The Well FED Society

This is the weblog for the University of Baltimore Federalist Society. Come back regularly for updates about our meetings and events, and you might even be treated to some original thought.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Public Schools - War on Poverty or War on the Poor?

Professor Walter E. Williams of George Mason University has been a consistent and thoughtful critic of public education, especially of the public schools as they (dis)serve minority students.

Here's his latest column: School violence toleration

The anecdotes Professor Williams uses lead the reader to the natural conclusion that, although we're constantly told that "Education" is the way out of poverty and social inequity, and therefore that public schools are doing a vital and massive proportion of the substantive work in the "War on Poverty," the truth of the matter is that public schools are making the problems worse.

I agree that "Education," real education, can enable students, regardless of the socio-economic background from which they come, to open the doors of opportunity. That said, the simple fact that, conceptually, "education" holds that potential does not imply that public schools are accomplishing much or anything in terms of realizing that potential.

So, what's the solution? (Craig, I'm expecting useful comments and or subsequent posts on this topic from you.)

Before that, where, exactly, is the problem? Is it in the schools, the children, the teachers, the parents, the neighborhoods, the education administration, or perhaps the office of the President of the United States?

In my humble opinion, no one of the potential scape-goats deserves all of the blame. I would suggest that the President, least of all, deserves blame, but an argument could be made that national policy, which the President does establish, has an impact, so I'll say that a smidgen of blame can be assigned all the way up to the top.

It's instructive, of course, that despite the miserable state and condition of inner city schools, some children from horrible households do succeed well. That would imply to someone doing a "scientific" analysis of the situation that the strongest "control" mechanism is the student himself (or herself). That makes sense, since education really happens between the ears of the individual students. Controls over the second and third (or higher order) derivatives are less effective, directly, on the result, but can be highly effective on the overall trends.

[NOTE: For the non-scientist or engineer reader, I apologize, but controls engineering is my background, so that's how I look at problems that need to be solved.]

Higher-order controls can be over or under done if their impact is not measured correctly. In this instance, "higher-order" refers to the aspects of the problem that are relevant, generally, but not directly, such as parental involvement, school administration, etc. From a public-policy perspective, the only realm that is in any way appropriate for government meddling is in (some of) these higher-order areas.

What Professor Williams notes is the counter-intuitive response of a school-system to parental involvement in the educational process which was in response to peer/societal circumstances which the parent found unacceptable, but which are the collective result of parental abdication and governmental mis-management.

Two truisms that, I think, are useful to understanding this problem are:
1. Systems always perform as designed (but that's not necessarily what was desired) and
2. People always tend to perform towards their metrics.

Looking at the current state and condition of public schools, especially urban public schools, as a "system," one must ask, "If this is how the system is performing, what was the actual design objective?" Do public schools exist to provide opportunity to all? That's not what they're doing, so, although that might have been the desire of the customer (the public), it's not the design of the system that has been delivered.

What does the public school system, especially in urban settings, produce? Poorly educated and poorly socialized additions to society. That and a nominal justification for more governmental funds and political power. The public school system perpetuates the conditions that were the justification for it's existence. Inequality of educational result is the reason we have a government-run school system and why we submit to being taxed to support it. Of course, the public doesn't like that problem... It's not what the customer desired... We wanted a solution, and not a perpetuation of the problem.

It's my thesis that public schools, by design (though not by desire), assault the poor to justify demands for expansion. The system exists for self-perpetuation, growth, and the enrichment of those who run the system. Those who run the system achieve greater compensation through the growth of the system. If your importance and therefore your compensation increases with the expansion of educational programs, then the obvious tactic to increase compensation is to demonstrate a "need" for the additional programs.

My conclusion, for what it's worth, is that to fix the problem, the customer has to reject the current product. In the '70s when gas prices spiked, small car sales shot up, but the "big three" continued to manufacture large inefficient automobiles. When the customer-base rejected the product, they re-aligned (somewhat) and began to produce products that the customers wanted to buy. The analogy with public schools is weak because public schools are a virtual monopoly. Without competition, an organization's systematic design goals cannot be easily modified to match the customers' desires.

Because, in all cases, the basic motivation of management is the same, i.e. personal enrichment(monetary and social/political gain), the metric by which the management goal is achieved must be considered. In a competitive environment, enrichment comes through efficiency and expansion of market-share. Where the industry is a de facto monopoly, the industry can choose to improve it's performance according to customer standards, but that won't expand it's market share, or, more likely, it can abuse and fleece it's customers. The objective of the monopolistic systematic design of our public schools must be deemed to be to attack the weak in order to justify governmental expansion of the public schools.

Long story short... Education is a major front in the War on Poverty, but Public Schools are the enemy because they are, by design, waging a War on the Poor.

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