Tuesday, March 29, 2005

More thoughts on public education More thoughts on public education

In an earlier post, I suggested that the problem with public schools is that they are publically funded monopolies, and are thus fated to fail.

The reason for this is that several fold. Probably most importantly, without the market signals that for-profit enterprises (including private schools) receive through their profit-making, there is no realistic feedback mechanism.

The situation for most profit making businesses, including most private schools, is very simple. If they provide a quality product at a good price, they survive, and maybe even grow. If they don't, they fail.

In the case of private schools, it is very simple. If the parents believe that their kids are learning more than they would elsewhere, they send their money (tuition is only the start here). If they don't, they send their kids and their money elsewhere. Brutal, but effective. Few bad teachers, etc.

But in the case of public schools, this brutal tie between performance (as defined by how well the kids are taught) and money is missing.

So, you have the situation where schools and teachers are rewarded for all the wrong reasons. They are not rewarded for effective teaching since they get their money regardless of whether or not the kids learn anything.

Indeed, the system is full of negative rewards. For example, in Phoenix, the schools apparently get/got federal and state money based on how many students they had at the first of the year. Sounds good? Well, it turns out that the negative effect of this is to dump a lot of students within the first month or so of each school year. After all, they have already been paid for these dumped students, and this allows the schools to do more for the other kids (and, more importantly to them, the administrators and teachers).

There are a lot of other perverse effects of not tying money to performance. One is that schools get hijacked from their original mission by other pressure groups. Even worse, schools get hijacked by their employees.

This all happens because organizations require some sort of direction. In the case of for-profit organizations, the direction has a direct tie to money. In public organizations, the direction is invariably political.

This has a couple of ramifications. First, you get a number of goals that are really irrelevant to what the public would probably consider the mission of the organization. For example, diversity. Sensitivity. Etc.

Secondly, with multiple, conflicting, goals, those within the system are given a lot of freedom to do exactly what they want - by emphasizing whetever political goals they want to.

So, the result is that the inevitable result of a publically funded monopoly public school system is that it is run for the benefit of those working within it, and for those pressure groups that can apply sufficient political pressure to get included in the goal setting. This means that it is invariably not run for those who should be the ultimate consumers of the public school system - the students. Indeed, they are an inconvenience (as noted in the Phoenix example).

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