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Market, real world should help frame education system

May 6th, 2013 9:31 am by Kenneth D. Gough, Community Voices

Market, real world should help frame education system

Dr. Eric Glover of East Tennessee State University contributed an extraordinarily thoughtful column to this newspaper (“Assembly line schools: Responsible or accountable?”) on March 3 dealing with education. His insights on the development of our current system are spot-on and his criticisms of the “factory model” of education are well-founded. Yet, I find that his analysis of what ails education and some of the proposed fixes left me with more questions than answers.

I come at the problem not as an educational professional, trying to deal with a culture and political system that often seem to do nothing but throw sand in the gears, but as a father, employer and citizen. Furthermore, my training is in engineering, which teaches us to believe in what works — but we deal with the objective laws of physics, not the inconsistencies and perversities of human behavior. I claim only to be a fairly well-informed layman.

So, having paid the devil his due, let’s dig in. Dr. Glover criticizes the “factory model” of education, primarily because it treats people as “production elements.” As Glover says, we are good humans, but bad machines. Well said.

The problem, though, is that the only alternative we have (at least to date) is the artisanal model, in which each “production element” is lovingly handcrafted — and hugely expensive. We’ve already been there. In such a world, only the wealthy can afford high-quality products, while the middle class accepts less and the poor simply do without.

In spite of the system’s many failings, most people are much better educated than they were even a century ago, and educational opportunities exist for the middle class and poor that were previously inconceivable. We must be careful not to destroy what works as we fix what doesn’t.

There is a common core of knowledge needed by any society. A thorough grounding in that core is growing ever more important, because, as Thomas Jefferson famously argued, only a well-educated people can be self-governing. The problem is that much of the core isn’t stuff that business necessarily values. But teaching history, literature, religion, philosophy, the arts, politics and the sciences only to an elite guarantees (eventually) a return to governance by that elite — the return to serfdom predicted by Friedrich Hayek.

We must be very, very careful not to shortchange the liberal arts. We have every reason to insist that our children — all of our children — learn these vital subjects. Yes, they can only understand and appreciate their value once they are grown. But as my parents said, tough, kid, now eat your broccoli. An efficient and effective method of passing along core knowledge is an absolute necessity.

Dr. Glover, as does most of the educational establishment, criticizes school vouchers and tying teacher pay to test scores. The thinking seems to be, as best I can understand it, that these are objectionable because they are external motivators that treat education, and educators, as “simple commodities.” Glover would “seek responsibility, not accountability,” and he describes vouchers as “market-based bribes.”

This confuses means with results.

Of course, inculcating responsibility is one of the fundamental purposes of education, as important as imparting knowledge. But it is an outcome that can only occur indirectly. Clearly, we would consider teachers a failure if their students left their classes having learned nothing, but taking full responsibility for the fact. Accountability is nothing more than a measure of the quantity of knowledge and the ability to use it that has been gained. It is a demonstration of the quality of responsibility — or lack thereof.

Why the objection to external motivators escapes me. They are part and parcel of life.

The utility of vouchers becomes clear when one uses the word “incentive” rather than “bribe.” Market-based incentives — in other words, the ability to profit from one’s ability to satisfy a human need — are not an evil, but a good.

What is important is that the child be educated, not how that occurs. If vouchers incentivize the process better than monopolized, government-operated, factory-model schools, then why would anyone object? The limited information we have suggests quite strongly that vouchers do lead to better-educated children with better prospects. To a businessman, that is no surprise. Competition always, always makes every competitor better.

Dr. Glover ends by asking how our schools should operate, and how teachers should approach their students. How to educate and what to learn are eternal problems because the world is always changing, even though human nature is highly resistant to change. Our current system — bureaucratic, rigid, prescriptive and proscriptive — is, by design, incapable of rapid change. That is why a market-based system, with its ability to quickly adjust, and its tolerance for failure when failure is the best option, is worth a try.

How should our schools operate? I suggest we let the market — the collective wisdom and desires of real people living in the real world — tell us.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.

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