A Last Goliath: America's Public Education System
May 26, 2006
In his new book An Army of Davids Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a Instapundit) explains how markets and technology are empowering ordinary people at the expense of big institutions. America's public education system is one such Goliath, and Reynolds's book is a source of optimism and several important lessons for those seeking better educational options.
One lesson is that as society changes, what people want from institutions changes. America's public school system is a case in point. It was created during the Industrial Revolution, which, to Reynolds, was a period of "big organizations doing big things." As parents left the farm and headed to the factories, children were shuffled into "education factories… organized, quite explicitly, to mimic factories and assembly lines, with students envisioned as products."
In the 21st century, the sun is setting on the era of factories and assembly lines, and it makes sense to question the prevailing public education model, too. Just as products across the spectrum are being tailored to people's individual tastes, one-size-fits-all schooling seems antiquated. More and more, parents are seeking out new educational options that appeal to their particular circumstances.
Trends are converging that make dramatic reform of the current system more likely. Technology gives people the flexibility to work from home and to find new ways to balance professional and family life. No longer, then, is it a given that schools have to perform the function of daycare for students with working parents. As more parents have the ability to spend more time at home, they can seek new ways for their children to receive instruction outside of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Virtual schools, online education, and other new technologies could play a big role in the future of American education.
But innovative learning tools and delivery mechanisms are just one area where technology is shaping the climate for reform. Today, parents have access to a wealth of information about America's public schools that was completely unavailable just a decade ago.
All one has to do is visit the Standard and Poors website www.SchoolMatters.com, which aims to give "policymakers, educators, and parents the tools they need to make better-informed decisions that improve student performance." From test scores to budgets to teacher qualifications, SchoolMatters.com provides extensive information about almost every public school and school district in the country. This website-and others such as GreatSchools.net and RateMyTeacher.com-are giving parents unprecedented access to information about their children's schools.
With all of this information at hand, it's only a matter of time before parents demand to control more of the decisions of their children's education. Taxpayers invest more than $100,000 on a typical American student enrolled in public school from kindergarten through 12th grade. As the education marketplace continues to expand-with growing numbers of charter schools, tutoring companies, and other education providers offering new services-parents will seek to take a more active role in deciding how their children's share of public education funding is spent. After browsing the bounty of Ebay and Amazon, Americans have become hooked on the variety and choice that the Internet offers them as consumers. It's taking a bit longer, but the same thing is happening in education.
Applying the dynamism of the marketplace to America's education system could produce sweeping changes. We've already seen what allowing parental choice into one sector of public education can produce. Since 1994, expanded parental choice in education has driven the creation of more than 3,600 charter schools that now educate more than a million students. Charters-America's next-generation public schools-offer some of the most innovative instructional models in the country. Importantly, like any business, charter schools wouldn't exist unless parents made an active decision to enroll their children there.
To use Glenn Reynolds' analogy, parents have long been Davids facing a Goliath in America's public education system. But they are now gaining the power to take greater control over their children's education. As Reynolds writes, "Let the Goliaths beware."
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.