Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How not to solve problems in education

In an article in the Washington Post, Marion Brady argues that our standardized tests are the product of unaccountable institutions that are out of teach with real educational needs. She relates the story of a friend "on the school board of one of the largest school districts in America" who decided to take a tenth grade standardized test himself, to see how he would do. The results were abysmal. In particular, he only managed to get 10% on the math portion (no surprise to me, by the way) and a 60% on the reading portion. The key to Brady's telling of the story is that her friend is actually a perfectly successful individual:
His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.
So the claim of the article is not that grown-ups on the school board are stupid, but rather that the tests are too hard, and don't really test anything that students will need to know as adults.

Maybe this is true and maybe it isn't. I'm sure we'll hear some responses back and forth about that claim. But if you dwell on this question, then the real point of the article is easy to overlook. The real point is made when Brady quotes her friend as saying,
“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
Individuals who lack perspective and aren't really accountable are exactly the kind of people you get when you put some people in charge of others. If there was ever an argument for a libertarian restructuring of education it's precisely this. It comes down to a simple logical quandary, really: if the only way to hold people accountable is by putting others in charge of them, then who holds the people in charge accountable?

The case for freedom in general, and education in particular, is that people will generally be held accountable by reality. The real world does not have unlimited resources. Possibilities are only endless insofar as the human mind is able to make more creative use of what is available. This means all decisions come with considerable risk: there is no way to be absolutely sure that one particular choice is better than all of the others which could have been made.

This is true of education no less than anything else. The desire to standardize education stems from the desire to shield children from the possibility of being "left behind," but in the process it simply forces all students to bear the consequences of whatever risks the federal government takes in determining education policy. A political process simply cannot determine what is best for everyone, given the unique individual needs of millions of students.

Education is not a magic bullet. We have damaged our society by indulging ourselves in the illusory narrative that all good students who do the right thing will invariably be successful in life. Statistics may show that this is true; but for any one particular individual dealing with the particular circumstances of his own life, statistics mean absolutely nothing.

Society learns more when we allow people to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of those decisions. This often turns out badly for some people who take risks; but to imagine that we have a better alternative than this is nothing short of delusion. The only alternative is to let other people make our decisions for us, and then to bear the consequences of the risks they have taken. The idea that any government bureaucracy or corporation could produce a curriculum appropriate for all students is yet another example of the fatal conceit at work in our political system.

There are ways we could quickly make our educational system more free. School vouchers are a good idea. We could also start abolishing laws in school districts that prevent charter schools from moving in. Repeal No Child Left Behind. There have to be dozens of other actions that could be taken, but all of them are prevented by one special interest group or another. All we can do is watch those groups fight each other for power.

There are many problems in education, and almost all of them are caused by the fact that certain people have too much control over the decisions we make for ourselves and for our children. The way not to solve those problems is to give someone else even more power over the people who now have power over us.

The way to solve these problems is liberty.

1 comment:

  1. I read this article as well and found it interesting although I found the conclusion to be disappointing. I ended up googling standardized tests for 10th grade math and finally found a list of practice/sample questions for a 9th grade standardized math test. I started doing a few of the problems (they were multiple choice) and quickly discovered that they were not as hard as I expected. I was not really a big math fan, but still, these were not difficult. I went to about problem #20 before I got bored and checked my score awhile- I got 20 out of 20.

    This is the test I looked at:


    You can find a way to get to released tests here:


    Anyway, I guess my point is that these tests are NOT too hard for a "normal, successful" adult.


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