Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Education Blob

John Stossel
Since progressives want government to run health care, let's look at what government management did to K-12 education. While most every other service in life has gotten better and cheaper, American education remains stagnant.  Spending has tripled! Why no improvement? Because K-12 education is a virtual government monopoly -- and monopolies don't improve.

In every other sector of the economy, market competition forces providers to improve constantly. It's why most things get better -- often cheaper, too (except when government interferes, as in health care).

Politicians claim that education and health care are different -- too important to leave to market competition. Patients and parents aren't real consumers because they don't have the expertise to know which hospital or school is best. That's why they must be centrally planned by government "experts."

Those experts have been in charge for years. School reformers call them the "Blob." Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says that attempts to improve the government monopoly have run "smack into federations, alliances, departments, councils, boards, commissions, panels, herds, flocks and convoys that make up the education industrial complex, or the Blob. Taken individually, they were frustrating enough, each with its own bureaucracy, but taken as a whole they were (and are) maddening in their resistance to change. Not really a wall -- they always talk about change -- but more like quicksand, or a tar pit where ideas slowly sink."

The Blob claims teachers are underpaid. But today American teachers average more than $50,000 a year. Teachers' hourly wages exceed what most architects, accountants and nurses make.

The Blob constantly demands more money, but tripling spending and vastly increasing the ratio of staff to student have brought no improvement. When the Blob is in control, waste and indifference live on and on.

The Blob claims that public education is "the great equalizer." Rich and poor and different races mix and learn together. It's a beautiful concept. But it is a lie. Rich parents buy homes in neighborhoods with better schools.

As a result, public -- I mean, government -- schools are now more racially segregated than private schools. One survey found that public schools were significantly more likely to be almost entirely white or entirely minority. Another found that at private schools, students of different races were more likely to sit together.

The Blob's most powerful argument is that poor people need government-run schools. How could poor people possibly afford tuition?

Well, consider some truly destitute places. James Tooley spends most of his time in the poorest parts of Africa, India and China. Those countries copied America's "free public education," and Tooley wanted to see how that's worked out. What he learned is that in India and China, where kids outperform American kids on tests, it's not because they attend the government's free schools. Government schools are horrible. So even in the worst slums, parents try to send their kids to private, for-profit schools.

How can the world's poorest people afford tuition? And why would they pay for what their governments offer for free?

Tooley says parents with meager resources still sacrifice to send their kids to private schools because the private owner does something that's virtually impossible in government schools: replace teachers who do not teach. Government teachers in India and Africa have jobs for life, just like American teachers. Many sleep on the job. Some don't even show up for work.

As a result, says Tooley, "the majority of (poor) schoolchildren are in private school." Even small villages have as many as six private schools, "and these schools outperform government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost."

As in America, government officials in those countries scoff at private schools and parents who choose them. A woman who runs government schools in Nigeria calls such parents "ignoramuses." They aren't -- and thanks to competition, their children won't be, either.

Low-income Americans are far richer than the poor people of China, India and Africa. So if competitive private education can work in Beijing, Calcutta and Nairobi, it can work in the United States.

We just need to get around the Blob.


Teaching Economics

 Thomas Sowell

Having taught economics at a number of colleges for a number of years, I especially welcomed a feature article in the June 22nd issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, on how economics courses with the same name can be very different at different colleges. It can also be very different when the course is taught by professors in the same department who have different approaches.

The usefulness of the three approaches described in the article depends on what the introductory course is trying to accomplish.

One professor taught the subject through a steady diet of mathematical models. If the introductory economics course is aimed at those students who are going to major in economics, then that may make some sense. But most students in most introductory economics courses are not going to become economics majors, much less professional economists.

Among those students for whom a one-year introductory course is likely to be their only exposure to economics, mathematical models that they will probably never use in later life, as they try to understand economic activities and policies in the real world, may be of very limited value to them, if any value at all.

If the purpose of the introductory course is to serve as a recruiting source for economics majors, that serves the interest of the economics department, not the students. It may also serve the interests of the professor, because teaching in the fashion familiar in his own research and scholarship is a lot easier than trying to recast economics in terms more accessible to students who are studying the subject for the first time.

Having written two textbooks on introductory economics -- one full of graphs and equations, and the other with neither -- I know from experience that the second way is a lot harder to write, and is more time-consuming. The first book was written in a year; the second took a decade. The first book quickly went out of print. The second book ("Basic Economics") has gone through 4 editions and has been translated into 6 foreign languages.

Both books taught the same principles, but obviously one approach did so more successfully than the other. The same applies in the classroom.

The opposite extreme from teaching economics with mathematical models was described by a professor who uses an approach she characterized as democratizing the classroom, "so that everybody is a co-teacher and co-learner." This has sometimes been called "discovery learning," where the students discover the underlying principles for themselves while groping their way through problems.

Unfortunately, discovery can take a very long time -- much longer than a course lasts. It took the leading classical economists a hundred years of wrestling with different concepts of supply and demand -- often misunderstanding each other -- before finally arriving at mutually understood concepts that can now be taught to students in the first week of introductory economics.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the discovery learning professor sometimes seemed to be the one doing most of the work in the class, "bringing the students' sometimes fumbling answers back to economic principles."

This course's main focus is said to be not on mastering the principles of economics, but being able to "dialog" and discuss "shades of gray." With such mushy goals and criteria, hard evidence is unlikely to rear its ugly head and spoil the pretty vision of discovery learning.

Discovery learning may not serve the interests of the students, but it may well serve the ego of its advocate. Education may be the only field of human endeavor where experiments always seem to succeed -- as judged by their advocates.

By contrast, the third method of teaching introductory economics, in lectures by Professor Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University, tests the students with objective questions -- which means that it is also producing a test of whether this traditional way of teaching actually works. Apparently it does.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported on the students. The feckless behavior of today's students in all three courses makes me glad that I left the classroom long ago, and do my teaching today solely through my writings.


Thanks, Gough, for giving us all a chance at university

This is utter rubbish:  The usual Leftist garbage.  Gough Whitlam was the Leftist Prime Minister of Australia from 1972  to 1975. 

It was his conservative predecessor, Robert Menzies, who in fact made university open to all  -- if you had the ability.  And it was a Labor government that ditched Gough's scheme

The Commonwealth scholarship scheme set up by Menzies made the reasonable assumption that only the top third of high school graduates would do well at university and gave that subset both a living allowance and free tuition at university.  I myself got a Commonwealth scholarship  -- and I too come from a poor working class background.  And I ended up with a Ph.D.

Whitlam on the other hand made university "free" to all -- a policy so expensive and wasteful that it was abandoned by the next Labor government  -- under Bob Hawke.  Hawke reintroduced fees and gave loans instead of grants.

I think the Menzies scheme was by far  the most fair, generous and effective of the three systems.  The expansion of university education beyond the top third has simply led to lower standards and a mass of graduates who are no more employable than they would be without a degree.  The unemployed graduate was virtually unknown in my day.  These days it is common.  And a lot of the employed ones are working at McDonald's

So I was able to cruise through university despite having no rich father (and no support of any kind from him at all).  My son, by contrast, also cruised -- but only because I was readily able to pay for his upkeep and his fees  -- which I did.  So which system was fairer to the poor?

Note that I appear to be the same age as the writer below, Geoff Cooper, so he had the same opportunities that I did  -- JR 

Gough Whitlam's visionary tertiary education scheme opened up doors for many.

Officially I am two years too old to be classed as a member of the baby boomer generation but I was one of the many fortunate people whose life was absolutely changed through the policies of former prime minister Gough Whitlam, Australia's greatest ever visionary.

As a working-class kid from the then very poor working-class suburb of Yarraville, it was beyond my wildest dreams to even consider having a tertiary education.

Even completing secondary education to sixth form (year 12) was not on my radar.

My old alma mater, Footscray Tech, only went to year 10 and if you lived anywhere west of the Yarra, your biggest decision after completing secondary school was to join the laudable but limited careers of carpentry, plumbing or other of the building trades. Whitlam changed all that.

Never has one man had such an impact on our nation in such a short time. No-fault divorce, universal health insurance, the first real recognition of indigenous people, a major step towards equal rights for women and access to justice for all, to list just a few of his major achievements.

But for me and many thousands like me, it was his creation of TEAS, the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, that changed my life and I believe allowed many of us to add so much more to our communities because of it.

At the ripe old age of 31 I was able to undertake what previously had been denied me; I gained entrance to Monash University. The rush of mature-age students into tertiary education in the late '70s indicated just how many of us had missed out on an education during the previous 23 years of conservative rule.

The consequence of Whitlam's education policy went well beyond just personal improvement.

Education has far greater impact for society than just leading people into professions or occupations, it often rounds them off as active members of their community and society gains because of this.

I had followed the usual course of the "Westie" masses and become a carpenter, then moved into teaching as a trade teacher. Thanks to Gough, my degree allowed me to teach history and politics in high schools, where I like to think I was able to influence many of the young charges under my care to think about matters political. (Unbiased, of course.)

Higher education also gave me the confidence and knowledge to participate in local government and play roles in other community activities throughout my life.

Forget the Khemlani affair and Rex Connor's delusional plans to run a gas pipeline across Australia, the fact that our country was dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century is something that all Australians should be grateful for.

Thirty-seven years on, today's modern Australia is a direct result of the Whitlam years.

Happy birthday, Gough, and so many thanks for giving me and many of my generation a chance at life that previously had only been the realm of the rich.


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