Monday, September 1, 2008

Innovation in education

Education is a perennial obsession of American politics; we always seem to be failing at something, and in desperate need of improvement. Personally, I think it comes down to this: we have a great educational system for the late 19th century. We have seen an extraordinary amount of change in many areas of our society. But our educational systems have not changed as quickly as other parts of our society, like, say, the workplace.

Yesterday's LA Times had the best piece on educational reform that I have read in many years, if not ever. The premise is simple: the federal government needs to encourage and foster educational innovation in much the same way that the National Institutes of Health do for health care.

The federal government should encourage innovation - what a concept!

There are multiple ironies in this idea and the tangle of politics surrounding it. The defining federal educational legislation of the Bush era is, of course, No Child Left Behind. But the purpose is not to encourage innovation; the purpose is to set standards and demand that states meet them.

I'm ambivalent on the question of forcing more kids to take standardized tests. I don't like the idea of teaching to the test, but I'm in favor of high standards and accountability.

But on one issue I am clear. One of the bedrock principles of conservativism is that government regulations interfere with the workings of the free market. Governments should regulate as lightly as possible, because too much regulation impedes innovation and imposes unnecessary costs. The argument makes some basic sense, although it is often used by conservatives and businesspeople to fight environmental, labor, and other laws just because they don't want to pay for them. But the basic idea is this: imposing excessive regulations from the federal government impedes innovation.

But that's exactly what NCLB does! The worst possible way to encourage Americans to innovate is for the federal government to impose excessive regulations, according to conservatives. And yet, a conservative Republican president did precisely that in the realm of education. What boggles my mind is that no one seemed to notice.

So this article will hopefully start some very fruitful thinking. One meme that has started percolating around LA is that the problem with education is not lack of money (although more wouldn't hurt), but the bloated bureaucracy at LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District). This is one reason I am in favor of charter schools; they are outside of that bureaucracy, and are better at coming up with creative, entrepreneurial solutions to educational reform.

There are many, many, many passionate, dedicated teachers out there who know how to teach kids (like my brother). If you took of survey of them and asked how many of them think we need more rules, regulations, and bureaucracy in education, my guess is that the number answering "yes" would be not many.

At the heart of the conservative argument is that we should trust businesspeople over the government. I know many trustworthy businesspeople (including my Dad). But, personally, I trust teachers more than I trust businesspeople.

One interesting aspect of this article is who wrote it. Cory Booker is the Mayor of Newark, who has made quite a name for himself by taking down the political machine of the former mayor. I know nothing about Ted Mitchell. The third person is easily the most influential. John Doerr is a venture capitalist, probably the most successful one ever. Some of the companies he has help start include Sun Microsystems, Compaq, Netscape, Amazon, and Google. The man knows something about encouraging innovation. We should listen to him.

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