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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

If It Doesn't Scale, It Isn't A Solution

[note: this post is a work in progress]

You've met the private school freaks. They can't believe anyone would put their kids in a public school. What with all of the riffraff, the minority students, the dropout rates, the low performance on standardized tests, the poor state of school grounds and facilities, the struggle for funding for special programs like music, art, and sports, the lack of emphasis on college preparation, etc. Man, look at that list! Those are some strong and obvious arguments against public school education. Or are they?

What people who advocate private or limited solutions fail to calculate is what I call the "boutique effect". If for instance, there isn't enough money in a culture to give everyone a rich and safe childhood and education, it is absolutely expectable that those who are given those resources will excel (at least when compared to the scores of the less fortunate masses).

However, there is a real societal cost to exceptionality, and this goes to my "solutions that don't scale" thesis. With regard to exclusive schools for the rich, that cost has to do with the fact that the parents of rich kids just happen also to be the people with the most political and economic influence. When their kids are not part of the public education system, neither is their protective passion, experience, knowledge… or influence. They don't care about public education. Why should they? Their kids are not dependent upon it.

From another angle, when money goes to elite institutions, it is not being put where it is needed the most. Rich kids already live in information-ally rich environments. Rich kids are already live in safe and calm environments where learning works. Rich kids are much more likely to have direct access to positive role models… their environment is chock full of success stories. Rich kids are not as likely to live in families broken apart by drugs and prison terms and gang deaths and violence and people struggling with a second language or a culture that is not in step with the larger population. Rich kids have educated parents around them who can help them with their homework! Rich kids can afford to think about learning and succeeding, their world is devoid of the concentration-destroying stresses that poor kids deal with all day long.

And the whole reason people can get richer in this country than they can anywhere else, is because our population is more competitive (or used to be) than every other country. Why? Because we did this obscenely radical thing 150 years ago, we decided that everyone had a right to a publicly funded education! Educated people build factories and high tech energy delivery systems, they build transportation systems and are more likely to participate in advancements and the types of change that increase productivity. Productivity is the key. If you can get more value, more product, out of the average hour worked by your population, you can produce more wealth. Education is the radical difference that gave America its high per/hour, per/person productivity, it is why the rich are rich and why they can afford to borrow from the equity that is american productive wealth, even though that borrowing actually destroys wealth on a national scale in the process.

But these are not factors that have anything to do with a valid comparison of private education vs. public education. These are strictly socio-economic factors. The problem is when desperate parents look at the performance divide that exists between public and private schools and concludes that public schools should do exactly what private schools do. Private schools could be significantly worse than public schools and still produce higher test scores, more college acceptances, fewer drop outs, and lower crime rates. All of the intangibles work in their favor. In fact, it is often true that private schools employ teachers with less education and training than their public school counterparts.

Private school programs tend to spend less time on basic subjects (math, reading, etc.) and get better results! That is why they can spend a higher percentage of their student's time on extra-curricular activities (music, art, sports, theater, community projects, etc.). Obviously, if a public school would fail if it decided that it should therefore shorten the instructional time devoted to math and reading. Private exclusive schooling is not a solution that scales. It is obvious that it is a solution that only works for a very small percentage of the population of a society, and that it works only at the expense of the whole country as a whole. There are lots of examples out there of countries with very good exclusive education systems and very very very poor economies embedded within extremely unstable social chaos dominated by poverty. Most central African nations play this game, Myanmar, The United Arab Emeritus, South Africa (before apartheid was upended), Iran, North Korea, Brunei, etc, etc, etc. Exclusivity is the norm in the poorest nations on Earth. If exclusivity worked, these would be the most productive nations.

Lets look at China. Until recently, from a strictly financial perspective, China has done all of wrong things, it has restricted entrepreneurship, it has restricted credit, it has promoted an exclusively top-down decision and influence structure… everything that works against the kinds of fluid business environment that are attributable to a growing and healthy post industrial economy. And yet… and yet, despite all of these huge shortcomings and mistakes, China succeeds like no other country. Why, because it has spent an inordinate percentage of its wealth on its public education system. China's people are well educated by any global standards. Not some of its people. Not the exclusive elite. Everyone. And given China's huge population, that is a lot of educated people to compete en-mass with the rest of the world. When they finally turn the last capitalist stone, when they finally create a legal structure to support personal liberty, property ownership, and unfettered personal expression, watch out! Even without these capitalist standards, China reaps such benefits from its non-exclusive infrastructural investments. Meanwhile, those of us in the west have all but forgotten which factors really matter, and which, in comparison, are just fluff.

But, if you happen to live in a nation that has paid attention to productivity, has produced wealth as a result of a fair and solid infrastructure (transportation, energy, safety, medicine, credit, agriculture, justice, and education… for everyone!), you can play the exclusive game in limited numbers, even though it destroys wealth on a national scale.

Now let's switch gears. Inoculation. How did inoculation get to be such hotbed of superstitious thought? Inoculations have been blamed for hyper-activity, for cancer, for Asperger, and MS, for Attention Deficit Disorder, even for AIDS, etc. What inoculations are never blamed for is the one thing they are most definitely and unequivocally guilty of… preventing pandemic spread of disease! But inoculation programs only work when a certain minimum threshold of the population participate. Each vaccine (/disease combination) has its own special number… correlating to a specific minimum percentage of the population that must be inoculated. If a smaller slice of the population are given the vaccine, an outbreak is certain. When a parent makes the decision not to get their kid vaccinated, what they are really doing is passing the responsibility and risk (if there is any) to the kids who do get vaccinated. They reap the rewords but pay none of the price!

This is a great example of a solution that doesn't scale. While the vast majority of parents accept the shared responsibility a few parents can get by without inoculating their kids. It is a solution. But it isn't a solution that scales. Obviously, it doesn't work if everyone chooses this solution. It doesn't even work if more than a few choose not to inoculate. This type of solution only works because others are not choosing to shirk their share of the responsibility (and risk). In fact, if more and more people choose the non-solution option, there will become a point where everyone will suffer, even those who did take the vaccine. Most of these vaccines only work when the exposure to the pathogen is very low level. If a pandemic took hold, and if many people got really sick, high concentrations of the pathogen could overwhelm the immune resistance afforded through inoculations.

Any of this remind you of the "libertarian" platform? It should. The libertarian program is the very definition of a solution that doesn't scale.

[more to come…]

Randall Reetz

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