From Atlantic Unbound:

Atlantic@Aspen (July 3-9, 2006)
Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival by James Fallows, Ross Douthat, James Bennet, Clive Crook, and Corby Kummer.

I am just back from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an event organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, one of our sister publications. It is a grand gathering of what Britain calls the Establishment: a convergence of the intellectually dominant, the politically prominent, and the financially over-endowed. One of the things that struck me there, as the lectures, panels, and conversations ranged across everything from elementary particles to American competitiveness, was how often education was invoked as the answer to ... well, to everything.

I don't suppose this is new, either in America or elsewhere. "Better education" is something all sides agree on, as a remedy for almost anything. Stagnant real wages for the middle class? Better education. The decline of civility in public life? Better education. The obesity epidemic? Better education. The China and India challenge? Better education.

In Britain, where I used to live, education was the consensus answer not only to the country's economic problems, and all those other things just mentioned, but also to the strife in Northern Ireland, to the tensions in the Muslim ghettos of Northern England, and to the "yob culture" of itinerant football hooligans. In his first election campaign, Tony Blair said that his top three priorities in office would be "Education, education, education." Good slogan. It didn't turn out that way—but at the time, who was going to disagree?

And the issue has not just been serving rhetorical time. Things have happened. In America—as in Britain—the past 25 years have seen a torrent of educational reforms, and school systems have been deluged with cash. Per-pupil spending in the United States is way up, compared with 20 years ago. Educational systems have been in a decades-long state of permanent and well-financed revolution, with issues such as organization, management, curriculum, training, accountability, and the rest perpetually in motion. Everything has been tried, it seems. And, apparently, nothing works. After more than 20 years, you only have to consider [insert policy issue here] to realize that the country still cries out for better education.

Standards of achievement in schools have flatlined for years. In math and science, American high school students are among the poorest performing in the developed world. Remembering that the money spent has vastly increased, the productivity of the system has collapsed. If you measure it by national test scores divided by per-pupil spending on education, school productivity was two-thirds higher in 1970 than 30 years later at the end of the 1990s.

Summing up, the orthodoxy to emerge from all this is (a) better education is the answer to all our problems, and (b) improving education is extremely difficult to do (see how hard we tried?).

I think this is wrong on both counts. We do know how to improve education, and, politics aside, it is not even that difficult. That is the good news. Unfortunately, if we ever get around to it, we will find that most of the problems we were trying to solve will refuse to go away. Improving education is enormously desirable in itself. Especially at the bottom of the skills pyramid, it requires no ulterior justification. We should do it. But for society at large, it is not the panacea that so many people take it to be.

What, then, is this easy method for improving education? Competition among schools.

Americans have a strange attitude toward competition. They take it for granted—much more than most foreigners—that competition is vital to ensure the highest standards in almost any kind of endeavor. But some things—such as education and health care—are then deemed "too important" to be left to the market, too important to be thrown open to competition. This makes no sense. I for one would far rather have my car or my shoes or my breakfast cereal issued to me by officials in the D.C. government than to have those officials in monopoly control of the school my children attend or the hospital my kids get taken to when they are sick. Some things are just too important to be sheltered from competition. Education is one.

There is no great mystery, no great controversy over the facts. Competition among schools raises standards. The United States has been experimenting, far too timidly, with two ways of creating educational competition: vouchers and charter schools. Economists have been tracking these initiatives. Their findings are in: The schemes work. And this is not just because charter schools are better than public schools (though often they are), or because vouchers let low-income parents opt out of failing public schools (which they do). It is also because, under pressure, the existing public schools get better. Amazing! Who would have guessed? A charter school opens, or a voucher program gets started, and before you know it, the neighborhood public schools are offering extra classes after school, Saturday morning openings, new tutoring and mentoring schemes. Why didn't we think of this before?

There is another gain, even more important. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new educational ideology concerning reading captured K-3 teaching in this country (as in Britain). This new teaching method, called "whole language" or "reading by reading" and a variety of other things, deplored the old-fashioned phonics-based approach ("a is for apple," "c is for cat") as repressive and as inconducive to children's instinctive creativity. Children should not be taught to read; they should discover reading.

In the right setting, that approach can work. With clever children, it can work really well. But for children with no books or backup at home, and for less bright kids, it is usually a disaster. As a result of this new enlightenment, a plague of illiteracy settled on both countries. The children taught, or not taught, that way are now young adults, in many cases their entire education blighted, struggling to make their way in the world. For many years I was married to a woman who specialized in teaching children (almost always from poor families) who had been taught not to read by schools, and who had been deemed failing pupils; she was able to turn almost all of them around quite quickly by means of rendition to "a is for apple." The gratitude of the parents was heartbreaking.

Just this year, by the way, 30 years on, Britain's government announced as official policy that phonics works best for the teaching of reading.

Why do I bring this up? My point is that in a competitive school system, that revolution would never have happened. Parents were skeptical (if not incredulous) about it from the start. In a competitive system, some schools might have tried it—which is fine. Experimentation is good. But they would have done badly and been quickly found out. The market would have rejected a dud product. Only in a state-monopolized culture could such a folly be perpetrated nationwide and then, in the face of mounting evidence of failure, persist for decades.

School systems in this country are run to protect the interests of producers (teachers and educational bureaucrats), not consumers (parents and children). That is what happens when you declare something "too important to leave to the market." Please, no more hand-wringing about how hard it is to fix education. If anybody truly wants a solution to the problem, it is there in plain sight.

Which brings me to my second point—that it would be a mistake to expect too much from improving the schools, desirable (and eminently achievable) though this may be. Some of the ills we look to the schools to cure are instances of cultural sickness, and I doubt that better schools can repair the culture on their own. We have a popular culture in this country, and in the West in general, that exalts stupidity, meaningless fame, misogyny, incivility, and outright criminality. I have no idea what to do about that. "Improve education" strikes me as inadequate to the task.

So far as economics is concerned, the data are still contested and the analysis has not settled down—but I doubt that lack of education is holding back the American middle class. The current wave of technology-driven advances in productivity (and, to a much smaller extent, outsourcing) is impinging for the first time on educated white-collar workers in services, as opposed to the skilled or semiskilled blue-collar workers who felt the brunt of earlier labor-saving innovation in manufacturing. Better schools are not going to deflect very much of that pressure, or to save very many of those jobs. What might make a difference is a completely different approach to the whole idea of education—one that helps people to change course midcareer, and that does more than pay lip service to the idea of lifelong schooling. This would be worth discussing. But that debate has hardly even started.