December 23, 2007

Democrats on education

In his previous post, Alec links to this very interesting New York Times article about No Child Left Behind. It only discusses Democrats' view on the law, all of whom--correctly, in my view--oppose it. But, not a single one has a decent idea of what to do next.(John Edwards says, "You don’t make a hog fatter by weighing it" (how folksy). This sounds clever, but it does not really apply. A hog does not respond to incentives, but people do. Creating a test and applying consequences to schools whose students don't pass will likely yield an increase in students performance on the test. However, there are consequences to these incentives--likely more teaching to the test--about which we can argue all day. The point is that the right type of test can create good incentives and change behavior.)Anyway, reading through the article, there's not one idea--aside from Hillary's vapid call for "accountability"--on how to improve education. To me, the best--and also easy and obvious--way to improve the current system is strikingly obvious: competition.Competition and the free market are not perfect, as any economist would readily admit. But the free market is far better than a government monopoly, which is basically what we have now. (True, there are private schools, but many people simply can't afford to send their kids to private schools, meaning that for middle- and lower-class families, there is a de facto monopoly in education.) Competition forces innovation and hard work--this is a conservative talking-point, but it's also true.Another thing that bothered me about the article was the assumption that teachers--more specifically their union--have the most important things to say about improving education. I, of course, don't doubt that most, if not all, teachers have their students' interests at heart. However, they also have their own interests--which are not always the same as students'.Let's say you're a bad teacher: You don't want educational reform that will lead to your losing your job. (That's the problem, in my view, with unions: They represent the bad and the good teachers, who have completely opposite interests. For example, good teachers would be thrilled with merit pay, while bad ones would hate it.)When it comes to improving education, we can't assume what's best for teachers is what's best for students.