last time a game-changing breakthrough “scaled-up” throughout American schools,
regardless of size or pedagogy was the introduction of the blackboard in 1801.
Since then, American education has been problematically static argues Andrew
Coulson. The late Cato Institute senior fellow investigates why education has
been so resistant to innovation, questioning just about all of our long-held
assumptions in the fascinating three-part series, School Inc: A Personal Journey (promo here), which is
currently airing on PBS stations nationwide, including multiple times on WLIW21 World.
from the start, Coulson complicates the creation myth of American public
schools. In the early 19th Century, public schools were known as “common
schools,” but their level of performance was so underwhelming, most American
parents opted to enroll their children in private schools. Frankly, it did not
entail much additional expense, because even parents sticking with the publicly-supported
common schools received a tuition bill at the start of each semester. It was
Horace Mann who institutionalized the concept of completely free zip-code-based
public schools when he was appointed superintendent of Massachusetts schools
(the first such position) in 1837.
to then, there had been brisk competition for tuition dollars, which parents navigated
relatively successfully, given the increasing rates of literacy, newspaper
readership, and general standards of living. Of course, one of the prime
arguments against school choice and particularly vouchers is that parents lack
expertise to make wise choices as consumers. However, Coulson travels the
globe, visiting nations where parents regularly make informed choices for their
children’s education through market mechanisms.
the first episode, “The Price of Excellence,” Coulson takes viewers to South
Korea, where public schools are considered so uniformly incompetent, the vast
majority of parents pay to send their children to supplemental tutoring
schools, known as Hagwan. According to the pupils Coulson interviewed, they
actually feel a greater allegiance to their Hagwan than their high schools, because
they can see its value and they respect its teachers, like Hagwan superstar Kim
Ki Hoon, a teacher of high school English, who netted $25 million as his share
of the fees he generated last year. That’s right, a teaching making an
course, the government declared Hagwans illegal, but eventually relented when
students continued to attend underground “speakeasy” hagwans. Coulson chronicles
a similar story when the teacher’s union forced legendary math teacher Jaime
Escalante out of his department chairmanship and scrapped his program. Under
his leadership, Garfield High had more students pass the AP calculus test than
any other California public high school, but he made the union loyalists look
bad, so he had to go, regardless of the implications for Garfield students and
their future hopes.
general, Coulson was a happy warrior, who prefers to accentuate the positive rather
than assign blame to villains, but it is hard to put a smiley face on the
actions of the unions and administrators in the Escalante case. Indeed, the
second episode, “Push or Pull,” is mostly about schools that are working. In
this case, it is charter schools in New Orleans and a legitimate voucher system
in Chile. Again, Chilean and New Orleanian parents seem to be able to navigate
the choices offered by their respective school systems.
remains focused on successful models in the concluding “Forces and Choices,”
examining another effective voucher system in Sweden and exploring the rise of
low-cost private schools in India. Despite the success of voucher-ish plans in
Sweden and particularly Chile, they are under fire in both countries,
essentially for reasons of ideological aesthetics (again, the kids be damned
when there is political posturing to be done).
the case of India is especially telling. According to the parents and teachers
British Prof. James Tooley interviewed during the course of his research,
Indian public schools are so corrupt and deficient, even desperately poor
parents scrape together the tuition for neighborhood-based private schools.
Naturally, the government does its best to regulate the competition out of
business, forcing schools to rely on bribery to survive.
School, Inc. is another presentation
of the Free to Choose Network, which should inspire confidence in viewers.
Although produced with a point of view, their programs are smart, thoroughly
researched, and often challenge sacred cows from both ends of the political
spectrum. It is truly a tragedy Coulson died shortly after completing
production, because he is clearly deeply steeped in educational policy, but
also presents ideas with clarity and enthusiasm. Those who watch School, Inc. will feel his loss knowing
he cannot follow-up on the analysis and diagnoses presented in the three-part
Coulson will cause many viewers to rethink some if
not all of their preconceptions regarding education, but that is really what
the future demands. Of course, the biggest prejudice of all is the dubious
notion education should be segregated from the profit motive. From what Coulson
documents, market-oriented choice is a positive force wherever it is
introduced. Do we really believe American parents are not as savvy as their
Korean, Chilean, Swedish, and Indian counterparts when it comes to deciding
what school best serves their child’s educational needs? Provocative and
persuasive, School Inc. is highly
recommended for all viewers concerned about the state of American education. You
can find a list of confirmed stations and times here.
Labels: Andrew Coulson, Free to Choose Network, PBS