The Tragedy of The Common-Pool Tissue Box

“Mr. B, do you have any tissues?”

“No. It’s my job to teach you economics, not how to blow your nose. Bring your own tissues.”
I cannot tell you how many times this scene has played out in my classroom. Now, I know I am kind of old-school, but I carry around a handkerchief. I’m sure all you germophobes are absolutely freaking out right now, but I carry a plain cotton handkerchief, and I use it. Often. My father always carried around a handkerchief, so it seemed like a natural thing when I started to carry one.
Since I carry a handkerchief, I don’t usually keep tissues in my classroom. I have some in a cabinet, for emergencies, but I don’t usually have them available to students. My students, however, expect me to provide them with tissues. And hand sanitizer. They expect me to have pencils in case they forget theirs. They expect me to have extra copies of yesterday’s assignment, because they lost the one I already gave them. They expect me to provide all of these things that they very easily can and should provide for themselves, because just about every other teacher does. So, why don’t I?
Well, it is a simple case of the tragedy of the commons. When a resource is shared publicly, and no person or group exercise ownership over that resource, it is soon depleted. There is a dash to gain personal benefit without bearing any personal cost. The tissue box is emptied by those who have not borne any of the cost. The pencils that were on my desk for the first week of school quickly disappear, never to be returned or replaced. While I do want my students to feel comfortable in my classroom (you know, Maslow’s Hierarchy and all that), I have no interest in supplying them with things they can provide for themselves.
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Public Schools Kill Entrepreneurship: Why? And How?

Public schools like to say that they teach the skills necessary for a new generation of entrepreneurs, prepared to build a new economy that serves both public and private interests. They offer courses in computer programming and biotechnology, for the schools are sure that’s where opportunity resides. They even offer classes in entrepreneurship per se. I would know. In fact, is one of the classes that I teach at a public high school.

The administrators with whom I work love having my entrepreneurship class in their course catalogs. It is good marketing. It signals to the civic community that we are serious about career education. Most of the administrators actually believe that we do a good job of teaching youth how to succeed as entrepreneurs.

But we don’t. We can’t. It is contrary to the very nature of our institution.

It isn’t that we don’t try to teach entrepreneurship. We do try. I like to think that I try even harder than most. We read Adam Smith and talk about the idea of gains from mutually-beneficial trade. I introduce my students to the work of Israel Kirzner and the entrepreneurial process of profit discovery. Thanks to the work of several fantastic organizations, I am able to introduce my students to some of the most influential economists currently writing.

We even engage in realistic projects where students start a business with their classmates and sell products to their school peers during their lunch period. Students in my course can earn real profits as a result of their project. It can’t get any more entrepreneurial than that, can it?

The problem does not lie in the instructional portion of class, but rather in the fact that the project is done within the academic setting of an institution for public education. Public institutions such as schools have one major flaw that prevents them from even allowing the existence of real entrepreneurial activity: fear. They fear success. They fear failure. They fear the very existence of both, and balk at the idea that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Entrepreneurs do not merely accept the inherent existence of risk within their actions; they thrive on it and acknowledge that risk as the very source of their prospective gains. Public institutions and those who act on their behalf fear risk to the point that many of their actions are geared towards externalizing as much risk as possible on the population at large. What little risk they cannot externalize, they bury under layers and layers of bureaucratic regulation.

Surely, this is the antithesis of entrepreneurship.

Local municipal codes actually specify that students engaged in class projects are not subject to many of the same regulations as other businesses, but that does not stop district and campus level administrators from imposing even more burdensome rules upon them. Not too long ago, a cafeteria worker called the county health inspector to shut down a student project. They came and the project was promptly shut down. And with that, the private food service company was able to successfully shut out their competition. Assisted by a helpful hand from the friendly neighborhood regulator, they were able to protect their government-sanctioned monopoly on the school’s food court. In order to prevent further confrontations, additional regulations were placed on the students.

This fear trickles its way into my classroom, and I hate it. After teaching my students how to identify opportunity, I tell them to brainstorm potential business ideas. They do, and many of them are excellent ideas given their target market. And then I crush their ideas under my fear.

No, you cannot sell condoms two days before prom.

No, you cannot sell any food to students during their lunch hour.

No, you cannot use sex appeal to market your products to teenagers.

No, you cannot engage in any business practice which might undermine the legitimacy of this institution.

What I fear is not that different from the institution as a whole. I fear scrutiny from the public eye. My rule of thumb for students is this: I will not approve any project that might potentially land my name in the local newspaper.

This might seem like inverted logic from someone who wishes there were better public access to the detailed actions of public-sector employees, but let me explain myself a little bit. As a public school teacher who generally opposes the idea of public education, I view myself as somewhat of a subversive player within the machine. I do not fear losing my job as much as I fear the idea of my students being taught bad economics by someone else. I fear that some concerned citizen will not appreciate the minimal amount of risk taken by students in my class, and the project will be shut down. I fear that my administration will come to recognize that same risk, and simply stop offering the course.

I pass that fear on to my students, and I hate it.

Surely this is the antithesis of entrepreneurship.

“Teach For a Whiles” Don’t Destabilize Schools

As I wrote in my intro post, my interest in education extends far beyond the Teach for America program. However, today I’d like to discuss teacher turnover, and argue it is not so great a problem as commonly portrayed, particularly in the context of TFA teachers and their 2-year service periods.

A key issue in education reform is the effectiveness of alternative teacher certification programs.  While there are many organizations involved in this work, the largest and most controversial is Teach For America.  Founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, TFA was conceived from her senior thesis project at Princeton University.  This non-profit recruits accomplished college graduates and young professionals to teach for two years in low-income schools. Currently, TFA manages a national teacher corps of 5,000+ corps members serving 46 urban and rural regions across the country.

A major, recurring criticism of Teach For America’s model is the high teacher turnover it engenders.  Among its foes, Teach For America is often nicknamed “Teach For a While.”  Opponents argue that young, inexperienced teachers destabilize their schools when they depart a mere two years after arriving.   Continue reading

Meet Patrick

Hi, my name is Patrick.  I am grateful to join this community of thinkers, a group that believes the adage “ideas matter” is particularly true when we talk about the forum of ideas itself: education.  As an economics student at Northwestern University, I had very little interest in the field of education.  I accepted my job offer with Teach For America (TFA) largely because I had little clue what else I might like to do, and face it, Miami was not a bad place to spend my early twenties.  Two years later, I am excited as ever about education reform and feel privileged to travel to Argentina next year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar.  There, I will facilitate university-level seminars on English language and American culture.

I do not know how far my career in education will extend.  It began two years ago by looking out into a classroom in Miami filled with freshmen algebra students.  In the years that followed, as my fear and inexperience gradually faded, I met incredible students, some of whom are smarter than I.  Their main fault in life: being born into poverty and thereby subjected to schools that victimized them with low expectations.  I met brilliant, driven teachers who fought back and raised the standards of success.  Their fault: being entangled and disrespected by a system that undervalues them and overvalues their unmotivated and incompetent colleagues.  I met parents who nurture their children in a way I one day hope to emulate.  I also met parents whose behavior and conduct explained my very reason for visiting the student’s home.  As I post to this blog, these are the people I have in mind.  I firmly believe that every problem has a solution, that the lack of a particular solution to a particular problem really just means we do not yet have the requisite knowledge to solve that problem.  Karl Popper, a preeminent realist and philosopher of science, wrote in The Myth of the Framework:

The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite.  When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store.  Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world. 

This optimism permeates the outlook of all liberty-minded people.  It is why I am at core a libertarian.  It is why I believe the proper knowledge, be it about incentives, motivational psychology, teaching and learning pedagogy, or fields we have yet to discover, will allow us to create a better state of education and schooling for the children of this country.

Downsizing State-Stifled Education: Thinking Outside The Voucher

In the 1950s, free-market economist Milton Friedman kicked off what has come to be an influential and persistent school “voucher” movement. As you probably know, vouchers are a method for retaining some state control over the funding and regulation of K-12 education, while loosening state control over the provision of it.

Students in a public but voucher-based system would carry some of their tax-supported funding with them to whichever charter school they chose, with a voucher they could present to approved schools to count towards tuition. Schools would compete for students by offering programs of different types and qualities, instead of having geographical monopolies.

This voucher solution seems to now dominate the conceptual landscape when it comes to reducing or fundamentally changing the state’s role in K-12 education. For a while, I’ve toyed with the thought that there must be other solutions – or at least improvements – to public school underachievement and stagnation that we just aren’t thinking of, because vouchers have become the mindset of the time.

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Decentralization? Yes, but What Kind?

    Decentralization roughly means dispersing power from a central authority to multiple separate authorities. This, so that power is not concentrated in one place, leaving each separate entity to make “its” own decisions. But when we talk about decentralized models of education, what do we mean? There are at least two ways we can decentralize educational authority. One is to wrest authority for educational decisions from a centralized government (state, national) and restore it with local authorities or even to individual schools. (This is the kind of decentralization people like Deborah Meier seems to prefer, where local governments or public schools are relatively free to make their own decisions). The other way to decentralize is to take educational decision making authority from governments entirely and give that authority to the private sector (This is the kind of decentralization people like Milton Friedman or James Tooley have in mind, where private schools can offer different educational models and leave consumers free to choose between them.)

    Why do I bring this up? Because it is an important and sometimes overlooked distinction. I know this because I have both libertarian friends, who are market-sympathetic and don’t keep up with the field of education) and friends in education, who tend not to be market-sympathetic and don’t keep up on economics and libertarian theory. Both groups use some of the same arguments against centralization of power and the standardization that seems to come with it. Both complain about the vast growth of educational bureaucracy and both find it a shame that schools have been losing autonomy over time. But when I talk with fellow libertarians, the solution to “decentralize” essentially means “educational provision belongs in the private sector to act through markets.” And when I talk to my education friends – who are very skeptical that this is a good way to decentralize – “decentralize” means “restore power back to localities or maybe even to schools.

    While I am more sympathetic to the kind of decentralization that involves privatization and markets, I have grown to understand that this is not the only way to decentralize, and recognize that the distinction between the “two decentralizations” is crucial. Continue reading

Beer and Burgundy and Standardized Tests

As the work continues on the standardized test investigation which started with my former office several years ago, June’s issue of The Freeman picks up on a good question: what do we do in response?  I don’t mean who do we hire next, but how do we think about why it all happened?

Over the course of criticizing the school leadership in Atlanta, Jeffrey Tucker makes two points about standardized testing.  First: “…the problem is the ridiculous idea that you can reinvent reality by passing a law and enforcing it.”  Agreed.  Tucker points out problems with Soviet five-year-plans, and relates them to some unfortunate testing practices.  Such targets incentivize much more bad behavior than Tucker can address in his piece.

In his conclusion, Tucker argues that:

“The real way education is being reinvented in our time is through myriad private efforts.  Home schooling, privately managed charter schools, privately owned schools, unschooling, Internet-based learning, church schools – each of these solutions is something that the political and bureaucratic class doesn’t like.  But they are marking out the only real path for reform that can work.”

While I agree with Tucker’s broad thesis that these pseudo-five-year-targets that schools often produce are pointless, and, as in the case of several school systems in Georgia, actively harmful, I’ll quibble a little bit with his final paragraph.  The phrase “privately managed charter schools” seems intentional, but many of those perform pretty poorly, and plenty of nonprofit charter school groups perform well (I happen to work with one as a board member; Latin Academy Charter School, in Atlanta, showed huge gains in just our first year.  We are a nonprofit entity).  Andrew Coulson might quibble with me on that point, as he recently argued that charter schools are “suffocating the independent education sector.”  I’d say Coulson is completely correct that charters are at best a heavily-regulated not-quite-market (In fact, I have already said so).  But I seriously doubt we’d have a large, healthy private school market absent charter schools taking up some of the demand, using government funds.  Those kids would just stay in the traditional schools from which they come now.

That quibble with Tucker aside, I agree with his larger point.  Traditional schools, while constantly changing cosmetically, are not changing in ways that will promote greater student achievement or opportunities in the long run.  Only educational groups who are willing to go against the very powerful current of today’s schooling orthodoxy are doing that.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”  Public schools today may use more technology, and teachers may say they differentiate their lessons more than they did 20 or 40 years ago, but as institutions, they are essentially unchanged, and maybe unchangeable.  This is essentially true of pedagogy as well, which might be a fine thing, if we were getting what we wanted as a society out of our schools.  We’re clearly not, and here is where Tucker has struck on something interesting that I’d like to highlight in relation to standardized testing: several of the forms of schooling Tucker mentions – home schoolers, unschoolers, many privately owned schools – not only tend not to set testing targets, they don’t actually care much about testing at all.

People in these schooling arrangements do often test their students.  Private schools certainly care about things like scholarship awards and college acceptances, which often depend on test scores.  But the scores aren’t the driving factor.  They’re at best a leading indicator of what the school and its parents really care about, which are enhanced opportunities after graduation.  Homeschoolers are a varied group, some more interested in test results than others, but certainly a family willing to take on the tremendous task of homeschooling in terms of time, effort, and financial sacrifice, is not doing so to raise their student’s SAT scores by 20 points.  And this group is growing: approximately the same number of students are being homeschooled in America today as are enrolled in charter schools.

All this is to say, I still think the education reform movement, school choice supporters, and really everyone involved in education, makes a mistake by focusing so much on tests as an all-or-nothing proposition.  If we are going to have tax-supported schools, it is appropriate to have some form of accountability.  If not through wide open choice policies, then tests are a logical, if imperfect, next option.  Surely there is some ground public school leaders can find in between threatening employment over arbitrary state-mandated targets, and temper tantrums that hurt students in terrible schools who most need to be accurately assessed.  To quote Chesterton again, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”  It takes a brave school leader to use assessment in moderation.  Such leaders are increasingly found outside of traditional schools.

Specialized Schools: Critical Components or Causes for Resentment?

Here are two takes on Catholic schools:

The first is from a priest about Catholic schools in Glasgow, Scotland.  He calls them “critical components” of the Church, where “intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together.”

The second is President Obama’s take on Catholic schools a few days later in Northern Ireland. He said, in part, that, “if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden—that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”

I point this out not to pick on the president, necessarily (I agree with Rod Dreher that his statement was probably just a part of a “kum-ba-ya line in a speech,” in some ways). But it does speak to a mindset that doesn’t really, truly respect all of the different approaches people might have for schooling or for society, despite espousing “tolerance.”

The recent NCTQ report on teacher preparation programs in U.S. News is another good example of this, as well noted by Jay Greene.  There are things in that report that ring true to me (hardly anyone does a good job of preparing teachers to deal with classroom management, for example), and things that don’t (why is teaching Common Core a sign of a high quality program?  What research has been done on the student achievement value of the Common Core yet?).

The president’s remarks and the U.S. News report are both just recent examples of a tendency in American education policy to look for the “One Best System,” as David Tyack famously put it.  In fact, Tyack wrote in his book The One Best System in 1974 that,

“The search for the one best system has ill-served the pluralistic character of American society.

Increasing bureaucratization of urban schools has often resulted in a displacement of goals and has often perpetuated positions and outworn practices rather than serving the clients, the children to be taught.

Despite frequent good intentions and abundant rhetoric about ‘equal educational opportunity,’ schools have rarely taught the children of the poor effectively – and this failure has been systematic, not idiosyncratic.”

So the president criticizes religious schools for their differences.  A national nonprofit criticizes higher education programs in part for not looking a certain way.  The Common Core project would be another easy target in this vein, but it’s ultimately just important to note that this centralizing tendency pops up all the time in American education policy, in a huge variety of contexts.  Given this view, it’s easy to see why our political institutions tend not to stick up for people like the Romeikes.

Care and Markets, Bleeding Heart Libertarian Style!

Here is a recent guest post I did for the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog listing a few reasons why I believe that the moral position of care ethics can best achieve its goals of creating a world with more caring relationships through markets than government policy.A preview of the blog post:

In my field of philosophy of education, it is difficult not to come across the ethical theory of care ethics, a position to which I’ve grown pretty sympathetic. But neither folks in education nor care ethicists are usually sympathetic to markets (at least not for things like educational services or other “basic needs”). Now, to me, some of the things markets do best – like encourage people who may not otherwise cooperate to meet each other’s needs – jibe pretty well with an ethic of care. Let me explain.


Tentatively, my appearance at BHL will be part of a series of guest posts explaining such things as why I think libertarianism can benefit from incorporating a care ethical approach, expanding on the reasons I see markets as the best way to achieve the objectives of care ethicists, and possibly elaborating on some of the reasons I think care ethicists like Virginia Held and Joan Tronto are wrong to reject a role for markets in social policy.

The above post doesn’t specifically speak to education, but is an outgrowth of a paper I am currently writing  on why I think educational markets are a more promising way of achieving caring relations than government-run public schools. (Largely, it is because private actors in markets are more likely than government bureaucracies to be attentive and responsive to the needs of those needing care, and the relationship between carers and those needing care will be more direct in a private system than a public system where schools are funded by taxpayers rather than consumers.)

Should One Joke About Handjobs With Gradute Students?: Colin McGinn and the Fragility of Professor/Student Relationships

    Philosopher Colin McGinn (most famous for his “New Mysterian” writings on the philosophy of mind) is resigning his post at the University of Miami. According to this report, the move is in response to a complaint brought by a(n anonymous) graduate student (an advisee, I’m guessing, from how he describes the situation here) who alleges that McGinn e-mailed several inappropriate comments to her, e-mails that her boyfriend and at least two other professors “described one message in which they said Mr. McGinn wrote that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.”

    McGinn’s public defense (so far)? First, he (and others, to be fair) suggest that he and the student were co-involved in some intellectual work (on evolution and the human hand) that lent itself to at least some sexual discourse. Second, McGinn suggests that the student and he had a good personal relationship or a kind where both he and the graduate student felt comfortable making such personal jokes and sharing personal information. “The relationship was close, reciprocal, and much valued by both parties,” writes McGinn. “She sent me many affectionate and exuberant emails, often of a very personal nature.” The relationship was close enough, in other words, that McGinn did not believe the student would be uncomfortable with jokes of a sexual nature.

    Allow me to offer the perspective of a current graduate student (PhD Candidate in Education). Let’s suppose that both of these defenses of McGinn’s are true. Even then, I still have a problem with McGinn’s decorum. The fact is – and graduate students know this well! – there is a huge power imbalance between professors and graduate students – made all the larger the more the professor’s decisions can impact the students future career prospects…. like, I don’t know, advisors to advisees. Continue reading