Ravitch on Education

by Russ Roberts on April 12, 2010

in Education, Podcast

The latest EconTalk is Diane Ravitch talking about education and the ideas in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The book and the podcast show just how bad an OK policy reform can turn out once its implemented. Testing with carrots and sticks for performance is not a horrible idea on paper. We all understand that it encourages teachers and schools to teach to the test. But it’s hard to imagine just how destructive testing and what is called “accountabilty” can be as they were actually implemented.

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Argosy Jones April 13, 2010 at 9:54 am

This was a great podcast- even if there was no “answer” at the end. Like you, Russ, I believe that markets could provide a part of the solution. I’d be interested in further exploration of the issue in further pod-casts, perhaps with economists who have studied the charter-schools/ voucher systems in Milwaukee and Cleveland, which were discussed in this episode.

One thing that makes education harder than sandwiches, (for example) is the simple duration and complexity of the production process. If I’m making sandwiches one day, and don’t get good results, I can form a theory and apply it the next day, and see if the theory was right, if not, then try again. Teaching algebra takes a year or two, and it’s a social process that the teacher controls half of, at best. The slow cycle of production combined with uncontrollable variables just makes improvement much harder for individual teachers. Now imagine the principal who is supposed to see to it that teachers improve over time. He has all of the same problems, but can’t observe the teachers very well. How can this be got around?

One key issue that Ms. Ravitch raised was the licensure process for teachers at the state level, and the requirement of an “education” degree. I think this one change could do a great deal of good, if there were a more open market for teachers. 1. it would open the profession to more people, and presumably increase competition. 2. The education degree may actually diminish teaching ability somewhat by reducing the odds that an instructor knows something about the subject (because time was spent doing other things). I take this kind of personally, because my math education was held up for a couple of years after the exit of the only teacher at my rural school who could do algebra. The next teacher gave up, in frustration, and began to teach us “practical math”. The first lesson was on reading a bus schedule. If you go north on a southbound bus you can arrive before you departed. Great timesaver. I eventually got through calculus in college.

Thanks for the podcast.

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