Why We Don't Have A Silicon Valley of Education (Michael Strong)
Despite a relatively unregulated private school sector in the U.S., opportunities for innovation in education are constrained by the dominance of the government school educational standard. The matrix of curriculum, textbooks, standardized testing, and teacher training and certification form a standard, analogous to a computer operating system standard, which is essentially designed to the specifications dictated by government-run schools. Just as a dominant operating system is preferred by most consumers because of the ease of transferring data within a known system and the greater availability of software for the dominant system, so too consumers will prefer an educational approach with a known interface to existing educational institutions. Entrepreneurial educators will find it more economical to start new schools that are consistent with the dominant system in order to take advantage of available curricula, textbooks, tests, and teacher training, experience, and certification.
Because entrepreneurs who establish a new operating system have an opportunity to create their own businesses, Microsoft will constantly face challenges to its standard (the transition from DOS to Windows was due to the challenge presented by Apple; Java and the web represent a different challenge). By contrast, the government school educational standard possesses a larger market dominance than does Microsoft; depending on how it is defined, one could argue that more than 96% of students are educated at schools that adhere to the dominant standard. Moreover, unlike Microsoft’s dominance, the government school standard is enforced by law in dozens of ways, including property tax support for government school funding, state-sanctioned teacher credentialing systems, federal financial aid for those enrolled in state-certification programs, and obstacles to for-profit management of education. Bright engineers can identify a niche for a new operating system (e.g. hand-held devices) and obtain venture capital funding. Although for-profit educational ventures exist, such as the Edison Project, they are necessarily entrepreneurial only within the boundaries of the government school standard.
The opportunity cost of allowing the existing state-enforced standard to continue only appears large to those who envision the possibility that very different systems of education might be significantly better. Unlike existing debates on voucher programs, which marshal test score evidence, the argument against the standard is an argument against the fact of the standard regardless of test outcomes, at least in the short run. A visionary Soviet mathematician in 1935 could not possibly have made an empirical argument for free markets as the foundation of a flourishing computer industry 65 years hence; yet the extraordinary wealth produced by the computer industry today is due to the fact that tens of thousands of visionary mathematicians, engineers, and amateurs, mostly in the United States, were allowed, encouraged, and ultimately supported to play around with ideas and equipment in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s in a manner that was often speculative, impractical, and experimental in the early stages of each new wave of technological innovation.
Educational innovation, as with technological innovation, will not produce the spectacular gains resulting from decades of freedom unless tens of thousands of educators have the freedom and potential for financial support to tinker with incremental steps, some of which may seem impractical and experimental for decades. The extraordinary benefits ultimately resulting from a free market in education have nothing to do with better test scores in the next five years. The real benefits will be realized by releasing what Hayek calls “the creative powers of a free civilization”over the course of the ensuing decades to allow radical innovation to occur in education.
Pedagogical innovations that inculcate specific habits and attitudes have the potential to improve education for all students and yet are virtually impossible to create while the public sector dominates education. Such innovations require teaching staffs with expertise in cultivating habits and attitudes (e.g. self-discipline, the ability to learn how to learn, entrepreneurial alertness). In the ten years’ experience I’ve had creating innovative schools (private and charter, using Montessori, Socratic, and entrepreneurial principles), which included hiring dozens of teachers from among hundreds of applicants, credentialed and uncredentialed, I have found it difficult to hire teachers who exhibit adequate consistency in their ability to inculcate sophisticated habits.
Until it becomes cost effective for innovative school systems to invest in dedicated teacher training programs tailored to the unique methods and goals of the new schools, with ongoing research and development and quality improvements, the benefits of this type of innovation will remain haphazard. The opportunity cost in terms of lost human capital of not allowing innovative schools to flourish may be larger than the opportunity cost that would have resulted had the computer not been developed. With respect to education, we are the Soviet Union in 1935. In order to create the Silicon Valley of education 65 years hence, we need to free education markets now.
Michael Strong is the CEO of Flow, Inc., the founder of several innovative high-performance schools, and the author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.