Social Justice, Current Events

Have We Reached “The End of History” with Respect to What Education Can Achieve?

Whereas once people believed that education would change the world, now people across the political spectrum tend to be skeptical.  Academic performance remains stagnant despite a threefold increase in per pupil spending over the past forty years.  We’ve tried thousands of new methods, pedagogies, textbooks, software, testing regimes, teacher training programs, etc. within the existing constraints without progress.  Diverse thinkers (Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Jefferson, Dewey, etc.) in the western tradition believed that education could be transformative.  The current zeitgeist is that we’ve reached the limits of what education can achieve.  Were the earlier dreams of philosophers, humanists, and educators simply wrong about the potential of education?

By contrast, technological innovation over since the Enlightenment has been stunning:  In 1870 the cost of cotton clothing was one percent of what it was in 1770.  The cost of computing power is one ten-billionth (1/10,000,000,000) of what it was in 1950.  Items that are routinely dumped at Goodwill in the U.S. today, such as books, clothing, plates, utensils, tools, toys, etc. were only available to elites in 1800.

Perhaps the field of human development is unlike technological development.  Perhaps it is impossible for significant innovations to take place in human development.  Indeed, because of the stagnation in “education,” most observers believe that significant improvements in educational performance are not possible.

Here I will present an educational innovator’s case that:

  1.  Significant improvements in educational performance are possible.
  2. Government control over K-12 education, teacher training, and occupational licensing prevents innovations from being developed.  Government control also prevents improvements from scaling.
  3. With more freedom, we will gradually see significant improvements in human development.  As with technological innovations, these will become affordably available to all.
  4. Existing school choice legislation, such as charter schools, while positive, are not adequate to release these innovative forces in education.

To understand the potential of innovation, we must first understand how government domination of education acts as a dominant operating system that prevents important innovations from scaling.

State-managed K-12 education is the norm around the world.  In a long process that began in Prussia in the 18th century, governments have increasingly taken a dominant role in K-12 education.  By the 1930s, a majority of children ages 6-17 in the U.S. were forced to attend government-managed schools, staffed by government certified teachers.  Government domination of K-12 education is a feature of society in nations around the world.

One of the early justifications for school choice in the U.S., from Milton Friedman (1950) through Chubb and Moe (1990) was that it would result in greater educational innovation. After twenty years of the charter school movement, one of the most striking features of school choice is the relative absence of innovation.  Other observers have noted that entirely private education is not particularly innovative either. Should we conclude that school choice will not, in fact, result in significant innovations that will benefit the poor?

In order to understand the paucity of innovation in charter and private education, we need to explain the ways in which the existing system acts as a dominant standard. The default educational system consists of:

A. Grade-level curricula organized by discipline (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.) along with textbooks, state standards, and high stakes tests aligned with these standards.

B. State-licensed personnel who are authorized to play specific roles in this system (pre-school teacher, middle school mathematics teacher, high school language arts teacher, principal, etc.)

This system, with a few small variations, is legally required in all public and charter schools in the U.S.  In some states elements of this system are also required of private schools.  In most countries other than the U.S. state-mandated curricula are required in both public and private schools.  For this reason, and to simplify exposition, I’ll focus on U.S. education.  It is worth noting, however, that most school choice experiments outside the U.S., such as that of Sweden, Holland, and New Zealand were implemented within the boundaries of national curriculum and teacher certification requirements:  a bit of glasnost, but not quite a free market.

Even in U.S. states where private education is relatively unregulated (only minimal health and safety standards), the foregoing system acts as a dominant operating system that constrains innovation.  Microsoft’s “monopoly” in the field of computer operating systems in the 1990s was neither as extensive nor was it government subsidized and legislatively enforced the way that government educational monopolies have been.  Apple and Linux faced a level playing field vis-a-vis Microsoft in the 1990s in comparison to the challenges faced by small private schools outside the government’s dominant OS.

A private school attempting to provide an education outside the bounds of the standard operating system must build everything from the ground up: create its own curricula, educational materials, evaluation systems, strategies for college admissions, and most importantly, its own teacher training system.  Therefore, most private schools use standard components, so to speak, rather than innovate.

Despite these constraints, private schools have been responsible for a few key innovations, including the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate systems. These are arguably the most important innovations that have grown to scale in the past fifty years. Charter schools have also innovated to a limited extent, within the boundaries of the standard, with KIPP Academies being the best known.

Consider the fact that just four companies – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson – produce 96% of standardized tests given at the state level.  Hitherto almost all discussions of “school choice” have taken place within the boundaries defined by these corporations.  But why should we accept those boundaries as the definitive standards for human capital development for all American children?

In the existing system of high-stakes testing, it is a high risk move for any educator to devote resources to such approaches given the fact that students might score worse on high stakes tests (and even most private school parents base their judgments of academic excellence on conventional high stakes testing).  Despite a few promising trials here and there, scaling such systems is almost impossible in the face of the dominant operating system.

What about the development of intellectual skills for which there are no widely recognizable metrics, such as programming or design?  Programming and design abilities are arguably two of the most important 21st century “New Economy” skill sets – yet they are almost entirely absent from the K-12 curriculum.  High profile individuals have promoted such programs in schools – most famously Seymour Papert’s Logo programming, which was deployed as a pedagogy of creativity.  More recently there has been a movement with leading figures in the world of design promoting more design thinking in schools (see here and Luma Institute).  But after promoting creative problem solving through Logo programming for decades, Papert wrote “Why School Reform Is Impossible.”  In essence, Papert discovered, as the promoters of design thinking will discover, that it is impossible to introduce high-quality, large-scale reforms into a system in which all of the incentives continue to redirect educators to prepare students for conventional tests in (mostly) conventional ways.

The situation is much worse for attempts to scale the high-quality development of non-academic abilities:  moral, social, relationship, spiritual, aesthetic, etc. qualities cannot be brought to scale in conventional education because the existing incentive structure does not reward educators who systematically develop them.  (And they can all be developed:  consider extracurricular and adult systems for the transmission of athletic ability, musical ability, “personal growth” systems, yoga and meditation, manners and decorum, etc.)  Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve world-class abilities applies in diverse skill domains, including the foregoing.

What if the most important innovations to help the poor required the creation of educational programs outside the dominant standard?

  • There is a really interesting article in Ivan Illich’s book “Brief History of Needs” regarding education, where he takes issue with Friedman et al.,’s very limited (in his view) view of educational choice. By all apperances, Illich favored a kind of market in education (as he puts it in “Deschooling Society,” “educredits” from the government combined with private resources from parents that can be used for any kind of education they’d like. These credits, though, had NONE of the limits the Friedman-esque voucher proposals would have imposed. (Of course, Illich overlooked the VERY real possibility that if government gave poor, or all, parents ‘educredits’ to spend on education, that government would almost certainly demand that the credits could only be given to governmentally-approvee educational arenas.

    I suppose the trade-off that needs to be considered is whether we want to go laissez-faire and accept the idea that some educational experiments will not work out (or may even just be shams), or whether we want to allow government to limit experimentation in the name of protecting consumers, and accept that some really good experiments will never come to fruition. (Also, I think we need to ask if the social justice aims of government providing educational funding to some or all is worth the almost certain consequences that they will want to regulate what educational institutions can and can’t be used.)

    This is all my fancy way of saying that I have no idea if there is a great answer: we either go completely laissez-faire (and I am not sure i’m ready for that, largely because I want a state to at least make sure the poor can get access to education) or not (in which case, it won’t take long for government to develop pretty large regulations on how people can be educated).

    • michaelstrong

      I’m a big fan of Ivan illich, which may not surprise you. The dilemma you mention at the end gets at the heart of it: It is indeed frightening, for we intellectuals, to let ordinary people make their own decisions regarding their children’s education (“Oh no! They might get it wrong!!!! They might choose religious schools that teach creationism!!!! Oh no!!!”).

      From my book, “Be the Solution,” pg. 61:

      “John Stuart Mill, in his famous essay On Liberty, made a compelling case that freedom of speech allows for a discovery process to take place in which, over time, humanity benefits through the ongoing discovery of new truths. Mill makes the case that even speech that is often considered to be harmful ought to be allowed, both because it is difficult for authorities to determine what speech really is harmful and because harmful speech often provokes thoughtfulness that results in new and better understandings. Friedrich von Hayek makes a very similar argument for freedom of action:

      ‘Freedom granted only where it can be known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial would not be freedom. If we know how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear.We could then achieve the same result by telling people to do what freedom would enable them to do. But we shall never get the benefits of freedom, never obtain those unforeseeable new developments for which it provides the opportunity, if it is not granted also where the uses made of it by some do not seem desirable. It is therefore no argument against individual freedom that it is frequently abused or used for ends that are recognized as socially undesirable. Our faith in freedom rests not on demonstrable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will on balance release more forces for the good than for the bad.’
      Alan McConnell makes the point more succinctly: “If it can’t be abused, it’s not freedom.” For those who respect the archetypal wisdom of ancient myths, it is worth pointing out that the Judaic God gave the angels and men freedom together with the power to abuse it. Satan’s freedom to fall was a necessary aspect of a perfect Creation; more than one theologian has recognized this as evidence of God’s wisdom. It might be considered God’s deepest insight.”


        This is exactly right. If parents can’t be entrusted (as a general matter) to act in the best interests of their children, then who? The state…really??!! If parents can’t be trusted to select schools, then we shouldn’t allow them to home-school either, because, heaven forfend, they might also then question Drawinian orthodoxy.

        • Farstrider

          You can argue that a parent’s freedom to teach untruths to their children outweighs their children’s right to learn the truth. Perhaps I might even agree with you. But please do not pretend that the untruth is truth. It is wrong and you do not need it to make your point.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Its nice that you are so certain about the “truth.” I think in almost all cases the “truth” is up for grabs. See Kuhn, Popper, and the history of science. Things thought to be certainly true, have proven not to be–over and over again.

          • Farstrider

            Evolution is as much a truth as anything can be. All evidence supports it, no evidence contradicts it. Is it possible that there can be some future evidence that contradicts it? Sure, anything is possible. But no one is teaching that possibility (or the history of science generally) and your reference to “Drawinian orthodoxy” is certainly not invoking that.

        • Bob_Robert

          And yet, in every discussion I ever get into about education, the excuse for the state is ALWAYS given as variations on “some people won’t educate their children, so we have to”, which is used to justify the entire coercive education monstrosity.

          Oh, and “access to education”, and “education is a civil right”, demonstrating that these people have absolutely no idea that Schooling does not equal Education.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Right you are, my good man. Because as we know, parents generally don’t love and want what is best for their children, while on the other hand, politicians and bureaucrats love and care for all because they are infinitely kind and generous. Just one funny thing, though, they won’t generally send their kids where they teach and work. Don’t take my word for it.
            Here is our current president writing in 1995 (Dreams…, pp. 256-7):
            biggest source of resistance [to educational reform] was rarely talked about
            though–namely, the uncomfortable fact that every one of our churches was
            filled with teachers, principles, and district superintendents. Few of these
            educators sent their own children to public schools; they knew too much for
            that. But they would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as
            their white counterparts of two decades before.
            In light of what is now happening in Chicago, has anyone heard him say this recently? Like right now?

  • Farstrider

    This may be the first in a series, so my comment may be premature, but I do not see any explanation for why private schools have failed to innovate or why they might innovate more if there were more of them.

    • I thought Michael Strong did give an explanation, or at least a partial
      one, with his discussion of traditional education (including standard
      curricula, educational materials, and testing practices), as the
      “dominant operating system”. He alluded to an important aspect of this with his comment that “even
      most private school parents base their judgments of academic excellence
      on conventional high stakes testing”. One reason they do this is
      because they want their kids to score high on the measures that are
      important to more elite colleges and universities, so that they can get
      relatively high-paying high-status jobs at employers who use graduation from such institutions as a signal of candidate quality.

      To continue the operating system analogy, it’s reminiscent of Apple and Linux vendors having to compete not just against Windows but against the whole Windows ecosystem, up to and including the individuals and organizations used to buying Windows-based PCs. Having more private schools in and of itself won’t suffice to change the situation; you’d almost need to create a brand-new educational ecosystem.

      • michaelstrong

        Great to see that the operating system analogy is making sense to you, Frank. It is crucial in understanding why private schools (and charter schools) are not more innovative.

        • Thanks for replying. (Always gratifying to see posters mix it up in the comments section.) I may derive somewhat different conclusions from the operating system / Windows ecosystem analogy than you; I’m interested in seeing where you take this. (And I can’t resist adding my own take, which I’ll do as a separate comment.)

      • Farstrider

        But Apple and Linux DID innovate. A LOT. The dominance of Windows (or the Windows ecosystem) does not explain a lack of innovation in Apple or Linux — it explains why consumers chose Windows DESPITE innovation from the competition. For the analogy to hold, you would expect to see parents choosing public schools (the dominant system) notwithstanding lots of innovation among competitors (private schools). But the author is not suggesting that is what happens. Instead, he is suggesting that there is simply a lack of innovation among private schools.

        • Bob_Robert

          There is massive innovation, but not within the context of a “everybody sit down and pay attention for the next 45 minutes” classroom.

          And that’s the problem. With performance measured using tests geared toward the public school style, innovation must be limited in order to continue to “perform well” within those guidelines.

          • Farstrider

            So now the argument is that there is massive innovation but just the wrong kind? You see, it is hard to understand an argument that is constantly changing to respond to criticisms.

          • Bob_Robert

            Not wrong kind, simply that the bureaucracy that is Public School cannot embrace what change has occurred.

            The argument is not changing, you are responding to different people.

  • You are presenting as novel a case that has been made again and again and again, despite it failing again and again and again. The claim has constantly been made that “the competition of markets” will improve educational outcomes. Those making those claims have advocated for a raft of changes that have not worked: private school vouchers, charter schools, aggressive assaults on teacher unions, merit pay empowering principals to enforce harsh sanctions on teachers… None of it has worked. I get it: you think that you’re offering a very different form of the “unleashing innovation through smashing government accountability and enriching the privatization crowd, which by a completely unconnected coincidence is also 100% flattering to my ideological preconceptions” line. But this is all boilerplate, dude. People have advocated this for time immemorial. Whenever we empower them to give it their best shot, the result is failure.

    Here is what I am willing to claim as settled: student inputs are vastly more determinative of success on educational metrics than teacher inputs. You choose an all-star team of teachers. Pick them from wherever you want– public, private, charter, homeschooling, nontraditional, whatever. However, your students must represent the entire range of the income spectrum. Then I choose my team. I get no say over how they were taught and who taught them. But I get to choose from whatever income bracket I prefer, and I prefer to choose from the top quintile. Then we have an academic competition. Given the extant empirical evidence, replicated across a vast swath of responsibly generated social science, the odds are overwhelming that my team will not just win, but will outperform your team by leaps and bounds. I don’t like it. I wouldn’t choose it. But that’s the empirical reality. And despite all the empty talk and broken promises, there is no proven way to change the general reality of disadvantage due to income and parentage. Individuals sometimes transcend that disadvantage. The majority does not and will not.

    As a socialist, I’m very happy to suggest that taxing the middle and upper middle class at far higher rates now can be used to bring the incomes of low-performing children up to the median household with children average. Not vouchers just for education, which don’t work, but condition-free, means-tested checks to parents from the time their child is born to the time the child reaches legal majority. When the correlate is so determinative, change the correlate. But I’m afraid in that scenario there are no rent-seeking private “innovators” getting enriched.

    It’s likely that this wouldn’t be sufficient. In my own field of literacy education and language assessment, the evidence seems to be pointing in one direction. At this point, this is conjecture, and frankly I hope it’s not true. But to me (and others) evidence suggests that lifelong literacy is, to a truly depressing degree, constrained by an individual’s exposure (or lack thereof) to a syntactically rich environment between the ages of, say, six months to three years old. If students fail to receive the necessary inputs during that critical period, the chances of them developing the kind of adult language ability our current economy requires are extremely small. I can’t prove all of that. But neither does that mean that this is pure speculation. So: what do you want to do about it? I’m afraid in this society we don’t take kids away from their parents, even though parenting is probably hugely determinative of educational outcomes. For me, the solution is simple: a robust system of redistribution to support those who lack the necessary skills needed to ensure a decent quality of life. But that won’t go far among libertarians, bleeding hearts or not.

    I laughed out loud at the beginning of this piece. The conceit that saying that we are at an educational dead-end is an orthodoxy is just absurd. Exactly the opposite is the case: our educational discussion is absolutely chock full of people saying “Don’t tell me these kids can’t learn!” The discussion is dominated by people who insist that the problem is a matter of will, that everyone has an equal chance of achieving in education, and that with a little innovation (an empty cipher of a word), everyone will be ready for Princeton. Across the political spectrum, people constantly tell me that it is offensive to even question this assumption. But there’s far more evidence for my position than theirs.

    So if you want to get really radical, do what adults should do: consider failure. It’s always an option.

    • michaelstrong

      Freddie, I agree that student inputs are extremely important. That said, with any randomly selected group of students, I’d be happy to challenge anyone who was constrained by, say, NY state public school teacher hiring policies to go head-to-head against me if I am allowed to hire anyone I please, regardless of training or accreditation. I’d bet that the students that my team and I worked with would be, at the end of the year, scoring significantly higher on the SAT verbal; they would be more intellectually engaged; they would have more initiative and confidence; and they would be happier and emotionally healthier. You get to pick the best public school principal you can find in NYC. She or he then needs to staff a school by means of standard staffing policies for 400 students. I get to staff a school with my hand-picked people, none of whom have teaching licenses. They have to follow public school curricula. I don’t. This is a race that would be extremely easy for me to win – and almost any professor would prefer to have students from my schools in their college classes. For the first three days of Socratic Practice in an inner city school, see here,

    • Fallon

      It is unfortunate that school-choicers like Chubb, Moe, Hill, Friedman and others describe their reforms as instilling “market competition”. The public-private partnership lacks the formation of real market prices and consumer accountability in key areas, obviously. These gaps exist where property has been abrogated and confiscated by the state through taxation, regulation, compulsory laws, and the favoritism that comes with “privatization”. So what you are criticizing is not market. Maybe right-wing socialism–as opposed to the current bureaucratic-socialist version that currently describes k-12.
      But given the way food, learning materials, school construction, special services, etc., are already provided– privatization essentially expands/replaces a pre-existing corporatism.
      Freddie, you, including unions, are all ‘socialists’ merely arguing about which special interest should get the spoils of government plunder.

    • TracyW

      even though parenting is probably hugely determinative of educational outcomes

      Adoption studies indicate that parenting (excluding very bad parenting, such as hitting the kid about the head, or making the mistake of being pregnant when food supplies are limited, like Dutch women during the Hungry Winter in WWII) isn’t very determinative of educational outcomes, and is even less determinative of adult outcomes.
      See The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris.

      • michaelstrong

        I’m also a big fan of Judith Harris – much of what I try to do in the classroom is to change peer culture. When one can change peer culture it becomes an extraordinarily powerful force for learning.

  • eselpee

    As someone who taught dinosaures (e.g. been there a long time), government involvement has gone a LOOOOONNNNGGGGG way in bringing up the bottom line of education. It has not, however, been able to raise the curve (Lake Wobegon, “where all the kids are above average” is a fictional place and not statistically feasible). The difference today is that we are now required to educate all children, not just the ones who easily take to it. In the 70s both my math and driver’s ed teachers told me they don’t bother with girls (e.g. answering questions or giving time behind the wheel).

  • OK, as promised, more of my thoughts on the operating system analogy and comparing the Windows ecosystem to the educational ecosystem. As I noted, I think a large part of the problem is that employers by and large use completion of a traditional course of education, nowadays to the point of acquiring at least an undergraduate degree, as a requirement for employment, and this in turn shapes how educational institutions work from university down to high school down to middle school and elementary, including curricula, educational material, assessment mechanisms, credentialing, and so on. Making changes at just one level or in just one area is tough, because of institutional inertia, legacy investment, etc.–similar to the problem of trying to get people to use Macs when they’re still embedded in a Windows-centric world.

    One possibility is making a clean break and creating an alternative education ecosystem–basically doing to traditional education what mobile computing is now doing to PC-based computing. This would potentially require alternative curricula, educational material, types of teachers, ways of teaching, means of assessment, and schemes for credentialing. Most important, it would require employers willing to accept these alternative credentials and everything behind them as meaningful qualifications for job candidates.

    You can see the beginnings of a lot of this now: open educational resources (e.g., MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy videos, etc.), curricula designed around OER, online teaching and assessment (e.g., by Udacity and others), and “open badges” aka “digital badges for learning” as an alternative form of credential (Mozilla is doing technical work in this area, with funding by the MacArthur Foundation and some US government support). On the employer side some companies hiring software developers are now looking beyond traditional educational credentials and using online evidence of competence such as open source code produced by the candidate, e.g., the whole “Github is your new resume” phenomenon.

    Whether or not this goes anywhere, at least in the U.S., is an open question. In programming your chances of getting a potentially lucrative job (especially if you go the startup route) are likely still much higher if you’re admitted to and graduate from Stanford, MIT, CMU, or other elite computer science programs, than if you’re some random developer in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of open source code to your credit but no formal degree. It may be that where such an alternative educational ecosystem really takes off is in developing countries, where the existing ecosystem is weaker, and that’s where we’ll see real innovation — similar to what happened in mobile computing, where some developing countries are significantly ahead of the US in terms of innovation.