber warning about the nation's education system: "A Nation at Risk."Luckily it was at that moment in 1983 that the US economy struggled out of the 1980-82 recession on the back of Reaganomics and never looked back. So it turned out that the nation wasn't at risk, at least not then.
Yet the education system has, if anything, got worse in the years since. Reforms come and go-your Goals 2000, your No Child Left Behind-yet nothing seems to change. For instance, despite all the reform, our kids still need remedial courses before they can start college.
That's what The New York Times reported back in September. Yet do we see educators taking responsibility for this, pledging their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, to right a terrible injustice-in emulation of an earlier generation of American leaders? We do not.
What we do have is another blue-ribbon report.
"Tough Choices or Tough Times" is a product of the New Commission on The Skills of the American Workforce. The commission worries the usual worries about globalization and outsourcing. "While our relative position in the world's education league tables has continued its long, slow decline... a swiftly rising number of American workers at every skill level are in direct competition with workers in every corner of the globe." Since the "best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth..." and so on. How can we hope to compete in the global economy, the commission worries, when, educationally:
1.Teachers are recruited "from among the less able."
2.We tolerate an "enormous amount of waste."
3.The system is getting "more inefficient over time."
4."Growing inequality in family incomes' contributes to "growing disparities in student achievement."
5."We have failed to motivate" children to "take tough courses."
6.Teacher compensation doesn't reward the best teachers.
7.The testing system rewards students "good at routine work."
8."People who have responsibility do not have power" and vice versa.
9.It's already too late for most of the workforce.
10.It is hard for adults to get the continuing education and training they need.
Maybe it's because... But you know the script. After identifying these ten problems, the commission proposes a Ten Step remedial program, all of which is long on government spending, bureaucratic reorganization, and new subsidies like tax-free accounts. And you will be glad to know that the remedy includes a big increase in teacher salaries, even though teachers are already paid about 50 percent more than equivalent workers in the private sector.
But before we sign on the dotted line we should ask some tough questions. Why is it that the United States with its nation-at-risk education system continues to lead the world economically?
In his 2004 book The Power of Productivity William W. Lewis provides an answer to this question. Based on his research on the economies of 13 different countries, he concludes:
And the key to wealth and productivity is a level playing field, an absence, in other words, of blue-ribbon commissions proposing new programs, privileges, and subsidies.
If the importance of education "has been taken way too far," how important is it? Obviously the politicians and educators on the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce have their agenda, and public choice theory can give us a glimmer of what that agenda might be. But what about us? What do the Education Moms want?
At the Cato Institute Andrew J. Coulson, author of Market Education, has just published the first "Cato Education Market Index." It is designed to show how each state allows education "producers and consumers to voluntarily associate with one another"
and "encourage families to be diligent consumers and educators to innovate, control costs, and expand their services." In other words, he is measuring just easy it is for Education Moms to shop for education.
Today, alas, the index is pretty low. In the United States, education producers and consumers are not allowed to voluntarily associate with one another. In consequence, families do not act like diligent consumers and educators do not innovate and control costs.
Here's an idea. If education isn't all that important to our national income then why not just let American parents go shopping for education at the mall just like we do for our food, our cars, and our clothes?
Then we can appoint blue-ribbon commissions to worry about pseudo problems like educational obesity, sports utility schools, and cheap education imports.