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Creating Transformative Systems of Human Development

Systems for human development evolve based on the fitness characteristics of those systems relative to the environment in which they evolve.  The current teacher training system selects for students willing to take education courses in order to obtain a teaching certificate.  They expect that a teaching certificate will give them a security.  But a different fitness landscape would result in a system that selected for different characteristics.

Only those behaviors which are rewarded will be adapted by the system as a whole.  In the existing dominant OS in which completion of course credits or high-stakes testing are the only metrics of value, then while individual teachers may provide some training in cultural capital, there will be no system wide-dissemination of that cultural capital.  Nor will there be systematic improvements in the training and development of specific forms of cultural capital nor in the performance art of transmitting these newly developed forms of cultural capital.  (Though religious schools with common norms or moral values, such as Catholic schools, have a de facto standard package of cultural capital distinct from that provided by the dominant OS).

Because most parents want their children to experience lifelong happiness and well-being, a system for human development anchored in parents’ subjective preferences would evolve diverse approaches to optimizing the lifelong happiness and well-being of young people.  Some will choose religious schools that academic elites consider inferior to their ideal conception of public schools.  Given the signal to noise ratio in the early stages of such a choice system, many such schools may well be inferior.

In addition, in a system with low barriers to entry, new educational models would evolve.  At the most banal level KIPP introduced innovations such as training inner city children to look adults in the eye when they speak to them.  I sometimes describe much of my “Socratic” work in middle schools as very laborious training in “Person A speaks, Person B listens, thinks, and then responds.”  Those who have not spent time with inner city students may not be aware of the importance of these elements of cultural capital.

The difference between the occasional one-off expertise of a brilliant teacher and the development of a scaleable system of replication for such pedagogical expertise is due to the creation of a brand that represents a system of quality control.  Jamie Escalante alone is Jaime Escalante.  If he has a protege, it is Jaime Escalante and protege.  But if Escalante had been able to create a year-long training program in how to teach mathematics, hand-picked his prospective teacher trainees, and then evaluated their level of expertise upon exit, then “customers” could have had some trust that graduates of the Escalante School had developed a certain degree of expertise that resembled that of Escalante himself.

The Montessori movement has grown because “Montessori” teachers have developed expertise that resembles that practiced by Maria Montessori.  Because “Montessori” is not trademarked, knowledgeable parents know that schools certified by AMI (Association Montessori International) or AMS (American Montessori Society) are held to the (different) respective standards of Montessori practice defined by each of those organizations.  A “Montessori” school that is neither AMI nor AMS certified may be an excellent school, but parents may wish to exercise additional due diligence to ascertain the quality of the schools’ program because they cannot rely on the branded quality control mechanisms of AMI and AMS.

Adam Smith noted that specialization and the consequent gains from trade depend on the extent of the market.  Because schools are infrequently selected, they have slow cycles of adaptation.  Many parents prefer to select one school for an entire K-12 career, or at least limit school switching to the transition to secondary school.  Schools make brand promises to parents that are expected to endure at some degree of consistency for thirteen years.  Often schools are de facto geographical local monopolies.  We should expect innovation in education to move slowly even in a completely parent-driven market.

Those schools that experience the most demand will expand into educational chains.  As such schools scale, as long as they are not required to hire licensed teachers they will spontaneously develop dedicated teacher training programs (aka “The Missing Institution”) that will allow them to pursue a path of continuous improvement in the transmission of cultural capital and the creation of meaning-based communities.

In order to have a market in education that supports innovative pedagogies it is important that the teachers trained in those innovative pedagogies have access to diverse job possibilities and career opportunities in diverse locations.  A brand such as “Escalante AP Math” that fits within the existing dominant operating system does not face such challenges of going to scale (if only he had been able to get funding to create his own teacher training center, that could license teachers to teach in public schools, and at which they could use federal funds for tuition).  Brands outside the dominant OS will need scale in order to finance distinctive teacher training programs.

At the level of U.S. policy, this leads me to favor minimally regulated tuition tax credits (including donation tax credits that allow third parties to contribute to scholarships).  The more narrowly “education” is defined the more likely it is that valuable forms of cultural capital and meaning-based community will not be developed and disseminated via entrepreneurial institutions.

Since the rise of mass prosperity in the past century coincides with the era of monopolistic control of education by governments, humanity has never had a large scale system in which human development is subject to entrepreneurial value creation and continuous improvement in a free enterprise system.  Was it a mistake to create government managed education systems around the world?  If the Soviet Union had conquered the world in the 1940s, the IT revolution as we know it would not have taken place.  Brilliant engineers in communist nations would have struggled to improve upon 1940s-era computing.  Small improvements would have been made.  But no one believes the Soviets could have created the iPhone.

Innovation in quality takes place in fitness landscapes in which quality is rewarded.  We know from the evolution of species and technology that cumulative incremental changes that are initially small ultimately result in dramatic transformations:  How did a cluster of light-sensitive cells becomes an eyeball over millions of generations?  How did Turing’s explorations in abstract logic in the 1930s become an iPhone?

Had the Soviet Union not fell, Samuelson would have continued to believe that the Soviet economy was successful until he died.  There is no way ex ante to prove that clusters of light-sensitive cells would evolve into eyeballs or that Turing’s papers in symbolic logic would evolve into handheld devices that provided instantaneous access to all information.  Can education become dramatically more effective once we break free from the legislatively enforced and financed dominant standard?

Given the pervasive malaise regarding the potential of education, most readers will remain doubtful.  But I am certain that we will see improvements in education as dramatic as improvements in technology have been.  And the poor will benefit the most, just as they always do when the powers of entrepreneurial value creation have been liberated.

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  • What’s missing in the tale of Maria Montessori, is that not only was her first school private, it was free and for the poor! The school funding came from tenement landlords.

  • Michael Turner


    Had the Soviet Union not fell (sic), Samuelson would have continued to believe that the Soviet economy was successful until he died.”

    You know this for a fact? You can actually simulate entire counterfactual histories in your head, down to the level of detail of what goes on in other heads, including the heads of Nobel Prize-winning economists?

    Had the Soviet Union not *fallen*, Gorbachev’s reforms might have soon led to the kind of openness (“glasnost”) about econometric data that would have helped explained why the authors of almost ALL U.S. econ textbooks, not just Samuelson and Nordhaus, overestimated Soviet economic growth. We just don’t know. (YOU certainly don’t.) As it was, not even the CIA had a decent grip on economic ground truth in the USSR.

    • Sean II

      Um…Nobel Prize winning economists are not known for the agility with which they change their minds. If you’re hoping to make one apologize or admit error, you’re typically gonna need something like a Judas Cradle or a Choke Pear.

      Strong’s not exactly wandering out onto a speculative limb when he says that, in the absence of massive pressure to the contrary, Samuelson would have gone on stubbornly believing all the idiotic things he was famous for stubbornly believing.

      That’s what people like Samuelson do.

  • John Alexander

    Interesting post. This reminds me a bit of the ‘looking-glass theory of the self’ where one develops one’s sense of personal lidentity through the positive and negative reactions of others. But that aside, what characterisitics do you think should be reinforced and developed through an effctive educainal system? I take it that you value the Socratic perspective, but in so far as most of us are like Euthyhro (and Socrates might be also at the end given that he cannot arrive at definitions either, but only examples) how does one turn an essentially negative method (one designed to expose ignorance) so that one accentuates the positive (education where all can move forward fro agreed upon foundations? Are you committed to an essentially Platonic notion of education as recollection (Meno’s paradox)? If so, how does this square with your ‘looking-glass’ approach? Another issue: most students are in school, not to gain knowledge in the liberal arts/humanities sense of knowledge, but to gain skills so they can compete in the economic system and get jobs/careers that lead to ‘material comfort’ and ‘achievement and success.’ How does this affect your approach to selecting those characteristics that should be reinforced and transmitted to future generations (is this not remineiscent of Dewey?)? The system seems to be selecting certain core norms and values that are instantiated as characteristics that people adopt to meet what is required by those norms and values. How do you address this problem; if it is one?

    • michaelstrong

      Once upon a time I might have thought that there was one right answer to a question like this. One of the reasons I’m interested in a market in human development is precisely because no one knows what the answer to this kind of question really should be, or even what answers are possible. It is as if you were asking someone if they prefer a 1975 Wang or a 1975 DEC? In 1975 that would have been a relevant question, but today no one under the age of 40 would have any idea what you were talking about. Moreover if they did, they would not find it a terribly interesting or relevant question. Our options are so vastly different today than they were in 1975. Almost any methodological question in education I regard as similar: In a future filled with educational innovation, all existing dichotomies will come to seem more or less irrelevant.