If Calif. State Sen. Gloria Romero succeeds in allowing parents in the state to to replace administrators and teachers at their schools (or convert the schools into charters), it will be an amazing step. Same is true if discussions in New Jersey about expanding its inter-district choice program come to pass. And the federal Race to the Top initiative could provide even more options to parents — especially those stuck with sending their children to the worst urban school systems.
At the same time, these events offer an opportunity to consider what education policy — and America’s education system itself — should look like in the next half-century. And the answer is: Similar to the markets for consumer products everyone enjoys.
Few sectors in the American public or private sector are as dominated by experts, technocrats and lobbyists as education. From the development and approval of curricula to the kind of schools children can attend, the decisions are based, much consideration is given to what some adults want, how some adults want to be paid, national economic and social priorities, and occasionally, what children actually need. Every now and then, what children and their parents want does come into play. But this a rare event.
But imagine if children (and to be honest, their parents) actually could choose the kind of schools they want to attend, select the curricula that they will learn, even whether they will attend a neighborhood school or a manicured campus in suburbia? It would be difficult to figure out the direction of education at that point; after all, parents use schools as much for social-climbing and instilling their own values as they do for providing the most-rigorous education possible for their children. But it would be interesting: Perhaps “education villages” — where hipsters-turned-parents and single mothers can stay in the city and still gain the best of suburbia — would spring up in the heart of Atlanta. Or children otherwise deemed troublemakers in the traditional public school settings of today will learn in classes where the instructional day is compacted for more efficiency (and thus, less time for having to sit in class wasting time as likely to happen for students in Chicago).
These thoughts come as the Wall Street Journal presents its chart on the 25 largest companies in the world at the end of this decade. As pointed out by William Easterly (who spends his time criticizing foreign aid), only eight of the top 25 companies at the end of the 1990s kept their places by the near-end of 2009. Only six tech firms made up the top 25 versus 13 at the end of the 1990s; the tech firms on the list range from old-school software crossing into videogames and consumer wares (Microsoft) to handy cloud computing and search (Google), to a company that managed to switch gears and helped complete the personal technology revolution began by the Sony Walkman (Apple Computer).
Certainly, many of the companies knocked off the list had merged into other companies or went bust altogether; others just seen declines or stagnation in their market value. But mergers and market value losses represent a reality that these companies didn’t cater to their consumer markets. Notes Easterly: “Creative destruction is one of the triumphs of the market. The consumer is king: in 2009… The radical uncertainty of how to please consumers is an argument FOR free markets.”
At this moment, American public education is undergoing its own peculiar form of creative destruction, as education reformers and a smattering of parents — armed with data, research and political power — are forcing defenders of the status quo (teachers unions, schools of education, and school districts) to accept the need for effective change. As Fordham’s Checker Finn points out, reformers are slowly being forced to admit that their longstanding conceits also need updating (and more often than not, ditching altogether).
Yet, as I’ve pointed out over and over, the reformers must also rid themselves of their faith in expertise. They must begin to embrace the grassroots and, more importantly, accept that children and their parents must have more than just a seat at the table of decisionmaking. They must be the decisionmakers, period, and anything less just won’t do.Why? Because the nature of the reforms being proposed, promoted and legislated — all of which involves choice, consequences and accountability — requires active participation from parents, and therefore, their support.
Choice begats choice; this is true when it comes to cellphone plans and this is also happening in education. The advent of Milwaukee’s school voucher plan in the early 1990s didn’t foster widespread development of vouchers. But the program, along with the charter school movement, has spurred the interest among parents in the kind of choice initiatives being considered in these states (and may likely become reality in the Los Angeles Unified School District). Once parents are exposed to having real power and engagement in school decisionmaking, they will not want the traditional expert-driven approach. This is a good thing.
Now, I’m not advocating for an education system that is fully free market in orientation. The reality is that the underlying infrastructure for such choice — easy access to useful information through guides, organizations or Web sites; actual mechanisms for exercising choice that exist outside of home purchases — is only coming into existence. Parents are just beginning to realize that the old concept of education — that the school can educate every child without active engagement of families that goes beyond homework and field trips — has gone by the wayside; they will make mistakes along the way.
Poor parents, in particular, need guidance; yet the current public education system treats them as even bigger nuisances than the middle-class families (who can exercise enough influence to just be merely ignored) and wealthier households (who ditch the public school system altogether). Assuring equality of opportunity in education, no matter one’s income, should not only be of paramount importance, it would be a more-effective form of economic policy than stimulus plans and tax cuts combined; the evidence largely clear that dropouts cannot be contributors to economic and social life.
But giving parents power, choices, options, advice and information should be the governing credo of education reform for the next half-century. It can be done.