“the ultimate decision about what is accepted as right and wrong will be made not by individual human wisdom but by the disappearance of the groups that have adhered to the ‘wrong’ beliefs” – F. A. Hayek
A friend forwarded an article on education, and the impact of class size, from the Straight Dope: are smaller elementary-school class sizes better? It’s a great article – Cecil always does a good job. The gist of the article is that (i) the results are less than conclusive regarding the impact of smaller class sizes, (ii) there are, as always, a lot of factors involved, and (iii) the ability to assess this sort of thing scientifically is difficult. I infer point (iii) from Cecil’s closing remarks: “One appreciates that parents clamoring for instant results don’t like waiting while the social scientists patiently try A, then B. But there’s really no other sensible way to do it.” [emphasis added]
I disagree with the assessment, unless we stress and broaden the meaning of “sensible” in solving the issue.
The problem, or the structural “constrained optimization” problem faced by the education system in this country is simple. It’s beyond simple. The solution too is simple. Note, I did not say easy – only simple.
Feedback cycle …
The issue with getting to a good answer in schools is the feedback cycle. In general, the shorter (faster) your feedback cycle, the simpler your decision rule can be.
For instance, comedians know right away if something was funny, and can change mid-routine if they need to. A hotdog salesman knows within 5 steps of the customer walking away whether the dog was any good, and can make changes as needed.
In contrast, central bankers don’t know if their decisions had the desired impact for months or years. The same is largely true of the education system at the state level. Education takes time, the system is large, and there are quite a few extraneous factors.
The feedback isn’t just dampened by time either, it’s dampened by consequence. The comedian or hotdog vender gets punished for failure. The bureaucrat and central banker may face a little heat, but less than the comedian … and they can share it with others in the system.
And why should that be? Why should the education system face little-to-no voter backlash over failure? Because America operates on political value meals.
Value menus …
I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t order a combo at a fast food restaurant. You had to recite, every time, “I’ll have a burger, fries, and a coke.” You had to give the sizes of each (well, burgers were one size, but fries and coke were not.) Eventually the restaurants got smart and packaged it all up. You can now just order by number, receiving an “entree,” fries, and a beverage. You can still change sizes, but fries and beverage now move in tandem, removing a degree of freedom. The system is obviously better, just from an order efficiency standpoint.
Interestingly, though, you can still choose to order a la carte. Imagine now if the restaurants took that option away and gave you only the value meal list. I don’t care if you only want nuggets and fries, you get drinks too (I usually get just nuggets and fries for the kids – we can get drinks at home for much cheaper). It would probably hurt business, so they don’t do it. That’s telling – they won’t do stuff that hurts business … remember that …
Let’s go one step further and consider a fine dining establishment that allows you only two choices. You can get caesar salad, pan roasted salmon, and a shirazz – OR – a cheese plate, grilled pork tenderloin, and a white wine spritzer [laughter]. Forget, for a moment, that there is no steak on the menu. What if you decide you want the salmon with the cheese plate? No dice – it’s not on the menu.
When going to the voting booth, Americans are given a choice between R and D. “What if I really like R or D on education but go the other way on the economy?” Hold your nose and make a choice. Worse yet, the fact that all issues are bundled and packaged into one of two candidate choices means sometimes the issues you care most about are not even in the discussion. (Try teasing out a candidate’s views on mass transit when it falls to 12th on the issues list.)
The hidden yet inescapable …
This points to a hidden and yet ultimately inescapable conclusion. The centralization of authority necessarily results in this type of value menu nonsense. When government policies control or dramatically impact every single aspect of the lives of normal citizens, the feedback cycles are lengthened and choices are bundled well beyond any measurable usefulness.
What shall we do then? Build grass roots movements within the parties to hopefully drive one of the two combo meals to a palatable solution? How can you possibly hope to sit down at a table with the other 60 people in the restaurant (even if they’re all your friends) and come up with a menu choice that is what everybody would want?
Let me make it simple. When your policy preferences require actions and behaviors from your neighbors other than what they would necessarily choose for themselves, you’re just another combo meal peddler enforcing dietary constraints on the rest.
So what do we do about education? Simple – privatize the whole thing. Parents care deeply about the education their children receive. (I know, some parents are aloof and distant from the whole process, but as a general rule parents do care about the well being of their children.) Let the parents order a la carte from the education menu. Let them decide where, when, how, who, and even why to send their kids to school. A hundred different schools will pop up overnight with a hundred different educational philosophies. We’ll know in a semester what works and what doesn’t. The failures will be punished, the successes rewarded, and on we go. Furthermore, what is a success in one city may fail miserably in the next – so why force everybody to order the same combo meal?
It’s not just education, of course, but I’ll spare you an extensive and surely incomplete list of grievances at this time. I will reiterate though, if you choose (via your vote) policies that limit your neighbor’s freedom, policies that force your neighbor to participate in a system that they would otherwise not choose for themselves, then you’re peddling the same combo meal nonsense that has been shown to fail time and again.