What Would Milton Friedman Say? Freedom is a Good Idea Because it is Just, and Because it Works: For Schooling, Here’s How/Why

From the consumer perspective freedom means the availability of a diverse menu of schooling options; genuine choices from, at first, a combination of public and private initiative aimed at addressing student diversity in how they learn and what subject themes address the diversity in what engages students in academics. So, for example, a detailed government-specified curriculum significantly diminishes freedom. It greatly reduces the potential for schools to differ in ways that could be quite important. Since one size does not fit all, a mandated curriculum significantly diminishes student engagement in academics. A second key element of freedom from the consumer perspective is for all of their schooling options to be fairly equally subsidized, including possibly not at all, to avoid the current widespread terrible dilemma between a “free” public school that suits many students poorly, and a better fit that is unsubsidized (families must pay tuition on top of the taxes that support the public school system). A third key element of freedom from the consumer perspective is the right to pay more for schooling than the subsidy amount; that is, permission to top off the subsidy with their own money.

Permission to top off subsidies dovetails with a critical producer freedom which is to ask for whatever tuition they want without jeopardizing potential customers’ access to subsidies, public or private. And short of violating health-safety rules, or advocating law-breaking, school operators should be allowed to offer any curriculum-pedagogy combination they want, and make mission incompatibility-based admission denials. Failure to permit such freedoms stifles the development of new/improved schooling options.

Common Core’s Conundrum: Shared Tests

“Federal overreach has tainted Common Core,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin after signing a bill to withdraw the state from the Common Core initiative.

In June, Oklahoma and South Carolina joined Indiana and officially backed out of Common Core. Combined with the five states who elected not to adopt the initiative in the first place, that makes eight states who have wholeheartedly rejected Common Core. In worse news for Common Core supporters, Politico predicts that an additional half-dozen states may defect in the near future.

Across the states, frustration continues to increase surrounding with one of the key elements of the Common Core initiative — the shared exams.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who issued an executive order to withdraw his state from Common Core in June, said he was “very alarmed about choice and local control of curriculum being taken away from our parents and educators” in a Politico article.

These shared tests were designed by two education consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced. They are expected to be expensive, time-consuming, and frequent. According to PARCC, one of the consortia in charge of creating the exam:

  • The tests will cost between $19 and $33 per student, depending on whether they are administered online or using paper-and-pencil versions.
  • The base exams will take eight hours for the average third-grader and close to ten for high school students. These estimates would increase if the optional, midyear assessments were implemented.
  • PARCC is developing tests for kindergarten, first- and second graders, as well as 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. Current exams start at the third grade, and students are only tested once during high school.

The concern over the lack of choice and control left by the federal government’s oversight of Common Core is a common and well-founded complaint for those who oppose the initiative. States are getting fed up funding exams over which they have little say regarding content or length. Unless the federal government makes some serious reevaluations, states are going to continue rejecting the shared tests — and perhaps the whole initiative.

District School Principals: Unsurprising Recruiting Difficulties

Who would want to do a job with mediocre pay, high expectations, and little authority in many of the areas quite likely to significantly impact their effectiveness? For example, the vast majority of school district principals have little say in their school’s instructional program, or its personnel. Indeed, it is quite difficult to recruit people prepared to succeed in yet another critical public school system job that political imperatives have made unnecessarily challenging.

Recall that I have previously described the daunting challenges the current system imposes on district superintendents and public school teachers. Of course, every public school eventually gets a principal, but often the district hires an under-qualified person from within the district. “There’s not much strategic thought going into the identification of exceptional talent.” Because of the uniformity imperative — it is not politically feasible to provide anything significant at an assigned school that is not available at every assigned school — principals cannot create schools with unique missions suited to their strengths and passion. They can only manage a comprehensive school created and staffed by the district.

Like the superintendent, principals also face the daunting challenge of having to achieve high rates of academic improvement with a uniform approach applied to a diverse clientele. The political staying power of the imperative and the resulting, widely recognized mismatch between principals’ responsibility and decision-making authority is demonstrated by: “authority to run his building has generally not increased.

In far too many places, the principal’s role is [still] more akin to middle manager than to executive.” They are held responsible, officially (but often few consequences), for squeezing results from a dysfunctional (heroic assumptions) schooling strategy. “Today’s great principals tend to succeed in spite of district conditions, not because of them.”

Lessons from Teach For America

Education reformers largely agree that teachers should be hired based on competence and paid based on performance and that strong teachers should be placed in low-performing schools, yet the opposite takes place in most school districts.

Traditionally, public school teachers are recruited and retained based on their teaching degree, state certification and performance. Many public school teachers receive tenure after just two years of teaching, and the more experienced teachers have greater choice with respect to their school assignments, resulting in the most experienced teachers in the best schools.

Teach For America (TFA), however, is one program that recruits, trains and evaluates teachers differently. The teacher placement program has been in operation since 1990. TFA requires a rigorous interview and selection process, providing recruits with:

  • A guaranteed first and second year salary.
  • A training process that better prepares recruits for teaching than traditional certification.
  • Competition based on subject knowledge and teacher quality.

The program has placed more than 32,000 teachers in public schools in high poverty areas, and after completing the program, almost two-thirds of TFA recruits continue careers in education. In the 2013-2014 school year, 11,000 TFA members taught 750,000 students.

TFA recruits students based on subject mastery and experience, with less focus on classroom management and child development. While critics claim that TFA’s five-week training program does not adequately prepare new teachers, recent studies illustrate that TFA members are at least as effective as traditionally-trained teachers. Moreover, students learning under TFA members have demonstrated academic achievement:

  • A 2009 Louisiana study found that students taught by TFA teachers performed significantly better in English language arts, reading, math and science than students taught by other new teachers.
  • In North Carolina, a 2010 study found middle school math students of TFA members received the equivalent of an extra half-year of learning.
  • Similarly, a 2013 Tennessee study found that TFA members were equally effective, if not more effective, as veteran teachers in most subject areas.

Besides positively impacting student achievement, TFA has also been instrumental in filling teacher shortages in many school districts.

Competition vs. Rivalry: A Very Important Distinction

My recent “back-to-basics” definitions began with a discussion of the term “school choice“; what it really means and important determinants of differences in school choice policies. Next was a discussion of the problem of widespread “pricelessness” of school system products, and some resources like teachers; the latter not because they are unpriced, but because of the nearly universal single salary schedule that allows for far too few differences in teacher pay. Today, the subject is “competition”; probably the most widely used and misunderstood word in school system reform discussions, which creates a powerful and devastating basis for poor policy choices.

In ECO 101 presentations to students, “competition” is a situation in which the very economic survival of the producers, and sometimes the consumers (depending upon the product), depends on their ability to secure trade on favorable terms. For example, consumers must acquire food and shelter. Producers must sell their product for at least enough to cover production expenses. Also, competition cannot meaningfully exist unless there are differences in what the competitors are attempting to sell. They must differ, at least, in terms of proximity to some buyers. So-called “perfect competition” wherein sellers are hawking identical goods is not competition at all unless, just for the moment, sellers have exhausted all possibilities for a better product or for product differences that address buyer preference diversity. They match each other’s price until they can find a way to make their version different in a way some members of the buying public will value.

Competition means more than the rivalry behavior of existing producers. It includes an increase in the number of producers when the available terms are especially favorable; that is, when profits are higher than in other markets that involve similar resources, skills, and risk, and vice versa when survival-conducive terms are hard to come by. Most trading terms are called prices that are stated in dollars. Price changes are both a cause and effect of production and consumption choices. That is, prices adjust to changes in supply and demand, and then create feedback effects on one or both. For example, the new fracking technology delivered new supplies of natural gas that led to sharp price decreases prompted many natural gas producers to shift their efforts to oil production, where prices have held fairly at high levels. Cheaper gas increased consumption by long-time users, and caused natural gas market entry by new uses; for example, by baseload power plants in place of coal and nuclear generation. Both the exit of some gas producers and arrival of some new natural gas customers has firmed up natural gas prices; i.e. prevented larger price declines.

So, in genuinely competitive settings, there is price change that reflects changes in supply and demand, including, but not limited to, changes in the number of participants. For example, something may increase the perceived importance of a product. Even if that change in perception is limited to the people that already use the product, their additional purchases will allow current producers to sell what they have on hand at a higher price. That ability to charge more will persuade and enable them to increase production, and higher profits for current producers will eventually create additional output from new producers. That competitive market entry will drive prices down until above normal profits are no longer widely available in that market.

Give School Choice a Chance — Sweden

In the early 1990s, Sweden — inspired by the work of Milton Friedman — implemented a universal voucher program. Free market enthusiasts cheered the new program. It seemed like a great leap forward for voucher programs.

Fast-forward to today. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, rankings were released recently, and Sweden dropped from 7th in 2000 to 38th in 2012.

Many were quick to blame the voucher program. While it may seem a logical conclusion, Tino Sanandaji raises a few excellent points in his piece at The National Review. To boil it down, Sanandaji points out that:

  • Even with the voucher program, only 14 percent of Swedish 15 year olds attend private school. The other 86 percent remain in public school.
  • Performance declined slightly more in public school than private school, after controlling for socioeconomic background.
  • While there have been problems with the Swedish system — including grade inflation, corruption caused by a lack of control, and crony capitalism — these problems have been seen across public and private schools.
  • Perhaps most telling, 67 percent of Swedes still want school choice.

Sanandaji makes good points. However, I think there is one point he is missing. Many opponents of school choice are using the Swedish example to condemn voucher programs and school choice in general, but they overlook an important point: some of the countries where school choice programs have worked.

By the year 2000, a number of countries had a voucher or voucher-like program in place, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, England, France, Holland, Hungary, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland, Spain, Sweden and the United States. Of just the countries named above, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, Spain, Poland, France, Japan and the Czech Republic all had mean PISA scores that were higher than Sweden’s by a statistically significant margin.

There is no denying Sweden’s drop in the rankings. However, considering all of the places where school choice programs are working, it seems a tad hasty to condemn all voucher programs and school choice in general based on results from one country.

A Promising Sign?

In the Wall Street Journal, “Why Are Teachers Unions So Opposed to Change,” long-time teacher union activist, coming off two terms as Mayor (D) of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa said, “As a former union leader and a lifelong Democrat who supports collective bargaining, I am deeply troubled by the rhetoric and strategy we heard at both [teacher union, National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)] national conventions.” Let’s hope Mayor Villaraigosa will follow in the foot-steps of long-time, high teacher union officials, turned pro-choice/reform scholars Myron Lieberman and David Kirkpatrick. Myron Lieberman became a prolific writer. He inspired my entry into School System Reform Studies with his 1993 Public Education: An Autopsy. His other must-reads include, at least, The Teacher Unions (1997), and The Educational Morass (2007). David Kirkpatrick mostly wrote shorter pieces, but his 1997 short book School Choice: The Idea That Will Not Die is another must-read.

Mayor Villaraigosa implored that, “We should be working together to fix the problem rather than defending a broken system.” Indeed!! It will be challenging to agree on what that means; hopefully an immense opportunity still somewhat disguised as an insurmountable obstacle.

Education Technology Shake-up

There is a lot of discussion about how technology has the capacity to “disrupt” many practices that are inefficient or expensive in many ways. It is true; we have seen disruptions in many fields due to technology ranging from how we shop to how government services are provided. Now, we may be able to see how technology can disrupt the current models in education.

Advocates of reform have long sought how to incorporate technological breakthroughs to make education more effective. Some developments that have come from this include the growing popularity of massively open online courses (MOOCS). MOOCS are beginning to revolutionize higher education because they allow students to attend courses that are taught by professors with live video stream or recorded for later use. For many students and universities, this has helped lower the cost for of pursuing a degree.

But the trick has been how to incorporate technology into primary education to better teach important concepts like math and science in a more effective and tailored manner. It is well documented that the United States is trailing behind in many areas of achievement, especially math and science. Many educators are hoping that the use of technology can bridge that gap and put the U.S. back in the lead again.

Education technology, or Edtech, is a catch-all term that is generating a lot of buzz. These technologies range from anything like language learning software to apps that track progress on homework assignments and quizzes so that a teacher knows where to put more focus on. There is a lot of confidence by educators and industry leaders that Edtech has the capacity to tailor the educational experience to fit the needs of individual students. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, existing evidence on the impact of technology on student achievement is positive.

There are some signs that new tech products will soon enter primary school classrooms. First, there is a very high interest by many companies to develop tech products and services to be used by students and teachers. In 2012, about $600 million was invested into Edtech startups. Just in the second quarter of 2014, the Edtech industry raised just under $327 million in venture capital investments.

Part of the reason for increased interest and investment in Edtech is that the Common Core standards have created a single market that products can be sold to, rather than having to tailor a product to the educational standards of 50 different states. Moreover, baby boomers are retiring and are being replaced by millennials that prefer to utilize technology to teach their students.

This is a large and growing field, and it is only a matter of time before innovators find a way to truly transform the classroom experience in a positive way.

Price-Less Means that Government Policies Specify the Most Schooling Can Cost

Part of assuring we are all on the same page on key concepts — after first discussing the core meaning of “school choice” — is a focused discussion of the term “priceless” (=price-less) that I have used repeatedly to condemn the implicit hope/expectation that schooling can be the first industry to thrive without dynamic price change that accurately reflects scarcity (demand relative to supply). Such dynamic price change is normally delivered by markets, but central authority orchestration of dynamic price change is a conceivable, absolutely under-researched possibility; maybe good, and more politically feasible than market-driven price change. Applied to schooling, “price” is a broad term that applies to everything from school tuition to teacher salaries. Next week, we will discuss the meaning of genuine competition vs. mere potential rivalry, and the widespread misuse and loose use of the term, competition.

The bottom-line for priceless provision of schooling is the assumption — actually implicit delusional hope triumphing over experience — that schooling can thrive as an industry with the government virtually limiting what it can cost (price control). Specifically, the hope has been that a politically-correct central planning process can [finally] produce comprehensive neighborhood public schools that at least adequately serve diverse student learning needs with one comprehensive (many elective courses) campus in each neighborhood, and alongside that persistent delusion, increasingly, hope that such a process can orchestrate a dynamic menu of schooling choices that matches diverse learning needs. I say “delusional” because the comprehensive, “free” (=100% subsidized tuition) neighborhood school strategy has been attempted since the advent of public schooling in the 19th century, with reform frenzy-resistant, gold-plated disaster, “Nation at Risk” academic performance outcomes. Politically correct central planning dominates the proposals to reduce reliance on the attendance-zoned traditional public schools. Significant improvement through a central planning alternative to the price change and profit-loss process that drives most economic outcomes — to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that liberty cannot survive widespread ignorance — has never yielded tolerable outcomes in any industry, including schooling, much less the relentlessly improving efficient schooling outcomes we need, and never will.

Hour of Code

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 1.4 million computer-related jobs will need to be filled by 2020. However, if education trends continue, only 400,000 computer science students will be available to fill those positions.

Additionally, the Department of Labor estimates an 18 percent growth in computer-related occupations from 2012-2022 and an 8 percent growth in the employment of computer programmers. The estimated growth of all occupations in the same time frame is 11 percent. It seems fairly certain that the ability to work with computers is going to be a valuable skillset in the coming decade:

change in employment

Coding is quickly becoming seen as a necessary skill that should be included in the K-12 curriculum, a way to close the tech unemployment gap for minorities, and a way to tackle the tech gender gap. Current STEM education efforts are doing their best to increase student interest in science and math based fields. However, many schools systems cannot afford or lack the knowledge to implement the exciting new programs available to get kids into coding.

So if knowing how to code is vital and schools systems can’t implement the programs themselves, how can kids get the coding experience they need? Luckily, the private sector has the answer. From Google’s recent $50 million coding initiative aimed at getting girls into coding to Code.org’s “Hour of Code” campaign, which is looking to introduce 10 million students to coding, the private sector is stepping in to fill the gap in computer science education.

Taking into account the projected growth of computer science jobs, how do you think schools can best integrate computer skills into their lesson plans? What kind of initiatives have you seen in your state?