Why Don’t Economists Understand Innovation in Education?

Chicago Booth School of Business hosts The Initiative on Global Markets which explores the extent to which economists agree or disagree on major policy initiatives.  In this poll, they are asked,

“Public school students would receive a higher quality education if they all had the option of taking the government money (local, state, federal) currently being spent on their own education and turning that money into vouchers that they could use towards covering the costs of any private school or public school of their choice (e.g. charter schools).”

The (modestly) good news is that the preponderance of opinion in this particular example agrees with the statement (29% agree and 7% strongly agree vs. 17% disagree and 2% strongly disagree).

What is most discouraging, however, is the fact that there is little appreciation in their comments that the dynamics of innovation would apply in the case of education.  I would hope that at this point most economists understand that the extraordinary increase in wealth around the world that we’ve seen in the past two hundred years is the result of Smithian effects (endlessly refined division of labor, leading to ever more granular niche identification, specialization of technique, and continuous expansion of the gains from trade from ever more nuanced applications of the law of comparative advantage) combined with Schumpeterian effects (the endless process of creative destruction in which new entrepreneurs combine ideas and resources in new ways that satisfy human needs more effectively than before).

When we allow this process to take place in education, we will see extraordinary increases in human happiness and well-being, analogous to the gains in material well-being that we’ve seen in the world of technology.  But because every economy on earth has introduced large-scale coercive tax-financed education as soon as they they have begun to become prosperous, humanity has never allowed both Smithian and Schumpeterian effects at scale over time in the realm of human development.  Thus we have not unleashed the fundamental dynamics of innovation and prosperity creation in the realm of human development.

As I’ve written elsewhere, charter schools, or narrowly-defined voucher programs, will not allow the full benefits of a market in human development to come into being.  In order to obtain access to these benefits we need to create profitable opportunities for educational entrepreneurs that are outside the dominant, government-defined operating system of education.  In addition, we need to allow for a much broader understanding of human development, one which is not dictated by the educated manderins.  As long as “success” in our society is defined by those whose personalities and upbringings are adapted to conventional schooling, we will be unfairly and unnecessarily harming those whose personalities and upbringings are not so adapted.

To be fair, the economists apparently only had 140 characters in which to express their thoughts.  That said, especially those who were hostile to the proposal showed no evidence of any awareness that the most fundamental dynamics of innovation in the global economy would also apply to education if allowed to do so.

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How the Endless Process of Division of Labor and the Entrepreneurial Identification of New Niches Would Transform Education If We Allowed it To Do So

I don’t actually have time to write a complete account of “How the Endless Process of Division of Labor and the Entrepreneurial Identification of New Niches Would Transform Education If We Allowed it To Do So” this morning, but I continue to be endlessly frustrated by the narrowness of vision in the field of education among academics, educators, business leaders, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and pretty much everyone else.

This weekend I met someone who is a headhunter specializing in recruiting talent for FDA compliance officers for pharmaceutical companies.  He was a very decent person, but just the fact that our economy has specialized to the point at which there are full-time positions focused on recruiting FDA compliance officers for pharmaceutical companies reminded me of how limited specialization is in education.

Economists (good ones, at least) understand that all the prosperity of the modern world can basically be attributed to some combination of Smithian gains (division of labor) or Schumpeterian gains (creative destruction and the entrepreneurial identification and exploitation of ever more granular niches).  A major reason why modern society is a mess is because we do not allow this process to work in the fields of education, human development, and community formation.  (Conversely our technology is amazing and fantastic precisely because we DO allow this process to work in many, albeit not all, technological domains).

Through a series of unique circumstances, I started my full-time educational career as a full-time Socratic Seminar teacher trainer.  This itself is a specialized position that does not normally exist in the standard universe of educational occupations (which does include specialization as a math teacher, a hearing specialist, special education teachers, Assistant Superintendents of Curriculum and Instruction, reading specialists, etc.)  Over the course of my years as a Socratic Seminar teacher trainer, sometimes I would work with pre-school teachers, elementary teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers, each of which could be a Socratic Seminar teacher training speciality in itself.  Beyond the age/grade level distinctions, there could be Socratic Seminar teacher trainers specializing in mathematics, science, history, Spanish, literature, etc.  Beyond that there could be Socratic Seminar teacher trainers specializing in Catholic versions, Buddhist versions, Mormon versions, Secular Humanist versions, etc.  And each of these niches would have their own administrator trainings, their own curriculum developers, etc.

In the Montessori world there are distinctive trainings for infant, pre-school, elementary, upper elementary, and middle school.  I was at one point deeply involved in the world of Montessori middle school education, which was really in the process of being developed.  There again endless specialization would result in endless refinement and ever more sophisticated expertise.

When I created The Winston Academy in Plantation, Florida, our mathematics and computer science programs were developed by the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (IMACS).  Burt Kaufman, the leading spirit behind IMACS, was by any standard an amazing mathematics educator.  The programs that he and his team created over the decades provide young people with a uniquely powerful form of mathematics training.  But when IMACS attempted to franchise itself, they found that they could not ensure that the franchisee locations had adequately trained staff, so they pulled back.  I’ve tried to implement some of their programs at some of the schools I’ve created, but it is difficult because an IMACS instructor needs extensive training, ideally a year-long internship, in each domain of IMACS instruction:   The CSMP program, the Elements of Mathematics program, and their version of Scheme programming.

Skeptics can say that I don’t need to create my own Socratic training, I could just work as an education professor or superintendent of curriculum of instruction somewhere.  Or that Montessori middle schools are just fine as they are.  Or that there are plenty of great math programs available without the ridiculously idiosyncratic and obscure IMACS program.

Yeah, right, and Steve Jobs should have gotten a degree in electrical engineering and gone to work at Xerox.

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Is It Possible to Help the Poor with Government Funding of Education?

I’m all in favor of giving the poor direct cash transfers, such as the Negative Income Tax or Citizen’s Dividends.

But the more I think about education the more I wonder if government funding of education is not part of the problem.

Certainly the existing system of education, managed by teachers and bureaucrats for teachers and bureaucrats, is morally illegitimate.  Thus I am for “school choice,” including charter schools, educational vouchers, and tuition tax credits.

But when I think about Seagram, and many other students I’ve seen like him, I wonder:  How do we really give these young people better lives?

At a conference once I met an African-American ex-con, a big, tough, uneducated guy who, after prison, had devoted himself to creating an after school program, financed by local churches, designed to help inner city boys avoid gangs and develop the discipline, determination, and focus they needed to become successful adults in the world.  He was a hero:  A great human being with a big heart, a clever mind, an undeniable passion, and the kind of person that it would be very, very hard to disappoint.

But as I spoke with him and learned from him I also noted in my mind:  THERE IS NO F#^%*@*@** WAY THIS GUY COULD EVER START A CHARTER SCHOOL OR GET A GOVERNMENT GRANT!  An uneducated ex-con?  Yeah, right.  But maybe these are the kind of guys we need to make a real, deep, lasting, valuable change in the lives of most inner-city African-American boys.

Personally, my rule in education is always:  “Do what is right.”  If the law doesn’t let you do what is right, break the law.  If the funding mechanism for education won’t let you channel funding to the good guys, then to hell with that funding mechanism.

But imagine if the government funded uneducated ex-cons:  Public relations disasters – and some of them would be 100% real disasters.  That is why ultimately the ONLY way to get really great human beings, the right really great human beings, in front of young teen boys is if private organizations, church or otherwise, dependent on donations, provide the financing.  A particular organization picks the wrong uneducated ex-con, the one who recruits for gangs rather than taking them away from gangland?  That organization gets no more donations.  The organization that picks and funds heroes?  It flourishes.  Not always and in every case, but on balance these outcomes are far more likely in such a system.

Most do-gooders would be horrified at the notion that government funding itself is part of the poison.  But they are not the ones with the sons dying in the streets.

Is an after school program enough for our heroes?  Is an hour or two of optional activity after school enough?

Or does government funding of education GUARANTEE that many inner city young males, who urgently, urgently need good role models, do not have them when they most need them?

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In Praise of Seagram, Fighting, and Happiness

While creating a Socratic middle school program at an inner city Anchorage public school, one of the students I was working with was Seagram.  Already by 7th grade, 13 or so years old, he was six foot two or more, with broad, powerful shoulders and long, flowing black hair.  He was an Alaskan Native who sat in class angry and attentive, his energy razor sharp, but always silent.  In our conversations I had gotten all of the other students engaged after a couple of months, but despite an extraordinary range of topics, I had not been able to get Seagram involved.

Finally one day I asked him if there was anything we could do to bring him into the conversation.  “No.”  Did any of our conversations interest him.  “No.”  Did he enjoy just sitting there listening?  “No.”  What would he prefer to be doing?  “Nothing.”  Is there anything you really love to do?  After a long pause he said, “Fighting.  I like to fight.”

I was delighted to have gotten through to him at last, and he and I began to have a conversation, while the rest of the class watched, on why he loved to fight.  It became clear that he lived for the time after school when the kids would gather around the playground or parking lot and watch boys challenge each other to fist fights.  It was also clear that he won, all the time, and he loved to be challenged and beat up whoever dared to try to take him on.  He didn’t care if he got hurt, and was proud of the various cuts and bruises he had received in the course of his battles.  The other kids clearly stood in awe of him, and some of them piped in about this or that time that Seagram had walloped a much older or bigger kid.  He was a hero, a Native American brave, brilliantly doing what he was made to do.  And he loved it, he felt alive, he was happy when he was fighting, no matter how much physical pain was involved.

His classroom teacher, whom I was training to teach Socratically, was a feeble older woman, both physically and emotionally weak.  She was conscientious and had a good heart, and clearly loved teaching English.  But she was afraid of the students, and half afraid of life, and they could tell.  I realized then that no matter how well I “trained” her to lead Socratic discussions, there was no way that Seagram would ever listen to her or respect her.  She could give him detention when he misbehaved, a punishment that served as a badge of honor in his circle.  He was willing to give me a certain amount of respect, as an adult male who was confident about who I was and what I did.  But when I looked at her and then looked at him I saw that the very fact of having a weak older woman command the greatest of the young braves would never work.  When a weak old woman gives a powerful young man a grade of “F” and a week’s worth of detention, millions of years of evolution shout out “NOOOOOOOOO . . . . ”

In the moment he puts on a show of bravado, and his classmates reward him.  But in reality he feels humiliated, and develops a bitterness towards her, towards the school, towards learning, towards the society of the white man.

The white man transformed Alaska only in the second half of the 20th century.  Seagram’s grandfather, or great grandfather, most likely used his prodigious strength to hunt and fish and keep the family protected and alive.  The great hunter would have been respected by the entire tribe, and for good reason – survival itself was at stake.  And then the white man came and gave them snowmobiles, welfare, alcohol, and public schools.

And today, if he is still alive, Seagram may well be drinking his namesake, fighting no more, after having dropped out of a school system that is an absurd mismatch for who he is as a human being.

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OWS and Educational Inequality

In John Mackey’s most recent Conscious Capitalism talk, at the CEO Summit, he brought up the fact that, on a global basis, the form of inequality that we ought most to be concerned about is inequality of economic freedom:  Poor countries are poor because of an absence of economic freedom, whereas if we equalize access to basic economic freedoms, the global poor will have an opportunity to create jobs, wealth, and, most importantly, provide us with examples of cool, capable, and confident people from every culture, race, and continent.

Similarly, for me the greatest tragedy with respect to educational inequality is the lack of access to cool education that will allow each child to discover and develop his or her unique genius.  The existing system of coerced passivity as we march young people through bland and meaningless curriculum results in a situation in which only those who are exposed to creative thought, intellectual dialogue, design and artistry, and entrepreneurial originality at home or through their networks flourish.  Unfortunately, those children from lower income households are taught by the educational system that “education” consists of mastering the 5th grade social studies standards or the 7th grade language arts standards.

Does anyone realize how damaging this is?  In my experience most children from lower income homes come to experience “school” or “learning” as a stupid, meaningless game in which they are humiliated day after day.  No wonder only 25% or so graduate in Detroit, and less than 50% in many urban districts.

Despite the fact that our “public school system” has served generations of Jewish and Asian students well (who had the cultural capital to benefit from the bizarre world of schooling), a tragically large percentage of Native American, African-American, and Hispanic Americans do not benefit from this system.  What if schooling-as-we-know-it is a net harm, rather than a net benefit, for many of our young people, especially those from the least privileged environments?

What if the most brutal means of perpetuating inequality was our government-imposed educational system which forced children from all cultures, with all learning styles, with individual minds, into a one-size-fits-all model that serves as education for some and humiliation for others?

Why can’t we allow educational entrepreneurs to supply customized learning environments for all, so that our poor and marginalized experience learning and respect rather than failure and humiliation?

If you care about inequality, Occupy Public Schools (OPS).

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Educators as Entrepreneurs of Happiness and Well-Being

That “Educators should be entrepreneurs of happiness and well-being” is so obviously true to me that it is almost a self-evident axiom.  Yet almost one almost never hears even the tiniest inkling of such a notion in either public debates on education nor in the world of academic research on education.  Am I crazy?

Today I finished reading Dunn, Gilbert, and Wilson’s article (which I previously mentioned here), “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right.”  The article is a summation of consumer research that shows that people are typically made happier by:

1.  Buying experiences rather than things.

2.  Helping others rather than helping oneself  (give gifts to friends and to charity).

3.  Buying many small pleasures rather than a few big ones.

4.  Buy less insurance (most losses turn out not to make much of a difference over the long haul).

5.  Pay now and consume later (anticipation is great, immediate gratification is not so good, debt is not helpful).

6.  Think about what you’re not thinking about (often people fantasize that x, y, or z would make their life better, but if they really thought about the reality of x, y, or z they would realize that it really wouldn’t).

7.  Beware of comparison shopping (one might say beware of shopping in general).

8.  Follow the herd instead of your head (this is the one I disagree with as a general principle, but there are certainly cases where the opinions of others are valuable in making decisions, as their example illustrates).

Over all, after reading it I find that they are way more focused on the relationship between consumption and happiness than I would be – but that is to be expected from an article in “The Journal of Consumer Psychology.”

But the great thing about creating a market in education is that thousands of educational entrepreneurs can create their own mixes of habits, attitudes, experiences, etc. in a competitive attempt to create the greatest foundation for happiness and well-being for young people.  Some would focus on flow, some on meaning, some on optimizing consumer pleasures (as described in the article above), some on relationships, some on religion, some on physical fitness and diet, some on intellectual pleasures, some on vocational fitness, some on a sense of inner peace or cultural integrity, etc.  And over time we would see deep and sophisticated blends of different approaches to happiness.

What makes all of this so difficult to understand?  Why don’t others see it as important?

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Ten School Designs: “Eye-poppingly liberating to the pedagogical imagination.”

The poet Frederick Turner said of my “Ten School Designs” that they were “eye-poppingly liberating to the pedagogical imagination.”

We need hundreds, or thousands, of school designs, all far more radically unique than mine.

I just received a newsletter from The Futurist Thomas Frey, one of the few original thinkers on education, who mentions a few near-term new designs for education, all of which I love.

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