Sunday, May 23, 2010

Education and ideology

In The Beautiful Tree, author James Tooley conducted a study which sought to examine the differences in quality between private and government-run schools in a number of developing countries. He found that "after testing many thousands of children, and observing a few thousand schools, these private schools seemed superior to government schools with regards to inputs and pupil achievement. And they were doing it all for a fraction of the cost."

He then presented his findings at an education and development conference in Oxford. This excerpt describes the reaction:
As I finished my PowerPoint presentation and the chair invited questions, one professor, metaphorically flinging down my notebook onto the table in front of me, dismissed what I'd said, "Tooley is plowing a lonely furrow, long may it remain that way." Another stood up to condemn my approach. "Tooley's work is dangerous, in the wrong hands it could lead to the demise of state education." "You've painted a glowing picture of markets in education," said another, "but have you never heard of market failure?" Sighing deeply, another said: "It doesn't matter what your evidence shows. Statistics, statistics, statistics, who cares about your statistics? Private education can never be pro-poor."

Development experts are all pro-poor. I, by celebrating poor families' decision to use private education, was not. "The poor must have state education because they mustn't pay fees." A young woman near the front was equally as dismissive: "You obviously know nothing about human rights. Free and compulsory education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration [on Human Rights]!" An elderly Indian professor, more kindly than the others, nevertheless had disagreed with all I'd said: "You're trying to pull the ladder up behind you," he smiled, "the only way your country developed was through free government schools. Why are you trying to deny it to the rest of us?"

They were all united in dismissing my findings. Why was I ignoring the many good reasons that we all know why private education cannot be part of any solution to "education for all"? Why was I ignoring the many good reasons why markets are inappropriate for education -- that the short route to accountability I explored in the last chapter had to be abandoned in favor of the political long road? Why was I being so perverse as to ignore the years of accumulated wisdom to this effect?

After I'd given my paper, the conference chair, a professor at one of England's top education departments, took me aside. He was trying to be helpful: "You're silly, very silly, saying all of that. You'll never get another job. Be sensible, old chap."
If a genuine debate is to take place about education reform, all options must be on the table and sacred cows sent to the slaughter house. Instead we are given a discussion highly ideological in nature, where all reform must begin with the premise that the state is given a central role. Thus, the maneuvering space for genuine reform -- and prospects for significant improvement -- are greatly limited.

But the role of the state must be scrutinized if comprehensive reform is to be achieved, as anything less is mere tinkering at the margins. We need to examine the logic behind charging the state with the direct provision of education, for there is no obvious reason why this is the case. Parents do not provide sustenance for their children from government-run grocery stores, clothe their children with purchases at a government-run department store, and -- for the most part -- do not house their children in buildings operated by the government.

Why is education different? What reason is there to think the government has any special competency at education? What unique advantages does it enjoy over the private sector? Until we are willing to entertain and grapple with such questions, notable improvements are likely to remain an elusive goal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The federal government did not get involved in local schools until the 1960's. Initially in the US, school teachers were hired by the local community (by a school board of concerned parents) to teach the children. Although supported by (local) taxes, the schools functioned to some extent like a private system with the school teacher/administration being responsible to the wishes of involved local parents. With federal involvement came a loss of local control. PTA originally was an organization of parents and teachers working together to create the best learning environment. Now teachers alone determine what is best while parents are tasked to run pancake breakfasts and raise funds. Interestingly, overall student SAT scores peaked in 1963, just before the feds got involved. Now we have a bureaucratic "ivory tower" monopoly.