First, Teach Them to Think

How many parents would turn down a free scholarship to a well regarded private school because they honestly believe their kid can get a better education in public school? With a voucher system, the school that a child attends would be based on ability, interest, and parental values instead of what the family can afford.

I envision a school system in which each school is accountable for the end result, measured by standardized national test scores, but is free to implement whatever curriculum best achieves that result for its own particular student population. This would enable parents to have more say in what their children are taught. If parents feel that religion is an important part of their children’s education, they can send them to schools that incorporate religious discipline. If they want their kids to get the best preparation for college, they’d better make sure their kids can pass the competitive entrance requirements for the better college preparatory schools.

After elementary school, students would be assigned to classes based on their current skill level, rather than their grade level, with the flexibility to move into higher or lower level courses as necessary to maximize their own learning potential. No student should ever be impeded in his quest for education to accommodate the “least common denominator.”

This is my proposal for education reform:

  1. Continue to provide public elementary schools, but ensure that every child learns reading, writing, and arithmetic before graduating. Incorporate elementary logic into the curriculum to teach critical thinking from an early age. Formal logic should be reinforced in the teaching of all subjects. Basic economic principles should be introduced in first grade, with more advanced concepts being introduced at every grade level to prepare kids to function in the world beyond elementary school. No student should ever be promoted who has not mastered the basics at his grade level.
  2. Middle schools would be privately run, but would be required to accept all students within their district. All students would get vouchers to attend the middle school of their choice. Middle schools would continue to cover math and language skills, history, science, etc, but would be free to come up with their own curricula to keep their students engaged. For example, some schools could focus on hard-core math and science approaches for the kids who are truly excited about those areas, while other schools might focus on teaching through building things, taking things apart, and solving problems in a hands-on environment. Other schools might leverage art, music, theater, etc. in their approach to teaching the required disciplines, while yet others might emphasize community involvement. 
  3. High schools would be privately operated. They could be preparatory, vocational, or specialized. High school would be optional and students would have to qualify to enter the high school of their choice, based on their performance in middle school, extracurricular activities, or other criteria that demonstrates their aptitude and motivation to succeed in that particular program. Any student accepted into a qualified a high school would get a voucher. (Schools would qualify to be eligible for vouchers based on average student performance on standardized national tests.)

It may be that fewer teenagers would attend high school than do today, but whose who do would actually be there to get an education. Vocational schools would be a very viable option for students who aren’t academically inclined but want to prepare themselves for a better paying job than they could get otherwise.

Today, most parents can’t afford to send their kids to private schools, so they don’t have these options available to them. With a voucher system, they could send their kid to any school for which the kid can qualify. Kids themselves would have more freedom and more responsibility with respect to their own education, and would be more invested in their own success.

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Published in: on December 19, 2007 at 1:36 pm  Comments (14)  
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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As you privatize and you actually let the free market work, you will start with a lot of people getting in. A lot of small players. Over time the successful ones will grow and either take over the smaller ones or drive them out of business. This actually eliminates a lot of need to evaluate these schools.

    Finally, you’ll end up with a smaller number of players who will have the capability to install sound organizational and business practices and you’ll be able to get a better education for less money.

    However, if you put in a lot of artificial barriers and regulations, you’ll end up with a system that looks a lot like health care where you get the worst of both worlds.

    While vouchers and subsidies can help put money in the system, they will also drive up costs. Education is one of those things that gets more expensive every year rather than cheaper. I think it’s a better strategy to let innovative people figure out how to drive down the costs so that it’s affordable for everyone. The risk is that you might end up with something that doesn’t lead to teacher in a classroom but something even beter. That however, does present a threat to the teachers union.

  2. Thanks for a very well-considered comment, Steve. I agree with you about the free market approach to education. While I normally oppose taxpayer subsidization of any industry, I think education is a special case. Without some sort of government subsidy, poor children wouldn’t have any opportunity to get an education. I’m obviously not a fan of redistribution of wealth to subsidize the poor, but education is the one area where I think it’s most justified. (However, it has to be much more effective than it is today.) Education isn’t the kind of entitlement that makes people more dependent on the government. It prepares them to be independent, and provides them with the tools to successfully take responsibility for their own lives.

    I believe an effectively implemented voucher system would cost less than what we pay today, while providing better educational opportunities. Education represents a huge share of most states’ budgets and the schools keep crying for more, yet national test scores are dropping. They say they can’t do better without more funding, but throwing money at a problem rarely solves it. As a general rule, the private sector manages to operate more efficiently than the public sector. Schools will have to compete to attract students because their revenue will be directly related to their enrollment, and students will have the option to enroll elsewhere if the school doesn’t perform. With a fixed sum of money available per student, it will be up to the schools to determine how to use it most effectively.

    The purpose of standardized tests would not be to dicate curricula, but to set a minimum bar for what any student should be expected to know at a particular grade level. They provide a way to judge the effectiveness of the schools and make sure we’re getting a good return on investment for our tax dollars. Schools will earn their reputations according to what they provide over and above the minimum.

  3. Quick story. My father started as a family doctor back in the 40s. They never turned anyone away and you basically paid what you could afford. It might even have been in trade. Some paid more and some paid less but on average he did just fine.

    It might be an interesting way to look at funding education. Maybe too simple. Especially when people only pay for what they need and not everything else.

  4. Hi! Found you through the carnival. I also am leery of being taxed to support public education. I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. I homeschool one child with autism the district will not help constructively despite my tax “contribution.”

    However, my older autistic child (12) is in the public school system in seventh grade. I KNOW for a fact that his reading level is not on par with the seven-year-old I teach at home, who can read from the King James and quote extensive lengths of scripture. G reads Calvin and Hobbes, and even then doesn’t really understand as much as I should like.

    Would you want to kick my child out of public school because of his lack of performance, or keep this puberty-stricken boy in the first grade until he passes all the items on the checklist? How fair would it be to the school to spend extra (speech, OT, etc.) on this child and still have a poor performer on the tests you’re proposing? And no, he is not so bad off as to be shunted away to be educated with people with severe developmental delays, etc. He does well in his integrated classes such as cooking and PE.

    I should like for him to attend vocational school even now if it were possible. However, he would need extra supervision and help from staff. He would cost more than the average student. I am a conservative, but I get a bit nervous when people talk about vouchers for private education if they’re proposing giving each child the “average cost per pupil” amount to go where they wish. Some of us don’t have average pupils, and the private schools are not obligated or equipped to deal with the problems associated with autism. “Free market” simply doesn’t work when you’re dealing with these kinds of issues, though it might sound nice when you look at a large picture.

  5. It’s a myth that every child in America can go to a private school. Private schools routinely deny access to kids that are poor, not especially smart, or disabled. Public schools can’t, by law, do this. Comparisions between them therefore aren’t fair. The main difference that I saw as a student between public and private schools was the level of expectation in a student’s performance (high in private…not so much in public) and behavior (no fighting or insubordination in private and not so much in public). Public (and private) schools have been tracking kids above grade 6 for years based on the criteria that you describe. “Gifted” kids routinely are challenged harder than less-gifted kids.

    You can’t have nationalized tests and non-standardized cirriculum. High stakes testing has been a proven failure in states like TX where we originally got them from in NCLB. What will the teens that don’t go to high school do with themselves?? There is no reason for businesses in this country to make even *more* money off our kids.

    Abolish all school boards…they provide nothing to enhance the performance of schools. Hold school administrators and city/town leaders responsible for the performance of school districts. Consoldate school districts in rural areas to cut administrative costs. Provide well-trained, well-motivated, well-compensated teachers the resources that they need (clean, modern, well-stocked schools with reasonable class sizes) to teach children, and then get out of the way…

  6. Mrs. C, thank you for your insightful comment. In my proposal, elementary schools would still be public, and middle schools would be required to accept any students within their district. I have not advocated kicking anybody out. I didn’t mention special education in the post, but I believe special education should be continued, both in elementary and middle school. With privately run middle schools, there could be entire schools dedicated to special education that would do a better job than the public schools do, because they’d have more expertise in teaching children with developmental disadvantages. I don’t see this as something that can only be handled by public schools. Home schooling is a great option, and it sounds like you’ve done an excellent job with your younger child. Unfortunately, not everybody is equipped or has the time/resoureces for home schooling. A voucher system might be designed to provide resources for home schooling as well.

  7. Mister Guy, I’m glad you enjoy my blog so much. Welcome to right side! ;)

    Re your comment that it’s a myth that any child can attend private school, under the system I proposed, middle schools would be required to accept any student within their district. It would only be when the students reach high school that they could be turned down by a school. Kids that didn’t qualify for the high school of their choice would have plenty of options, including vocational school. With the exception of special education students, if a teenager is not academically motivated enough to ensure that he qualifies to get into high school, then he has no business being there. High school is not day care.

    I largely agree with you about what needs to be done to improve schoools. In fact, private schools are already doing all of the things you mention. So let’s give all our kids a chance to go to private schools.

    I have one question. You mention that we should hold school administrators and city/town leaders responsible for the performance of schools, but you object to standardized tests. What criteria would you use to determine the schools’ performance?

  8. I don’t object to standardized tests. They are not the end-all-be-all though. High stakes testing was a fraud in TX, they specifically didn’t include poorly performing students in the end-of-the-year testing that was done in order to inflate the “progress” that they were getting from their one-size fits all system. NCLB is a fraud for that reason and many others.

    “What criteria would you use to determine the schools’ performance?”

    Ask any educator how they evalute their own performing and there’s your standard. Or, as GWB would say, “Is our childrens learning?” :)

  9. Re “Ask any educator how they evaluate their own performing and there’s you standard” — there’s a fundamental problem with letting people evaluate their own performance. If you let students do that, they’d all get straight A’s, eeven if that was the only letter of the alphabet they knew…

  10. Where there’s a problem is when politicans and other people that think they know better than the actual professionals that do the actual work educating kids substitute their own aribrary, uninformed evaluation standards.

  11. It’s too bad that schools can’t hire professional “auditors” just like businesses. Businesses would never even try to fool people by doing their own audit. OBVIOUSLY, though, we all know audits aren’t perfect, but they would be more objective than Mrs. Apples evaluating her own teaching on a merit pay system.

  12. “Businesses would never even try to fool people by doing their own audit.”

    Ever hear of Enron?

    No one, not even me, is advocating that schools should evaluate themselves. Just make sure that the standards are setup by people that know how to educate kids and know how to evaluate whether or not they are learning what they need to learn. How hard is that? Teachers and administrators are professionals too.

  13. At best government isn’t any cleaner the business, while you bring up Enron, you might also want to mention Abscam, BCCI, The congressional post office, house banking scandal, Billy Sol Estes, Robert Torecelli,Teapot Dome, Tamminy Hall and it goes on and on.

    I think teachers should be evaluated by schools so long as you have tough standards for schools and hold the principles and administrators responsible. Schools should be evaluated by their customers – kids, parents and taxpayers. If the school can’t meet the standards, the customer should be free to take their money elsewhere.

  14. What is bumburbia?

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