Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Lure of Education

This is one of the most cogent arguments for competition I've come across in some time...

What, then, is this easy method for improving education? Competition among schools.

Americans have a strange attitude toward competition. They take it for granted—much more than most foreigners—that competition is vital to ensure the highest standards in almost any kind of endeavor. But some things—such as education and health care—are then deemed "too important" to be left to the market, too important to be thrown open to competition. This makes no sense. I for one would far rather have my car or my shoes or my breakfast cereal issued to me by officials in the D.C. government than to have those officials in monopoly control of the school my children attend or the hospital my kids get taken to when they are sick. Some things are just too important to be sheltered from competition. Education is one.

There is no great mystery, no great controversy over the facts. Competition among schools raises standards. The United States has been experimenting, far too timidly, with two ways of creating educational competition: vouchers and charter schools. Economists have been tracking these initiatives. Their findings are in: The schemes work. And this is not just because charter schools are better than public schools (though often they are), or because vouchers let low-income parents opt out of failing public schools (which they do). It is also because, under pressure, the existing public schools get better. Amazing! Who would have guessed? A charter school opens, or a voucher program gets started, and before you know it, the neighborhood public schools are offering extra classes after school, Saturday morning openings, new tutoring and mentoring schemes. Why didn't we think of this before?

D.C. Dispatch | July 18, 2006, The Atlantic
Wealth of Nations | by Clive Crook 
The Lure of Education

We know how to improve education, and, politics aside, it is not even that difficult: It's clear that competition among schools raises standards.


I am just back from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an event organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, one of our sister publications. It is a grand gathering of what Britain calls the Establishment: a convergence of the intellectually dominant, the politically prominent, and the financially over-endowed. One of the things that struck me there, as the lectures, panels, and conversations ranged across everything from elementary particles to American competitiveness, was how often education was invoked as the answer to ... well, to everything.

I don't suppose this is new, either in America or elsewhere. "Better education" is something all sides agree on, as a remedy for almost anything. Stagnant real wages for the middle class? Better education. The decline of civility in public life? Better education. The obesity epidemic? Better education. The China and India challenge? Better education.

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