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

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