Why You Can’t Reform Education
There’s an interesting debate over at Andrew Sullivan’s place regarding teacher tenure and whether it’s a good thing. I always find focus on small details like this on education policy to be fascinating, because it’s based on the odd premise that some minor tinkering with the system is somehow going to make things drastically better. Even proponents of school choice seem to be under the impression that all that’s really needed is to have more private schools, which is absurd, because the primary reason primary school children do better is through a process of self-selection. Parents who are more involved in their children’s education and place a high priority on education are more likely to send their kids to public schools. Those kids are already growing up in an environment where education is valued, which gives them a leg up over their peers.
As I wrote over a month ago, the reason for the poor performance of American schools isn’t the system, or government control, or anything like that. It’s the fact that American culture simply doesn’t value intellectual achievement.
Given the general American cultural attitudes towards intellectual pursuits, it is little wonder that are schools are consistently failing, no matter how wonderful our teachers are (and most of them are) and how much money we throw at the schools (which is a lot). Even market based reforms such as school voucher programs don’t show any significant improvements in educational achievement. And why should they? Children pick up their attitudes from the people around them. Football players are popular and liked. Chess masters aren’t. Magazines are devoted to the personal lives of pop stars and actors, not inventors. Everybody knows the names Babe Ruth and Tom Hanks. Nobody knows the names Norman Borlaug or Jack Kilby—even though they made the world we live in possible.
Given these facts, it’s a miracle that any kids at all desire intellectual pursuits. However, one thing that is clear is that educational reform is doomed to failure until American society itself changes.
Frankly, I don’t see that change happening anytime soon.