Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Education Reform

My dad, a high school teacher, has been saying this kind of thing for years:

 advocates for better education have repeatedly latched on to a depressing litany of fads as the panacea for what ails American education. Believing that they have only a short window of opportunity for change, these reformers push for their ideas to be applied uniformly across the board. "New math," standardized testing, centralization, merit pay, small schools, community control, mayoral control, and dozens of other ideas have ripped through schools, often with disappointment and disillusion not far behind.
Many of these ideas actuallydid have some merit, says Hess, in the sense that they could help some specific students in some specific circumstances. For example, a rigorous focus on a narrow set of tested subjects may be reasonable for schools in chaotic, urban contexts where simply focusing on anything counts as success. But that treatment, like chemotherapy, has powerful side effects that should not be risked on the (relatively) healthy "patients" in more advantaged school districts.

There is no best way to run a school, just as there is no best way to run a restaurant. Different people need different kinds of services. Nobody can design a single plan that works for everyone. Instead of centralized rules, we need a system that gives people freedom to find better ways to teach.

Of course, pure freedom without any responsibility is a recipe for disaster. The output of schools has to be measured somehow. Standardized tests are one option, and are certainly better than nothing, but they still have problems. There is a debate over what exactly schools should do, and most people agree that they should do more than just boost test scores. I think most parents mainly want school to improve their child's future, both in terms of income and quality of life. There should not be too much disagreement on that. 

Therefore, the optimal, incentive-compatible solution would be one that gives money to schools based on the quality of the student's life after school.   If the child gets a good job and is happy and avoids crime and other social ills, the school should be rewarded. If not, the school should get nothing.

Of course, if done wrong, this scheme would result in schools just trying to enroll rich, well-adjusted kids. You have to correct for innate ability and home circumstances to find the improvement that is due to the school.  So at a young age, the government would collect data on children and their parents, measuring things that affect future life outcomes, like parents' income and household situation and the child's health status, IQ, and self-control. Then, these numbers are plugged into a computer model that predicts the child's future income and other measures of quality of life. 

After you get those numbers, you can measure what each school system actually does. If the child's life is better than what the model predicts, the school gets government money. If it is worse, they do not. Private schools and public schools should be treated the same, and parents allowed to choose the school they like the best. This kind of plan would probably create a lot of specialized schools, for example ones that are designed to work with low-IQ children and prepare them for decent jobs.

There are a lot of practical details to be worked out here, and I don't think my readers would be interested in the specifics. But they can be worked out. Whenever you have a problem, a good solution usually starts with thinking about exactly what you want, and then giving people a string incentive to produce those results.

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