This post started as a long reply to comments that Stan Hirtle made in response to Thinking Through Purposes and Principles Needed To Guide the Re-Design of Public Education
Stan, you write about finding adequate funding for schools: “Only if people realize that we can not afford the results of an inadequate education system which saddles the whole region with a below average workforce and a school to prison pipeline, may they be willing to spend the money. Plus you get what you pay for. Spending an inadequate amount and getting an inadequate job does not mean that you should spend even less. The question is who pays and how.”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “You get what you pay for.” It is a phrase that expresses regret: if your cheap clunker of a car breaks down, you blame yourself and grumble, “You get what you pay for.” I agree that our education system is dangerously inadequate — a clunker — and if we don’t fix it, we are headed for a lot of hurt.
People probably used the phrase, “You get what you pay for,” in the horse and buggy age as well. Some horse and buggy outfits were far superior to others. In many ways, we are still in the horse and buggy age when it comes to education. Some of our horse and buggy outfits are working smoothly and other horse and buggy outfits are broken down. We miss the big picture when we proclaim that some schools are “excellent” and that other schools are in need of improvement. In the big picture, all schools operate using an outdated and inefficient design, and operate at a level of quality far inferior to what is possible. In the big picture, even those schools most highly rated fall far short of what they should and could be.
How to transform our system of education so that it moves to a new level of quality is the central challenge. We have the science and understanding needed to move to this new level of quality, we lack the motivation and the leadership to do so. The buggy empire sees all questions of improvement in terms of improving the horse and buggy system and, funded year after year by the government, the buggy empire has little motivation to make upsetting change.
What we need is transformation in our educational system and transformation will not happen simply by working hard to make our current system better. We need to use proven principles available to our time to create a fundamentally new design. Creating a new design for our system of education is an unwelcome notion to the many individuals whose income and professional life is anchored in the current paradigm. It was hard for buggy makers to come to grips with a new reality as well.
We have settled for so little in education compared to what is possible. But this should not surprise us, because quality is a function of system. Government controlled enterprises, with their reliance on hierarchy and bureaucracy, are notoriously inept. Managed economies — Cuba or North Korea, for example — fail to produce wealth, fail to work efficiently. We should not be surprised that our government controlled education system has failed to produce quality. In fact, its failure is in direct keeping with the central belief of most Americans. Ask most Americans, for example, whether they think it would be a good idea for the government to have monopoly control of our grocery stores and they would hoot at the idea.
We need to leave the horse and buggy age and arise to a whole new level of education. As Obama is quoted as saying, we need an educational system that will, “provide an education for children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” An educational system that would focus on understanding and fulfilling individual potential would require a transformed system because this goal requires a level of quality much beyond what is possible in the present system. It is not reasonable to think we can reach such a goal using the system already in place, any more than it would have been reasonable to think that a horse and buggy system could have provided safe 50 mph or greater personal transportation.
We need to move from the horse and buggy age to the modern age. In most aspects of our society, we rely on the force of the free market to make improvements. We don’t rely on the government. How to use the force of the free market to transform public education, while at the same time keeping public education accountable to voter control, is a key question that deserves a lot of research. Stan writes, “I see no reason to expect a free market to succeed in this area. There is just not enough profit to be made educating the poor, in order to create a profit incentive to do better…. To create a profit incentive would take the very enormous increase in urban public school budgets that people are resisting.”
I disagree. There is a lot of money in the system. The idea is to use the money already in the system in different ways from how it is now being used. Making a transformation to a new system probably would require additional money. People, I believe, would be willing to “prime the pump,” so to speak, with new money — if they were convinced of the validity of a plan that would, over time, transform the system and that eventually would lead to lower costs and higher quality. People would be more likely to spend money to support an inspired vision of change than they would to spend money simply patching up a clunker that they know, at best, will always be low quality.
It is unfair that urban schools, the weakest members in the education system, must lead the process of system transformation. But, urban education is a disaster. Disaster brings about motivation, and motivation is the key to all improvement and growth. The fact that the urban horse and buggy system is broken down, in the ditch, is an opportunity, a motivation to rethink the system that is lacking in our complaisant suburban districts.
People, I believe, agree that you get what you pay for. The task for educational leadership is to envision a quality system that will inspire voters to move from the horse and buggy age and invest in the system of the future.