Thursday, July 13, 2006

I love stories like this, 26

...because I'm a digital kinda guy.

This isn't a story about government-funded compulsory matriculation center policies of "Zero Tolerance", nor is it a story about bizarre goings-on inside those same institutions. It's an essay on the likely effects of the enormous gift of $30 billion that Warren Buffett made to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The author, Andrew J. Coulson, the director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and former Microsoft Systems Engineer, makes one big point regarding huge gifts of this kind made to bolster public institutions: when you assume you make an ass out of you and me.

Coulson (who's written extensively on "market education") brings up the huge gift that "ambassador and TV Guide mogul, Walter Annenberg", made in the 90's: $1.3 billion for the "Annenberg Challenge". As Coulson tells it:
Mr. Annenberg's goal was to create exemplary schools and districts that would act as models for the nation. He sought not incremental change, but systemwide transformation. He didn't get it. Though some Annenberg Challenge projects showed promise, at least for a time, their impact on the system as a whole was negligible.

Why? The Wreck of the Annenberg can be attributed to a single fundamental flaw in the ambassador's approach: he assumed that excellence, once demonstrated, would automatically be imitated.

There's that assumption in all its glory.
It is easy to see why people who have amassed riches in the private sector might assume that successful models are always mimicked on a broad scale. That is what happens in competitive markets – including competitive education markets.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith praised the vigorous education industry of classical Athens, noting that: "The demand for ... instruction produced, what it always produces, the talent for giving it; and the emulation which an unrestrained competition never fails to excite appears to have brought that talent to a very high degree of perfection."

But the "emulation" that Mr. Annenberg was counting on never happened because there was no competition to "excite" it. Absent market forces, America's public school monopoly has no mechanism by which excellence can be routinely identified, perpetuated and disseminated. As a result, there are myriad examples of public school excellence achieved and then lost.

Have you heard of Jaime Escalante? His story was made into the movie, Stand and Deliver. There's an excellent summary of the non-Hollywoodized story in Reason magazine. What was his story?
Many readers will remember the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, celebrating real-life Los Angeles public school teacher Jaime Escalante. Mr. Escalante painstakingly built a rigorous math program at Garfield High School, enabling an unprecedented number of its low-income, mostly Hispanic students to take and pass the Advanced Placement calculus test.

His results were so good that many observers literally couldn't believe them, and his students were forced to retake the test – on which they succeeded admirably once again.

In a competitive industry, a star like Mr. Escalante would have been rapidly promoted. He would soon have been designing curricula and training teachers for the benefit of thousands or even millions of children. He got threats and hate mail instead.

Because he successfully taught difficult material to classrooms of 50 or more students, Mr. Escalante drew the ire of his own colleagues. The local union contract stipulated that teachers could not serve more than 35 children per class, and Mr. Escalante's achievements made that stipulation seem gratuitous and self-serving. The union balked, the threats started, and Mr. Escalante's chairmanship of the math department was revoked in 1990. He left a year later.

Coulson goes on:
The dysfunctional incentive structure of our public school monopoly is not only incapable of sustaining excellence, it actually works to crush it by setting the interests of school employees against those of students and parents.

Countless other exemplary teachers and model schools have failed to transform the system for this reason. So the $30 billion question is: Will Mr. Buffett and the Gateses pursue the same ill-fated course?

Well worth your time. It may shake up your notions about public schools.

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