Monday, August 16, 2010

Saviors and Scapegoats III

“What we've got here is... failure to communicate.”

I like to reference Cool Hand Luke because it's such a great movie. Seriously, reread this article's opening line in your head with that dude's crazy voice from the film. Hilarious. Anything going wrong at any work place is on display in Cool Hand Luke. That movie ain't about prison. It's about business.

Education is business. Or, at least, that's how we like to talk about it. It's a losing government business, almost as financially stupid as defense. And education has been inching towards the “free market” for years. From standardized test vending to tutoring super-businesses to charter schools, private industry has been making inroads into “public” schooling for years.

Battle lines are drawn here. The teacher unions are against privatizing. Business leaders are against public spending that raises taxes. Liberals tend to be for budget increases in education. Conservatives tend to be for slashing budgets in education. (Disclosure: I am an elected representative in my school's teacher union. And I'm making bank in that gig! Disclosure again: I am not making bank. It's like $350 a year after taxes.)

This is the failure to communicate. We can't talk about better teachers because we can't stop talking about taxes.

Public Education Gets Kicked In the Privates

The debate about taxes, specifically public funding vs private funding, might be the most polarizing political argument in our country. Innovation in schools, like innovation in anything, costs money. Therefore, innovation, change, and growth in the field of education divide people right on the same line as taxation. Which is to say: most people do not seem to favor spending more money on education.

Duh. We've married “improving education” with “raising taxes.” It's like wedding “chocolate fudge sundaes” with “root canal work.” Can you imagine enjoying Ben and Jerry's on your couch while watching a stereophonic HD documentary of a dentist drilling cavities? This is what happens when people talk about improving education. They hear the high pitch drill of higher taxes.

So, the private sector looks like it may get another win. Charter schools, home schooling, industry incentives have all made it to the table. I already mentioned how private companies develop the standardized tests like the SAT and AP. Private answers to public problems have been winning all over our culture. In education, this is probably a good thing, at least in the near term. We might get beyond just talking about taxes and actually talk about innovation.

But long term, the private sector has troublesome issues. As awesomely awesome as the free market is, it runs best on customer satisfaction. In fact, it runs like a champ on the sweetest tooth of satisfaction: immediate gratification.

Put It In My Mouth

McDonald's doesn't do well because people appreciate the nutritional value of its food years after the food is gone. It does well because we eat it and enjoy it right now. No one takes a moment to reflect and say, “Five years ago, I ate an 800 calorie Big Mac instead of a fresh organic salad. (pause) Man, that was smart.” Big oil doesn't run the world economy because it makes long term sense. Using dead animals and plants that are millions of years old to power everything is astonishingly stupid. But who can care when we need to get somewhere in a car?

Doing something that is more expensive and less enjoyable doesn't really float in the free market. We spend way more on diet foods, books, and cosmetic surgery than we do on fitness. Like I've said, teachers must be free to be unpopular, irritating, and completely "unsatisfying" (in the immediate satisfaction model).

The Teacher Brain Drain

So, if the public model allows for those awful teachers I mentioned in part II and the private model works on a system that has trouble incentivizing teachers to be independent of customer satisfaction, what do we do?

I'm working on it. Generally, the private sector has a much better model to increase spending based on good quality. Likewise, the public sector does a much better job of sustaining stability regardless of economic conditions (or quality). I suspect we need to find a way to make public and private play more nicely together. And we need to a lot more imagination, as a country, to get around that corner.

But the radioactive conversation of taxes keeps directing us into the wrong conversation. It's not about HOW we pay. It's WHAT we are willing to pay for.

We need to bravely address the most important fact of education: great teachers make great students.

It's simple. We need well-trained, innovative, cream of the crop, badass, well-paid teachers. We need to entice talented people from the better paying, more respected gigs of our culture and get them in the classroom.

I think we start with tenure. I'd wager that if we do this right and people will be more willing to pay more for education, publicly or privately.

Check out part IV, the final installment of this series, for my thoughts on how to do it.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with taxes (and how they're perceived) is that we just hand the money over, case closed. We need to shift it so that like 60% goes to things we have no say about but the other 40 goes into a pot where we decide what to support. Parents could decide that 7% (of their 40%)should go to education whereas people without children (or full-grown children) could support police, parks, recycling etc.

    In a way, it would then become like politics as different groups and projects would hound you for your support. And yes, it would be tough because not everything that is genuinely "needed" is either (A) enticing or (B) visible. Groups (including schools) would literally have to create new teams of people whose sole purpose was to sell individual taxpayers on why their particular project deserved support.

    This would not change peoples' view of taxes entirely, but it would make people feel a connection to where their money was going.