Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anarchy, State and Ignorance - Part II

The whole point of certified public accountancy is the notion that a business cannot be expected or trusted to perform an objective accounting of its performance, at least not sufficiently free of the risk of conflict of interests to satisfy current or potential investors or creditors. The hallmark of a just judiciary is disinterested objectivity. People trust the compliance certification services of Underwriters Laboratories and give greater weight to product reviews and comparisons from Consumer Reports because they understand that the very raison d'ĂȘtre of these organizations is their objectivity and lack of conflicts of interest.

That is not to say that any of these organizations or activities are perfectly or completely bias free. Rather, insofar as the absence of bias is an ideal objective, it is merely the case that they approach it far better, on average, than organizations and institutions that are trusted not only to provide a product or service but also to self-certify the quality of their product or performance.

If you want a diverse, competitive market collectively striving for excellence in education at all levels, separate teaching from testing.

If you want the testing and certifications of academic achievement as free from bias and conflict of interests as possible, separate the testing and certifying function not only from the teaching function, itself, but also from government at all levels.

I doubt I’ll get any serious argument on this blog when I merely assert without arguing that the U.S. Department of Education is a captive regulator to all intents and purposes controlled by the education industry, specifically including state departments of education, university schools of education and, of course, the public teachers’ unions. Similarly, state and local public school systems and individual school PTA’s and such are to all intent and purposes controlled by the very personnel they are supposed to be governing or monitoring. If you want to argue against these assertions, feel free. But I take them as a given.

(It must be said, however, that state departments of education have not always been entirely captive regulators. Indeed, I’m no economist or political scientist but my best guess is that many if not most governmental regulatory agencies, the politics motivating their creation aside, began as relatively disinterested organizations. Corruption typically takes time; however, I believe it eventually, inevitable will occur.)

Anyway, say what you will about the No Child Left Behind program (and I’ll gladly join you in various criticisms), every time I hear a teacher, any teacher (including the good ones) complain about “teaching to the test” I want to jump up and down shouting for joy. Sure, standardized tests have all sorts of problems and, yes, deciding what should constitute the core curriculum in many subjects is a contentious and ultimately subjective matter. I might prefer that every high school graduate read, say, Hamlet and Twelfth Night rather than Macbeth and The Tempest, but I’d sure as hell prefer that they have read one or the other rather than neither.

If we looked not to diplomas and degrees from schools that have, to put it mildly, all sorts of conflicts of interest but to independent testing agencies, different in important ways from and yet similar to the organizations that administer standardized college and professional school exams now, we would go a long way toward creating an entirely different sort of educational system. Such a system would be largely indifferent to how you learned (or how much time you spent learning) algebra or, yes, let’s get it out and be done with it, biology, English literature or conversational Spanish, focusing only on whether you passed whatever standard (and therefore admittedly somewhat arbitrary) benchmark involved. It wouldn’t matter whether you were home schooled, publicly educated or attended the Toniest of upper class prep schools. Oh, and I’ll save the argument for another day, but I’d say roughly the same sort of system should apply to higher education, as well.

I continue to believe in a system of tax funded, voucher supported, primarily privately operated schools, contra what appears to be at least one of my co-bloggers position on the subject. To be sure, we are all here capable of educating our own children or, at least, of paying for someone else to do it, but it isn’t the fault of children born in the inner city or squalid, rural trailer parks or, for that matter, of legal immigrants who will eventually join the middle class or better but whose children need education today. I would no more condemn them to ignorance than deny them food, shelter or medical attention simply because they are unfortunate enough to have parents who cannot or will not provide better.

On the other hand, I also firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of parents want the best education for their children they are capable of receiving and that, given even the minimal required resources to do so, that self-same overwhelming majority are best situated to determine how best to accomplish that. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that many will opt to include rigorous religious education as part of their children’s overall education, nor that I would disagree with much of that religious education, nor that some of it might well conflict with evolutionary theory. You want certification that you have studied introductory biology? Take and pass the test. (Or one of several available tests in a market similar in that sense to the alternative availability of the ACT and SAT.) Potential employers, universities, etc. could and would establish their own standards based on such test results for purposes of employment, admissions, etc. Indeed, employers and schools would have good reason to care about the integrity and independence of the testing agencies and the rigor of their tests and the market pressures to maintain and improve that objectivity and rigor would tend to prevent educators’ inevitable attempts to co-opt the tests.

I may write a third post providing some more detail of the system I envision. By way of shortstopping certain sorts of criticism for now, let me just say that I don’t see this as a panacea but merely as a preferable system to the one we now have There are, no doubt, all sorts of details to be worked out and problems obvious even to me in this alternative approach. Feel free to name them if you wish. What I would be particularly interested in reading, however, is anyone who wishes to argue that the present system, the one we have now, is preferable, and why they believe that is so.

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