30 April 2012

The federalism problem

In recent debates, it is clear that there is a growing concern for an object policy like national educational standards. I can sympathize with some of these concerns that underlie such a policy but I find the solution more problematic than most. These are the numerous problems
1) We have a fairly clear supposition of the following
a) that strong investment and support of education is a positive net good for a society, both for individual benefits, economic opportunity/equality, and for net economic growth as a whole.
b) that at present our educational system has infrastructural deficits in attaining this end goal.
2) We do not have a very clear idea how to attain that goal. There are numerous models around the globe of educational success and varying definitions of what defines such successes. The variations between "success" in the Shanghai or Singapore model and that of Finland or other Northern European republics is rather vast, both in results and methods.

This means that it is unclear what national standards would be best designed to accomplish, or how they should accomplish them.

3) In the absence of well-defined and independently useful metrics, it is unclear how we might measure the accomplishment of such things. We rely strongly on standardised tests, which have at best, only a marginal utility to study the impact and efficacy of our educational system and the agents we have appointed to carry it out. By contrast, the Finns do not seem to bother with standardising test results (other than for college admissions periods). And they're apparently kicking our ass on them all the same.

4) I think this argues strongly for the continued use of the "laboratory of democracy" model of decentralised federalism, as it pertains to education. With the use of federal involvement perhaps in some form like that of "race to the top", that is a reward structure to encourage states and cities to innovate and succeed in the platform of education with minimal concern as to how they do so from any top-down institutional perspective. I have my own concerns with "race to the top", namely that it still relies too heavily on testing regimes, but I admire the conceptual approach. Generally speaking in the absence of clear evidence of what works and what does not to achieve a public policy goal, even one of great importance with definite and large externality effects and free rider problems like education provision, we should not be invoking strong central responses. At best we can possibly acknowledge that some measure of taxation to provide that service publicly is appropriate, but the administration may be a more vague open ended system than, say, central and public monopolies on its provision. Other governmental involvements might be to assure that there are not discriminatory practices that conflict unnecessarily with broader educational missions, such as by excluding LGBT children or children adopted/raised by same, or practicing racial discrimination in acceptance of student and parent applications. Gender discrimination seems to have some possibly useful effects (For example, women on average behave differently in a unisex environment in what seems like a constructive way. That is, that they are more competitive than when around men in a mixed gender setting, where they can be rendered more passive by our social norms). Though I'm not sure it should be used permissively at all times (there is value in interacting in mixed sex environments for lots of other reasons) and I do not think it appropriate to systematically exclude a gender from educational opportunity entirely at all.

5) My primary concern with any nationalising standards of education is the same I have for those of state or local standards. Namely, who determines these? At present we often elect school board members to local and state offices, with the side effect of only cursory attention being paid by most voters to their actual qualifications to help determine school policies and educational curricula in any subjects. Presumably we could follow a similar model to decide federal standards, or have the tangential effect of having to lobby an appointed bureaucracy and/or influence it through the election of other public officials (Presidents for example). The existence of standards however does not presuppose what those standards will be or how they will be amended or by whom.

6) To me this seems like a model destined to repeat and inflame the smaller turf battles which occur in thousands of school districts and statehouses around the country at a national level and "we" would have to wage unceasing war with social conservatives over the content and instruction of science or history courses in order to avoid surrendering control over those standards to their perusal and objection. At present, the amount of influence formerly wielded by a dentist over not only Texas but large portions of the country concerning history or science instruction, curriculum and textbook content is a warning that forming large national controls over such things is not likely to result always in the well-meaning intention of providing a better liberal arts education base to the broader public.

7) Many of those aforementioned social conservatives already educate their children at home, or with explicitly religious instruction, and often at public expense. This suggests that their pet issues of religious indoctrination, prayer, creationism, historical revisionism, or whatever the case may be, are likely to be values they wish imposed anyway and will seek means to achieve them. Some of these are Constitutionally protected values (religion for instance), even if they are not imposable values on others by that same Constitution. (Note: this is not to say that all home school instruction is valueless, or that parents should take no effort in the education of values and subjects for their children, but that there are tacit motivations invoked and involved which are of importance to many parents and families).

8) This suggests that an alternative to stronger and tighter national and central control is to abolish or reduce local and state controls. If social conservative types are already going to flee the perceived liberal hegemony over education, then I say let them go. And perhaps they will stop bothering the rest of us if their concerns are allowed to be addressed more privately. I find that a practical objection is that there would be too many nutjobs. But in my estimation there are already too many nutjobs and that abolishing formal religiously-based instruction through schools is unlikely to rid us of them

9) I would also say that religious training is hardly the only source of moral hazard as there are various liberal credos that worry me as being explicitly anti-science too or dishonest assessments of historical fact too. Opposition to nuclear power or genetically engineered food/products is more of a gut reaction than an educated response in many cases and many anti-vaccination advocates are drawn from a liberal elite just as easily as they may be Christian science types. To me this suggests further difficulty with decisions over national standards as there are many, many possible intersections of those standards with educational subjects and the approaches taken to study them.

10) A further practical objection is that in someway the lack of (enforceable) standards would mean that in some cases educational attainment would suffer. On some of these points I am prepared to agree. Though, I'd have to argue we already have many institutions called schools which also fail to help their students attain educational successes on the one hand.

11) Secondly, I would argue that it probably matters very little what a person learns about the scientific method, evolutionary theory v creationist mythology, historical facts and figures from legitimate sources versus revisionists, and so on to their overall life satisfaction and career or job prospects. In fact it matters very little how well one studies Algebra 2 functions, for that matter. To the extent that these things matter right now, they impact political policy through the public's intervention into educational policies and how they are set, especially at a local level. Not always in a positive and healthy manner. It might matter in the abstract value of creating an educational system that fosters a love and desire for learning and study in the subjects that might occur to the person in question. But to the extent that our educational system creates more inquisitive academics and skeptics, I'm not sure this is a desirable or necessary goal in and of itself for everyone we seek to educate. We should encourage those who are able and willing of such things, and have available the methods and systems that might help foster creative and innovative thinkers to operate more freely. But that's not everyone's view of educational success. (To me this means that for most people, education is not about learning).

12) To the extent that there are or will be debates over "values" concerns like prayer in school or some such, I think these are abated if more people who care about such things are permitted to allow their own institutions and children to practice them. That's not to say that they will be silent on the issue of whether "our" institutions should likewise practice their methods, but they will have less teeth to bare and less ability to make such requirements insistently if they are allowed their own arrangements. My own preference should be that people have religious institutions for this purpose and their educational institutions are for other purposes. There are however crossover elements in terms of these vague "values" to be inculcated into the next generation between those institutions that are not easily resolved in a public policy way. Simply abolishing religion from schools and education entirely is not workable. However desirable I might find such a hypothesis valuable personally, a government powerful enough to do so would contain mechanics capable of abolishing more secular values as well or of establishing its own variety of what those values shall be.
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