Schrodinger’s Children

“Think outside the box” is a popular phrase among groups dealing with complex problems. In fact, it has almost become a cliche in our fast-paced modern world where technological changes that once would have been regarded as revolutionary are today almost quotidian. Still, there are some who are lost so deep inside their respective boxes that the darkness that surrounds them must seem the equivalent of infinite space. Kevin Carey over at the Quick and the Ed seems a likely representative of this type of person.

In his latest post, Mr. Carey takes to task Michael Winerip for his failure to endorse expansive government interference in education. In his piece in the New York Times, Winerip suggests that the state should be shifting resources away from costly “accountability” programs and in favor of costly “anti-poverty” programs. I happen to think either alternative represents a mis-allocation of funds as both are likely to undermine rather than advance achievement of their stated goals (supporting arguments here and here, respectively). In this case, however, the cost-effectiveness of government boondoggles is not my primary concern. Rather, I am troubled by Mr. Carey’s perspective that seems to imply that there is simply no solution that does not involve the state.

Confronting the findings of the ETS report, Carey poses the question “Therefore, what?” which may be read as “What should the government do about this?” He then follows this question with a proviso: “If you’re not willing to answer this question concretely, you really don’t deserve a seat at the table.” And what, exactly, constitutes a response concrete enough to secure one a place in the debate? Apparently, advancing a policy of non-intervention, or even promoting interventions not directly aimed at the public school system is insufficient. Instead, if you want to speak, you must endorse statist intervention: “NCLB, by contrast, reflects an identifiable perspective and set of resulting policy conclusions.”

It strains credulity to present NCLB as a standard of clarity. To propose that it be used to set the scope of the debate is even more galling. Education is a complex process that each of us must engage in a unique way. Acquiring the skills and perspectives that will allow us to envision and establish an individual identity in the world is not a venture readily amenable to standardization. Uniformity is antithetical to personality. Government run schools fail, not because of insufficient funding, but because they lack the flexibility and responsiveness necessary to meet the needs of the parents and students they purport to serve. The further centralization of the administrative apparatus only hastens the ossification of the system, making it brittle and more constrictive. This is the problem of living in the box.

Erwin Schrodinger once came up with a vivid and somewhat gruesome example to demonstrate one of the more mystifying implications of quantum theory. He asked us to imagine a box containing a cat, a radioactive subtance, and a vile of acid. If you’re interested in the full details, go here. Basically, though, the idea is that the cat is in mortal jeopardy, yet we have no way of knowing his fate unless we open the box to check on him. Until then, he exists in a state of suspended animation, neither alive or dead, or maybe both (though it is hard to say which is worse.)

If we extend the analogy to education, this is the current predicament of children in our public schools. They are languishing in a cruel trap guarded jealously by social planners like Carey and his ilk who venerate the contraption while condemning those of us who wish to extricate their unwilling subjects. They prefer to tinker gingerly with the dimensions of the experiment instead of investigating the merits of the underlying motivations for and assumptions of the design. The talk endlessly about improvements, excluding those who dissent with the program. Meanwhile we all suffer the scarcity of choice.




  1. Jamelle said,

    December 12, 2007 at 11:35 am

    “government run schools fail, not because of insufficient funding, but because they lack the flexibility and responsiveness necessary to meet the needs of the parents and students they purport to serve. The further centralization of the administrative apparatus only hastens the ossification of the system, making it brittle and more constrictive.”

    Do you actually have any proof of this? Because yes there are many terrible public schools in this country, but there are also more than a few excellent public school in this country, and a hell of a lot of middling ones.

    The addition of “choice” to something doesn’t magically make it all better, which is what, truth be told, it seems like you’re saying.

  2. fox1882 said,

    December 15, 2007 at 8:54 am

    As proof of my claim that a lack of funding is not what ails government schooling, I would call your attention to a comparison of real state education expenditures per pupil v. academic performance over the second half of this past century. The former has more than doubled, while the latter has at best stagnated, and in relative terms (compared against our international peers) declined. Even our best elementary and secondary schools show poorly when compared against the best schools from other countries. The failure is systemic.

    Regarding the application of choice to education, I readily acknowledge that in a free market, quality will vary. But the key aspect of a free-market which government provision lacks is competitive pressure which drives adaptation and improvement. If for-profit schools do not deliver results which satisfy their clients expectations, those clients will seek better alternatives. The nature of free-markets dictates that where profitable, supply will arise to meet demand.

    This is, of course, an ongoing process, and it must occur in this order. I do not imagine that if we privatized our schools they would all instantly become shining beacons of academic excellence. The amount of damage that has been done over the past century is enormous, and it will take time to repair. However, I do firmly believe that a free market is the most efficient mechanism of achieving the progress we all desire.

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