Mandating Betamax

By 03/29/2011

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I just returned from the Association for Education Finance and Policy annual conference in Seattle, which was a really fantastic meeting.  At the conference I saw Dartmouth economic historian, William Fischel, present a paper on Amish education, extending the work from his great book, Making the Grade, which I have reviewed in Education Next.

Fischel’s basic argument is that our educational institutions have largely evolved in response to consumer demands.  That is, the consolidation of one-room schoolhouses into larger districts, the development of schools with separate grades, the September to June calendar, and the relatively common curriculum across the country all came into being because families wanted those measures.  And in a highly mobile society, even more than a century ago, people often preferred to move to areas with schools that had these desired features.  In the competitive market between communities, school districts had to cater to this consumer demand.  All of this resulted in a remarkable amount of standardization and uniformity across the country on basic features of K-12 education.

Hearing Fischel’s argument made me think about how ill-conceived the nationalization effort led by Gates, Fordham, the AFT, and the US Department of Education really is.  Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized.  No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation.  Parents didn’t want to move from one district to another only to discover that their children would be repeating what they had already been taught or were  inadequately prepared for what was going to be taught.  To attract mobile families, districts informally and naturally began to coordinate what they taught in each grade.  Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That’s how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry.  VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it.  If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country, even though market competition would have shown that approach to be inferior.  Sony was the industry leader and if a government-backed committee were in charge they almost certainly would have had the most influence.  The Fordham folks might want to keep this in mind.  A government-backed committee is almost certain to prefer what the AFT wants over what Fordham may envision since the teacher unions are like Sony except only 100 times more powerful.

Even worse, once government-enforced standardization occurs it becomes extremely difficult to change.  If we had a government-backed panel decide on Betamax, we may have been stuck with that format for decades.  We almost certainly would have stifled the innovation that led to DVDs and now Blue-Ray.  Once Sony had entrenched their format, what incentive would they have had to change it?

Similarly, once the Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE coalition settles on the details of nationalizing standards, curriculum, and testing, it will become extremely difficult to change anything about education.  Terry Moe and Paul Peterson’s dreams of technology-based instruction may never leave the dream stage because it may fail to comply with certain provisions of the national regime.  If I were the AFT, I’d almost certainly insert those details into the regime to prevent the reductions that technology may bring to the need for teaching labor.  No one should be naive enough to think the Edublob won’t figure out how to use nationalization to block that and other threatening innovations.

I’m also sure that Bill Gates would have preferred being able to get a government-backed committee to enshrine Microsoft-DOS or Windows forever.  But thanks to market competition we have Google innovating with cloud computing.  And I’d bet that Google would love to get government backing for their approach if they could.  Dominant companies almost always favor government regulation.

So I understand why the AFT, USDOE, and Gates favor the current effort to nationalize education.  The mystery to me is why Fordham is protecting the right-flank of this movement or why some conservative governors have gone along.  Don’t they realize that it will enshrine arrangements that favor the teacher unions and are bad for kids?

-Jay P. Greene

Comment on this article
  • Mike Petrilli says:

    Jay, the mystery to me is why you are coming out so forcefully against standards-based reform writ large. After all, each of your arguments applies equally to state-led standards-and-accountability efforts, like the ones you’ve lauded in Florida. Unless you are saying that it would have been OK for STATE governments to mandate Betamax, which I doubt.

    Furthermore, I’m surprised that you are assuming that “families” have monolithic wishes. If our educational system was truly responsive to consumers, wouldn’t we see greater diversity of options, as schools tried to meet the needs of various market niches? And if our system IS the result of consumer demand–and we all agree that our system is getting terrible results–what does that imply about relying on consumer demand to drive change?

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Mike — I don’t think my argument “applies equally” to state led standards because without nationalizing education we at least have market competition among states — or as it is more often known, “the laboratory of the states.” If one state mandates Betamax while others mandate something else or nothing at all we can at least learn something about which works better. And states may then feel pressure to switch to one that ends up working better in the field as opposed to working better in the minds of some national government-backed committee members.

    And you are right that the full diversity of family preferences are not adequately satisfied with our current arrangements. But I see no reason to make it worse by nationalizing so that they have even less diversity and choice.

    Finally, I make no claim that the highly imperfect market competition among states produces the best of all possible worlds. I believe things would be better if we expanded the current amount of choice and competition. And I am sure that reducing that choice and competition by nationalizing key elements of education would make things significantly worse.

  • Larry Berger says:

    The VHS/BETA metaphor is useful in that what is important in all such battles over technical standards is that a standard emerges. Then the marketplace of innovative content, services, and distribution models built atop the standard can get started. Sometimes the market can support two standards (CDMA and TDMA), but rarely three and never fifty.

    The issue of which standards win, if the choices are comparable, has often been arbitrary and it certainly isn’t entirely driven by consumers – it is usually driven by big industry consortia that agree to the common standards so that the market can get going. Other times it is driven by federal largesse, as when the ARPANET was opened up to become the internet, or the GPS Satellites were turned over to civilian use. Still other times it happens via by the commercial dominance of one provider (e.g. Microsoft).

    We don’t have any commercially dominant player in K-12, and federal largesse would not be welcome in this case. So the notion that an industry consortium has lined up behind common core standards is actually the way it should happen. The reasons for it are to make markets happen where they matter instead of having diverse choices in a commodity layer where (Jay is right in saying) different state offerings are largely similar anyway, but not sufficiently the same that it saves any money or hassle, or creates opportunities for quality differences, in building products and services.

    Collective action isn’t always a sign of anti-market behavior – in the case of technical standards it is usually a market enabler. Having a different railroad gauge in every state would not have been a sign of consumer choice or innovation in the laboratory of the states.

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