April 13, 2013

All for one and one for all, or not, and not much in between

Here's an interesting article from the Atlantic about Finland's schools.  The crucial point is, um awkward:
Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and there are no private schools in Finland." 
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
The late Albert Hirschman explains the logic behind this in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which has become the handbook for most of my life activities.  The algorithm is, roughly:
  • Is this bullshit?
    • If no, well ok.
    • If yes, then can I effect positive change to make it not be bullshit?
      • If yes, then work to effect positive change.  (Voice)
      • If not, then we're done here, give up and go away.  (Exit)
This maps to various political concepts beyond education, of course.

The mediating concept, Loyalty, is not an emotional choice, but a rational judgment based on the likelihood of change and the appeal of the alternatives.  At the micro level, this little decision process has been quite beneficial in my life, saving me time, money, and much needless aggravation.

But if all of us pursue this strategy with respect to the school system, Hirschman explains, the school system is probably going to suck.  The first to leave will be the ones most concerned with quality, who would otherwise be volunteering at PTA and agitating for improvements.  Impeding Exit forces them (in Finland, at least) to choose Voice.

The problem with American education is that this country is built on Exit.  Most Americans are descended from people who chose to leave their home country and come here.  Don't like your stock portfolio?  Sell and get some new names.  Don't like your employees?  Fire them.  How do we know this is a great country?  Because so many people left somewhere else to come here.  So forcing everyone into the public school system would probably be un-American.

On the other hand, so is having a class system of elites separately educated at a few specially designated institutions, a relatively new development.  Just for fun, here is a list of the institutions at which modern U.S. presidents (from Hoover on) received their highest degrees.  Since Reagan I detect a certain...monotony.
  • Stanford University
  • Columbia Law
  • University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
  • U.S. Military Academy
  • Harvard College
  • Southwest Texas State Teachers College
  • Duke University
  • Yale Law
  • United States Naval Academy
  • Eureka College
  • Yale
  • Yale Law
  • Harvard Business School
  • Harvard Law
On the other hand, LBJ's insecurity about his education was a tangible negative for the country, and one could argue that Harry Truman was not as well-equipped as he might have been to deal with the large issues facing him.  So perhaps having prospective presidents get a formal education at a purpose-built institution isn't such a bad thing...France does it, the British Empire did it.

But isn't the whole point of America to let great performers rise up no matter their circumstances?  Isn't that our founding myth?  Can we afford to betray it so obviously?  But then, maybe we have already done so...

Annnnd, since Finland has a population that is about the same as the Detroit metro area, it's not clear how the hell we'd scale their solution anyway.

Nevermind, forget I said anything.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Interesting, interesting. I kind of invented my own version of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in the past year, to deal with processing resentments.

April 13, 2013 at 11:45 AM  
Blogger First Sea Lord said...

We can take this at least as a reminder to refocus all incentives on public educaiton, , rather than run full speed in the opposite direction, high on questionable test scores and corporatization as the dominant social and cultural, as well as economic, model of education.

April 13, 2013 at 12:06 PM  

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