Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NOLA -- cutting edge of education

Alex Tabarrok over at MR finds some supporting evidence for the advantage and viability of charter schools and school choice in an unexpected place - New Orleans. With little fanfare, Hurricane Katrina's destruction allowed for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent public education.”

"Stripped of most of its domain and financing, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7,500 of its teachers and support staff, effectively breaking the teachers’ union. And the Bush administration stepped in with millions of dollars for the expansion of charter schools—publicly financed but independently run schools that answer to their own boards. The result was the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history."

The transformation hasn't turned the kids into Einsteins, but there has been demonstrable improvement in what was an entirely stagnant school district.

"Classes are smaller, many of the teachers are youthful imports brought in by groups like Teach for America, principals have been reshuffled or removed, school-hours remedial programs have been intensified, and after-school programs to help students increased... Mr. Vallas attributed many of the improvements in testing to the new teachers. 'The biggest contributing factor was the quality of the instructors,' he said."

A commenter at MR gets at the crux of the issue:

"Smaller classes. Young, energetic teachers. More remedial programs. More after-school programs. Can't government do this? If the answer is no, why not? If the answer is yes, why hasn't it?"

Those are very fair questions for both sides of the private/public debate. I think the government cannot be relied on to do this because education, especially to low-income kids, is too dynamic for top-down management. No Child Left Behind has highlighted the difficulty in top-down accountability, and the low reported results demonstrate that we have not figured out how to relay even the basic concepts needed for success.

There's a lot of experimentation that needs to be done. Teachers and principals need the flexibility to try different programs, allocate resources differently -- in short, to innovate. There will be success and failure in this process.

I think government programs are ill-suited to support this process, as they are vertically-structured organizations that manage local institutions by ensuring they comply with certain processes, curricula, standards of practice, etc. They inherently stifle innovation and create incentives to stick to established practices, even when the established practice is not providing acceptable results to a large number of students.

I don't think it's necessarily impossible for any government managed school to be innovative or successful. The government (likely state level) might introduce market concepts (increase flexibility and accountability for principals, school choice, etc.) into the government-owned system; this artificial environment could certainly be better than what we have now.

Still, the artificial dynamism will never reproduce the dynamism of the actual market. Just as I would rather hire a consultant to teach me how to improve my business, I would rather have a professional, than a bureaucrat, in charge of teaching my kid how to write complete thoughts. If you don't like how they're doing, you can always hire a different one.

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