The last time a game-changing breakthrough “scaled-up” throughout American schools, regardless of size or pedagogy was the introduction of the blackboard in 1801. Since then, American education has been problematically static argues Andrew Coulson. The late Cato Institute senior fellow investigates why education has been so resistant to innovation, questioning just about all of our long-held assumptions in the fascinating three-part series, School Inc: A Personal Journey (promo here), which is currently airing on PBS stations nationwide, including multiple times on WLIW21 World.
Right from the start, Coulson complicates the creation myth of American public schools. In the early 19th Century, public schools were known as “common schools,” but their level of performance was so underwhelming, most American parents opted to enroll their children in private schools. Frankly, it did not entail much additional expense, because even parents sticking with the publicly-supported common schools received a tuition bill at the start of each semester. It was Horace Mann who institutionalized the concept of completely free zip-code-based public schools when he was appointed superintendent of Massachusetts schools (the first such position) in 1837.
Up to then, there had been brisk competition for tuition dollars, which parents navigated relatively successfully, given the increasing rates of literacy, newspaper readership, and general standards of living. Of course, one of the prime arguments against school choice and particularly vouchers is that parents lack expertise to make wise choices as consumers. However, Coulson travels the globe, visiting nations where parents regularly make informed choices for their children’s education through market mechanisms.
In the first episode, “The Price of Excellence,” Coulson takes viewers to South Korea, where public schools are considered so uniformly incompetent, the vast majority of parents pay to send their children to supplemental tutoring schools, known as Hagwan. According to the pupils Coulson interviewed, they actually feel a greater allegiance to their Hagwan than their high schools, because they can see its value and they respect its teachers, like Hagwan superstar Kim Ki Hoon, a teacher of high school English, who netted $25 million as his share of the fees he generated last year. That’s right, a teaching making an eight-figure income.
Of course, the government declared Hagwans illegal, but eventually relented when students continued to attend underground “speakeasy” hagwans. Coulson chronicles a similar story when the teacher’s union forced legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante out of his department chairmanship and scrapped his program. Under his leadership, Garfield High had more students pass the AP calculus test than any other California public high school, but he made the union loyalists look bad, so he had to go, regardless of the implications for Garfield students and their future hopes.
In general, Coulson was a happy warrior, who prefers to accentuate the positive rather than assign blame to villains, but it is hard to put a smiley face on the actions of the unions and administrators in the Escalante case. Indeed, the second episode, “Push or Pull,” is mostly about schools that are working. In this case, it is charter schools in New Orleans and a legitimate voucher system in Chile. Again, Chilean and New Orleanian parents seem to be able to navigate the choices offered by their respective school systems.
Coulson remains focused on successful models in the concluding “Forces and Choices,” examining another effective voucher system in Sweden and exploring the rise of low-cost private schools in India. Despite the success of voucher-ish plans in Sweden and particularly Chile, they are under fire in both countries, essentially for reasons of ideological aesthetics (again, the kids be damned when there is political posturing to be done).
Yet, the case of India is especially telling. According to the parents and teachers British Prof. James Tooley interviewed during the course of his research, Indian public schools are so corrupt and deficient, even desperately poor parents scrape together the tuition for neighborhood-based private schools. Naturally, the government does its best to regulate the competition out of business, forcing schools to rely on bribery to survive.
School, Inc. is another presentation of the Free to Choose Network, which should inspire confidence in viewers. Although produced with a point of view, their programs are smart, thoroughly researched, and often challenge sacred cows from both ends of the political spectrum. It is truly a tragedy Coulson died shortly after completing production, because he is clearly deeply steeped in educational policy, but also presents ideas with clarity and enthusiasm. Those who watch School, Inc. will feel his loss knowing he cannot follow-up on the analysis and diagnoses presented in the three-part series.