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No Trade Left Behind July 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, politics, society, taxes.
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I was going to title this post “No Race Left Behind” as a play on “Race To The Top”® and “No Child Left Behind”®. Then it occurred to me that such a title may sound racist. Especially because the subject of the post is education and any discussion about education is bound to tread on racially sensitive ground. And so I thought better of it—yes, I know, what’s happening to me?—and settled for a subtle homage to the MLB trade deadline, which the Bluejay Phillies “aced” yet again. Ha!

Did you happen to catch POTUS BO’s at the National Urban League—henceforth, the “NUL”? If you haven’t figured this out yet, I overly fond of TLAs, FLAs, FLAs, and the occasional SLA. Just think of how long one of these posts would be without them. It would be like a cricket match. Anywhos, I caught BO’s NUL speech obliquely, listening to it while working. I filtered out most of the stuff about Shirley Sherrod and the de-ridicu-criminalization of crack cocaine relative to powder, and foregrounded POTUS during the RT3® part—RT3 is a registered trademark of Philly Bluejay along with Dumb-and-Plumber 2012®. If you are not familiar with RT3, here is a nice piece in the Atlantic that covers the basics in context. The premise is simple, compelling, and strangely revolutionary to the US and to the traditionally pro-union democratic party in particular—marry public education with free-market economics! Free information! Quantitative measurement! Performance-based pay! Frictionless labor markets! Competition! Unregulated derivatives! Collateralized debt obligations! Taxpayer funded bailouts! What a concept! RT3 would abolish the systems of teacher tenure and seniority based pay and replace them with a more conventional labor arrangement, potentially retaining some of the pieces of the current collective bargaining structure. And surely competition—on both the supply side and the demand side—will do the teaching profession some good. Teachers will compete with each other for better pay on performance metrics. Schools will compete with each other for better teachers on pay metrics—if you think schools are not competing, check out greatschools.org. Teacher performance will improve. Teacher pay will improve. Public education will improve. Everybody wins. Except for entrenched interests like poor teachers with tenure.

RT3 is certainly admirable. Whether POTUS BO, SOE Duncan, and the rest of the Sunday morning pickup basketball crew pulls it off remains to be seen. But here’s another aspect of the education puzzle that didn’t get any lip time during the NUL speech and is rarely mentioned in the press. RT3’s stated goal is “preparing every student for college”—a mission statement which has the twin positive attributes of being unassailably good and unassailably vague. But does it make sense? Not really. Yes, a college education increases lifetime earnings by nearly one million dollars. A Master’s degree by one million more. Seriously, they do. But this is the paradox of thrift all over again. A college degree increases earnings by one million dollars for one individual operating in a perfectly elastic job market. That person can trade in a low paying job for a higher paying one. But the economy as a whole has a pyramid of jobs and someone has to work the lower paying ones. Preparing the people who will ultimately work at lower paying jobs for college—not to mention actually sending them to college—is a waste of resources on the part of society and a waste of time and money on the part of the individual. Not to demean any particular honest profession, but would you go to—and pay for—college knowing that you would ultimately become a bus driver? Or a pizza tosser? Or a computer programmer? I’m not being facetious about this last one. Programming does not require a college education, witness the hordes of kids who learn to do it on their own in high school. If not earlier. Yes, programming well is difficult. Doing anything well is difficult. But becoming a passable programmer capable of carrying out 90% of tasks is not.

I’m all for neoteny, lifelong learning, and good citizenship and I would never tell any individual person not to go to college or to pursue a high-paying career. But public education needs to cater not only to future lawyers and dentists and MBAs. It needs to do a better and more efficient job for would-be bus drivers, and pizza tossers, and computer programmers. Is prepping these students to do well on the SATs/ACTs/TLAs the right thing? For these students, shouldn’t primary education be reoriented along the lines of a terminal (professional) degree? Shouldn’t primary education be—WARNING: politically insensitive suggestion alert—more vocation and less renaissance? In the US, assaulting teachers unions is past its political half life, but vocational education is still radioactive. Why? Because of the million dollar fallacy of composition. And because it smells racist. Or classist. Or X-ist. But in fact, it’s no more racist or classist or X-ist than funding public education using local property taxes. For many people, a free career-oriented terminal education would be a gift. Rather than graduating high school being prepared to do nothing in particular—and spending their lives doing nothing in particular—vocational students would graduate prepared for a job that paid a living wage. I am not advocating tracking based on IQ or aptitude tests—that’s the European model—or some other variant of Plato’s Republic. I am thinking of something much more voluntary. Not interested in general purpose stem cell high school? A vocational alternative would be available to you. Why should any voluntary system be political anathema?

Think of RT3 amended with a vocational “public option” for lack of a better term. There is still teacher competition. And school competition. But now “stem-cell” teaching is more attractive because class sizes are smaller and classes have fewer students not interested in stem-cell learning. And the pool of good stem-cell teachers is not only larger—because again such teaching is more attractive—it is also spread less thin. And vocational teaching is now a high volume career option. And there will be fewer people whose terminal degree doesn’t qualify them to do anything in particular.

POTUS BO. You, SOE Duncan, and the rest of the crew should discuss this as you are running up and down the court on Saturday mornings. And maybe you can talk about it at next year’s NUL address. You know, after the midterms. It’s a message that would sound better coming from you than from almost anyone else.

P.S. My latest Wikipedia entry? Michigan governator Jennifer Granholm. She’s packed quite a lot into 50 years. Did you know she’s a failed actress, a beauty queen—take that Sarah P—and a Canadian? That last fact is especially deplorable as Jen would have looked good on the 2016 Democratic ticket. That’s okay, Rachel Maddow will do nicely.

P.P.S. Speaking of Rachel. Watch her interview with Richard Holbrooke. Also speaking of Rachel? Come back soon! Because the guy who is sitting in for you is absolutely killing the show. Same goes to you, Mike Missanelli—John “Missanelli 1.7” Marks is not doing it for me. Olbermann? You can hang out wherever you are for a little while longer.

P.P.P.S. I have a new favorite television show. No, not Kate + boobjob + eight. How It’s Made on Sc. Who knew that it takes 428 machines to make a socket wrench? Or that soy sauce has to be fermented for four months? Or how peanuts are shelled by machine? Or how glass bottles with matching caps are made? I could watch this show for 48 hours straight! It’s really amazing not only how many different things there are, but what it takes to mass produce them. It seems like more goes into inventing and perfecting the process for mass-producing something than it takes to invent the thing.

P.P.P.P.S. As if you need one more reason to stop eating frozen mice. Notice, the piece was written by someone named Anemona, not to be confused with Anemone.

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Comments»

1. Avery - July 30, 2010

Coming from Georgia, I’ve always thought that public education in the status quo was largely wasted on all those kids who want nothing more than to take over the family farm. Public schools seem to cater to kids facing an urban (or at least sub-urban) lifestyle. At least in Georgia, vocational high schools are only available in more densely populated areas (when in reality they would probably better service small towns). And even then, there are almost no agricultural programs. (I’ve never heard of one.) I feel that rural communities’ educational needs are, for the most part, neglected by lawmakers.

On another note, I love How It’s Made! I’ve been watching it for years now.


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