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What Should Be Done with America's Schools?
April 13, 1999
Williamson M. Evers, Andrew J. Coulson, Myron Lieberman


Introductory Remarks

David J. Theroux
President, The Independent Institute

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, and I am the president of The Independent Institute. I want to welcome you all to our Independent Policy Forum this evening on education and school choice. As many of you know, this evening’s program is part of a series of lectures, seminars and debates that we are holding here in Oakland on many different topics. We started this back in January on a regular basis. In your packets, you will find a flier on today’s program, which also lists some future projects that we will be holding, as well as a card on our policy forum, “The New Path for Africa: Establishing Free-Market Societies,” scheduled on April 28, which will feature George Ayittey from American University in Washington. George, if you’re not familiar, is the author of an important new book called Africa in Chaos, and we think that is going to be quite an important program. We invite you to join with us then.

For those of you who are new to the institute, The Independent Institute is a non-profit, public policy research institute. We produce many books by various scholars. We have a quarterly journal called The Independent Review, which you are welcome to see upstairs. We also conduct many conference and media projects like today’s forum, based either on projects that we are involved in or overall areas of interest that we maintain.

I also wanted to point out two additional items in your packets. The first one is about our Summer Seminar in Political Economy program that we conduct each year. This is a one-week program for high school and college students. It’s a one-week program we hold here on what is called “political economy,” which in this case is essentially the fundamentals of a free society. It’s conducted by Professor Joseph Fuhrig from the economics department at Golden Gate University. Professor Fuhrig is somewhat unusual in the academic world in that he actually likes to teach. He is extremely good with young people, and we have had very high marks from children and their parents who have been involved in the program in past summers. Incidentally, the flier in your packet is a rough draft of the actual flier that is in production, but it does give you some of the basics for the program.

A second item in your packet that I wanted to also point out is a new program that we’re organizing at the Institute called the Independent Scholarship Fund. It’s a private scholarship program for disadvantaged young people. Unlike our other programs, this particular program will be limited geographically, to students and schools which are located in the East Bay of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Initially, the program will start out modestly, with about 50 scholarships for this coming academic year. Then it will be expanded to 500 and more, as high as we can raise money for, for subsequent academic years. For those of you who are familiar with the concept of private scholarships, they are now being implemented in scores of cities around the country. They’ve been very successful. We are very fortunate to have our program directed by Deborah Wright, who I would like to introduce for those of you who don’t know. [Deborah Wright stands] If any of you have any questions about the program, or if you’re interested in the program on any level—whether you’re associated with schools, know students who might be people to apply to the program, and/or are interested becoming supporters—we welcome your involvement.

I’m not sure if all of you saw yesterday’s San Francisco Examiner article titled “San Francisco Test Scores Questioned.” For those of you who have not seen the story, the basic issue here is that, over the last six years, the San Francisco school district has reported that their test scores have improved for six consecutive years. The district has been viewed as a model of how to improve school scores around the country. In fact, the head of the district has won a national award, has gotten a lot of recognition for it. Well, the Examiner decided to look at the issue, and found out that what they had been doing is increasing the number of low-scoring students who are removed from the survey. So, over the years with the same number of students, of course the test scores have gotten higher each year. It’s a lesson, basically that, like in so many other areas, why people turn to government to improve test scores is beyond me. The sad thing about it is that the actual performance of the school is not being reported to the public, and to those who are most in need of educational help.

We are very fortunate today to have three distinguished experts in education. All three of them are authors of important books. I hope everyone has gotten at least one of them. If not, there are copies upstairs, and I am sure the authors would be delighted to autograph their books if you’re interested. There really are very few issues in my mind that are more fundamental than education. The ability to communicate information in society, especially across generations and over time, is a requisite to the very existence of civilization itself. However, our ability to educate young people has fallen to a sad state, as the poor performance of so many public schools continues to become more evident. More and more people, of course, are opting for alternatives, and that is part of what our discussion is about this evening.

We will be discussing the topic, “What Should Be Done with America’s Schools?”, and that opens up three broad questions: The first one is, what exactly is going on in the schools? What are the problems, as far as curriculum content and so on and so forth? The second is a question of why there are these pervasive problems. Why does it continue to endure despite the concerns that many people have? Are there roadblocks? Are there obstacles of different types, political or otherwise? And the third question is what kind of a system do we want? Are there precedents for it? And if so, what should we do to move toward them? My suggestion was to have each of the three speakers to speak for about 20 minutes or so and then open it up to questions and answers from the audience.

So, if I may, I would like to introduce our first speaker. Bill Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is also an adjunct associate professor of political science at Santa Clara University, and is a member of the Board of Directors of East Palo Alto Charter Schools. He is the past commissioner of the California State Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards. Dr. Evers received his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University. In addition to the book by him that we have tonight, called What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms, he’s also editor of a book called National Service: Pro and Con. He was founding editor of Inquiry Magazine. And his articles have appeared in many major publications, including such newspapers as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and so forth. So, I am very pleased to present Bill Evers.

Williamson Evers
Research Fellow, Hoover Institution

Thank you, David. Welcome! Indeed, this is an important subject, and I think out of the different ways of dividing this up, I am most knowledgeable about what’s going on in the schools and what some of the current reform efforts are within the public schools. Most especially, and as David mentioned, I served on the state Academic Standards Commission. Since then, I have served on the Mathematics Test Question Selection Panel for the statewide test that is given each year to all public school students, grades 2 through 11. I am currently serving on the History/Social Studies Question Selection Panel, which is similar to the math one, and I am also a member of something called the California History/Social Science Project. This means that if a teacher has some proposal or somebody has a proposal to better teach history and social studies in the public schools, they come to us for review and funding and things like this.

Let me say two things. I think I’ll talk a little bit about this book [What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms] very briefly, then I thought I would tell you something about the “Math Wars,” and what happened. You might have read in the newspapers about the controversy over math instruction in California. I was centrally involved in this, and so it may be sort of interesting to hear.

This book [What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms] concentrates mostly on reading and math. It’s about how instructional practices that are used in the schools generally don’t rely on research that is grounded in many thousands of kids having had the experience, or carefully thought-about control groups having been put in place to see if some particular way of instructing tends to boost an achievement. Because that is what we would want, I would think, in terms of trying to change curriculum or put in a new textbook or new style of teaching or whatever. So, one of the writers, Bonnie Grossen, who is in here, talks about this in great depth, of what constitutes good solid research. I and E. D. Hirsch—who is both an English professor and has a university-wide special professor at the University of Virginia—we talk about the philosophical and ideological setting of a lot of these school controversies.

My own essay in here is about “progressive education.” This is something I’ll mention a little bit more in relation to the mathematics controversy, because it’s eminently involved. Basically, this is the idea of hands-on learning, that learning should be fun. Its ideas, to some extent, go back to Rousseau, maybe even farther back. It’s rooted in the Romantic Era ideal of human beings as curious, searching. If you just put them in an attractive atmosphere, they would go learn things themselves, such as memorizing the multiplication tables, maybe, or learning long division. The idea is that the children naturally want to learn, and the teacher should be a coach and a helper to them, and it should be fun.

Jack Fletcher and Reid Lyon have been deeply involved with a program that the federal government has done through the National Institutes of Health in terms of studying both people who have serious trouble with reading, and normal readers. This is the kind of program where they have really looked at thousands and thousands of kids. This is the research base that the return to phonics that we have seen in the last couple of years is really based on. Reid Lyon actually coordinates this research in the national government, and there is about a 30-year base of study that shows that.if you’re going to have effective whole class instruction, you’ve got to have the kids master the idea of an alphabetical principle, master the idea that there’s a sound-symbol correlation and correspondence that is going on, a connection that is going on. You have to learn the basis of the language: learning the sounds, how they’re associated, learning blending, learning the different components of this when you first tackle it. This is something that both Lyon and Fletcher, and also Bill Honig, are writing about here. Honig is the past State Superintendent of Public Instruction here in California, and indeed, as he would freely admit, responsible for a lot of the whole-language instruction in reading that we have had in California for the last 10 years. After he was in serious legal trouble, and forced out, he spent time looking how it was that we were doing reading and whether it was the right way.

The point is, when you’re learning new words, when you’re coming across, say, a multi-syllabic, polysyllabic word that you don’t know, you have to have word attack skills. You have to have ways of getting at this word, breaking it down, decoding it. These are just squiggles, after all, that are connected to sounds that we use in our language. If you don’t have a way of getting at that, if you just guess, based on the context, based on pictures, based on what you think the story’s about, you are going to get a lot of things wrong. Part of what this research shows is that guessing is not a very productive strategy. It’s a thing that’s used by poor readers, and you’re very likely to guess wrong. So that’s what the reading part of this book is about.

There is an excellent discussion of spelling by Louisa Cook Moats. Some people claim that being the President of the United States is the hardest job in the world. Some people claim being Mayor of New York City is. Some people claim being Mayor of Oakland is. This woman is the head of the early intervention projects in the District of Columbia public schools. This could be very close to one of the most difficult jobs in America. She is a specialist on spelling. I know, in my own son’s school, they teach spelling by memorizing high frequency words—words that occur quite a bit in the language—and then they’ll do things like pick a word or two out of the kid’s journal or something like that, have the kid learn that way. They don’t look at the structure of the language. Some of you, if you think back to your own learning of spelling, it’s possible that if you were taught correctly, they taught you some rules about prefixes and suffixes, and about adding “ing” and “y” and “ly” and things like that. It’s not just that. There are additional aspects to this. Looking at the structure of the language and the form of the words is called a morphemic way of approaching spelling. This is the Greek word for form. She’s an expert on this, and she goes into how our spelling instruction has gone wrong and how we can make it go right.

I’ve been going through these mostly alphabetically.

Maureen DiMarco has a chapter on the history of testing, particularly in California. She particularly talks about the CLAS test, which is a famous debacle. There are a lot of things wrong with it. They didn’t really do the sampling right. They lost things. They didn’t test some people they were supposed to test. They inflamed the cultural conservatives of the state by having questions that pried into things cultural conservatives reasonably thought were private matters. Those cultural conservatives didn’t really trust the test graders to be either fair in grading somebody who had a politically or culturally different view in answering some questions, say, about suicide or something like that. Also, they weren’t sure if the tests would be completely private. In a sense, they didn’t think it was the business of a test that was going to evaluate skills and knowledge that students had, to be largely trying to tap into the emotions of young kids. On top of that, it didn’t give an individual grade. There was no per-pupil assessment, and of course, the scores were incomparable to any other scores. I could go on.

Maureen DiMarco, who was the Cabinet Secretary of Education for Governor Wilson, does go on discussing this. This test was thrown out. We are now in the process of having a new test that is coming in incrementally. It’s called the STAR system. It’s composed of an off-the-shelf commercial test that’s an objective test. Then there are added questions that relate directly to the state standards in the core subject matter of English, math, history, social studies. That’s in the process. They had the standardized test part last year, and they’re having that again right now. The kids are having it right now in the public schools. Plus, they’re beginning with the first two subjects, English and math, with these things that are connected to these very tough state standards

The last guy in the book is Harold Stevenson. He is a psychologist. He is a leading person in the field of children’s development. He is also probably the leading expert in the world on comparative study between the United States and East Asian countries in terms of the instructional practices. He is a co-author of an excellent book, one of the best in addition to my book [What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms] and maybe E. D. Hirsch’s book, The Schools We Want. The Learning Gap, authored by Stevenson and Stigler, is one of the most important, accessible books that you could possibly read on education. It’s published by Oxford. It’s readily available in paperback. He looks at what goes on in Chinese schools and Japanese schools and in American schools. In this essay in here, he does some of the same thing, with particular attention to attitudes that we have; that students have. Students in America tend to think that luck is very important. Students in China tend to think that effort is very important. Well, that can have a big effect.

Teachers in the United States say they want to have a smoothly running classroom, but they don’t emphasize what the Chinese and Japanese do, and that is clarity. You poll these Chinese teachers, and they say “the most important thing I can be is crystal clear about the subject matter.”

It’s obvious that if you look at Singapore, and you look at the whole culture there, and the parents, they do value education more than we do in the United States and that is one of our problems.

We have this controversy over math instruction. It made the front page of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. It was also discussed in The Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily and various other places. The war was on how to teach mathematics. There are two big sides. One side says throw them in the swimming pool. They will swim. Immerse them in novel, non-routine problems and ask them to use their imagination. They will re-invent for themselves the past several thousand years of mathematics. Every child, his own Archimedes or his own or her own Pythagoras, Euclid.

The opponents call this “fuzzy math” or “constructivist math”—which is after a psychological theory of learning—or “whole math” by analogy to “whole language,” or “new-new math,” which expands on, but also to distinguish it from, the “new math” of the 1960s. It is, problems first. Give them problems. Teach them problem solving. If you have children or grandchildren, the ways to tell that you have this is: hand held calculators for homework, in classrooms during examinations, from kindergarten on; emphasis on estimation and “guess and check” as problem-solving strategies; no coverage of things like long-division with multiple digit divisors; essay-writing instead of mathematical symbols as a way to show your work; good grades for imaginative problem-solving rather than for getting the right answer.

This was another problem with the CLAS test. When they sent out the sample from the CLAS test in California, they were giving students credit for writing imaginative, kind of short story-like answers—sometimes because they were also politically correct answers—but the mathematics were completely wrong. It’s not just that they made one step wrong. The whole approach could not get the right answer. But because they showed they had a fascinating idea here from an English essay-writing standpoint, they got a higher grade. Even in Palo Alto, which is my school district and that’s one of the highest performing in the State of California and yet, I think, it’s certainly plagued with a lot of these problems. I just got an e-mail message from a middle school student who said to me, “When I do my homework assignments, I can do the math in five minutes, but then I have to spend an hour writing the explanation of what I did. When I’m graded, I get one point off if I get the answer wrong.”

That seems a little bit wrong. That is maybe one point out of five. I’m not saying it’s one point out of a hundred, but still, if it’s even one point out of five or ten, it’s a little bit odd that getting the correct answer is not more important than that. It is not the whole thing in math. It’s correct to also care about the procedures. It’s correct to want to teach conceptual understanding. But it’s not correct, as these people think, that the only way that you can do this is through fun activities, guessing how many jelly beans there are in a jar or how may blades of grass there are on a football field or whatever it is that they think is going to teach them mathematics.

There is another side and that is the explicit teaching side. It says: skills and facts first. You would not teach piano or football or golf without learning the rules, memorizing the important facts until they were second nature, and using considerable drill and practice. We do have 25 years of cognitive psychology research that shows that drill and practice is an extremely effective way of learning many things.

To teach mathematics, the more explicit teaching side says you need a teacher who directs or guides instruction, is not merely a facilitator of discussion. The teachers should teach the subject matter. This is called direct-instruction mathematics, explicitly taught mathematics, content-focused mathematics. Its opponents call it traditionalist math or “drill-and-kill math,” to suggest that it makes children hate math. Surely, with a bad teacher, it could.

One of the questions here is, with a brilliant teacher, there are a lot of different ways to teach math. With a brilliant teacher, you could probably use an immense amount of these “new-new math” techniques, and that teacher, being so good at it, could probably carry it off. But what about the average teacher? It requires—if you’re really going to do this, if you’re going to try and do this the progressive education way—it requires knowing a lot more. You think that research could solve this, but we don’t have a lot of good research in the field of instructional practices.

Let me just conclude there and let my colleagues speak. Let me just say one thing about what we do have, a University of Lancaster study done in the 70s. We do have Project Follow Through, that was done in the 1970s. These showed that explicit teaching generally worked better than the fun, hands-on approach used exclusively. The people who favor progressive education just dismiss these. There are problems in education because it’s a field with human subjects, and because it’s expensive and labor-intensive, but considering the billions of dollars that get spent over the years on this, it’s amazing how little is known about what constitutes effective practices and how many crazy fads get adopted for millions of students.

David Theroux

Our second speaker is Andrew Coulson. Andrew is senior research associate of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. He’s also editor of the Internet Web site, School Choices (, and author of the new book, Market Education: The Unknown History, which is one of the three books that we are featuring tonight. He is a member of the editorial board of the Education Policy Analysis Archive, which is published by Arizona State University, and formerly, he was a computer software engineer with the Microsoft Corporation. Andrew’s work is especially important, because it shows the kinds of systems that have worked in the past, and what would be possible for us to move toward in the future. Andrew.

Andrew Coulson
Author, Market Education: The Unknown History

Thanks very much, David. Well, if the only books you ever read were school reform and school choice books, you could easily come to the impression that kids and schools were invented sometime in the mid-1950s. Basically, there is no sense of history in this literature whatsoever. All problems are treated as new and unprecedented. All potential solutions or alternative ways of organizing schools are treated as radical and untried. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our ancestors have tried more and different ways of educating their kids than most people realize, including most education reformers. They have been faced by many of the same challenges that we face today. What we don’t know about those experiences, that they’ve had over the past 2,500 years, is hurting us. In order to give you a flavor of how important, how relevant, the historical evidence is, I’d like to quote from a letter. And if you heard me speak before, you may recognize it, but I think it bears repeating.

It was written by a young lawyer who grew up in the early 60s in a small town. He was disappointed to find that it still didn’t have its own high school. Being a wealthy individual and fairly generous, he decided he would found a school himself. But rather than pledging the full amount of the cost of creating this new school, he decided to pay only a third of the necessary funds. He explained how he reached this difficult decision in his letters. I’ll quote a part from it. He said: “I would promise the whole amount were I not afraid that, some day, my gift might be abused for someone’s selfish purposes, as I see happen in many places where teachers’ salaries are paid from public funds. There is only one remedy to meet this evil. If the selection of teachers is left entirely to the parents, and they are conscientious about making a wise choice through their obligation to contribute to the cost. People who may be careless about someone else’s money are sure to be careful about their own. They’ll see that only a suitable recipient will be found for my money if he is also to have their own.”

Some of you may agree with the letter, and some of you may disagree with it. What’s important isn’t so much just the contents, as the context. As I said, the author was born in the early 60s. Not the early 1960s—the early 60s...of the first century A.D.! His name was Pliney the Younger, and he was a citizen of the Roman Empire. Pliney’s letter and his experiences are one pebble on a mountain of historical evidence that has so far been ignored in the education reform debate. We ignore it at our peril.

There are a lot of different ways of using this historical evidence, and there are a lot of pitfalls. One of the things you can’t do is to find one individual school system from, say, ancient Egypt ancient Mesopotamia, and if you like that, claim it is a model for schools today. There are a lot of things about educational outcome that are not based not on what goes on in the classroom—cultural factors, economic conditions, politics. In order to avoid that kind of pitfall, what I tried to do in Market Education is to not look at a single system or even a small group of systems, but to look at the entire history of formal education, from its rise in classical Greece—at least in the west—to the present day, all over the world, stopping a little over a dozen times along the way throughout history.

The persuasiveness of that evidence comes from looking for common threads. If you could find a school system that worked well in classical Greece, in the Roman Republic, in medieval Islam, in the early 19th century in England and the United States, and in modern day Japan, then you can start to suspect, at least, that maybe some of its success comes from the inherent qualities of the system itself, and not from accidents of circumstance. Circumstances have, after all, changed quite a lot between those civilizations.

I’d like to try and summarize some of that evidence tonight, but because it draws its strength from comprehensiveness and from high level of detail, it’s kind of hard to do that in a persuasive way, so I think what I will do is I’ll just fast forward through the evidence and allow those of you who picked up the book to read it at your leisure—since it would take me several hours to go through it—and I’ll jump right to my conclusions and to what I think are the reasons that lie behind those conclusions.

Basically, I found one system did, indeed, do a better job of serving the public than all others. That system was a free and competitive educational market. That’s very hard for a lot of people today to accept, because it is so different from what we have today, and what we’ve had for the past 8 or 10 generations. I think once we understand the reasons for the success of competitive markets in education, the sort of “shock factor” will be greatly abated, and people will come to realize that it isn’t surprising, after all, that markets work in education as they do in many other areas of human endeavor.

The five factors that I found were principally behind the success of competitive markets, historically, and which have not typically been enjoyed by state-run schools systems, are choice and financial responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition and the profit motive for schools. That last one causes some people to choke a bit. We’ll get to it in due course.

The reasons for parental choice in education are very simple and very persuasive. Historically, parents have just made better decisions than state-appointed pedagogues. It’s an empirical question. You can look at the evidence. Look at civilizations that started out with comparable levels of cultural capital, and look at systems that adopted a free market approach to education, and those that adopted a state-run approach to education, and compare the sorts of decisions that parents made and the sorts of outcomes that those sorts of systems had. Typically, free-market systems have done a better job of raising literacy rates, increasing enrollment in education, and have had more significant beneficial effects on the economy as a whole than state-run systems.

Conversely, public school systems, such as we have today, don’t tend to make very wise decisions. Mr. Evers gave us a few examples. Particularly, I like to call the new math, “the Emperor’s new math,” given its awesome failure in many respects. The same is true of whole language and dispensing with the teaching of phonics. Instead of dispensing phonics education, we’ve been dispensing with phonics education in this country, and not just for 30 years or 50 years. Significantly, for the last 80 years, the proper teaching of phonics has been marginalized in this country. It’s not that every approach to teaching phonics is fantastic. Some are better than others. But over the past 80 years, it has been considerably marginalized from the extent to which it dominated early reading instruction in centuries past.

The second criteria for educational excellence on a long-term basis is financial responsibility for parents for either some or all of the tuition for their children’s education. This isn’t something I anticipated finding when I began my research, but it came very clear about halfway through, that this was going to be a big factor. The first reason is that, if you want parents to have choice, and I found choice to be very important in educational quality, the only way that parents tend to get choice is by paying for education. When someone else pays for your child’s education, someone else decides what kind of education your child gets. That’s typically been the course of history for the past 2,500 years. Of course, this poses problems for low-income families who have a very limited ability to pay for their children’s education. That is actually a very difficult and important policy issue for the next decade, to find out how to subsidize low-income families without preventing them from fully participating in a competitive marketplace and without limiting their choices to such an extent that they have the poor options they are currently afforded in most inner cities.

Parental financial responsibility is also important because, when you pay for something, you tend to pay attention to it. When you get it for free, you feel free to take it for granted and to ignore it. One of the things that I found very interesting is that, when public schooling was first proposed in its modern form in the mid-1800s in both Canada and the United States, with overwhelming tax support rather than any direct funding, there were a few perceptive individuals who immediately said, “Well, wait a minute. If we cut off financial responsibility for parents, they’re gradually going to shift their attention to other aspects of their lives.” Parents have, as we all know, a huge array of responsibilities and fires to put out constantly. If education is sort of taken care of for them, and it’s not involving their pocketbook directly, they don’t know how much is being spent on it and they don’t know how the money is being spent. The incentives for them to become very involved and to understand exactly what is going on in their schools, will be reduced. That fact has been born out by the history of education since the mid-19th Century.

Competition, among educators, is the next important factor for educational excellence. Competition gives educators an incentive to not be satisfied with the status quo. To look for new and better ways of providing services to families in order to simply have the opportunity to serve kids. When educators are forced to compete, they have, historically, done a much better job of, first, ascertaining what families want and, second, delivering it. In order for this competition to be meaningful, educators have to have a certain amount of freedom. If you introduce competition into a school system that is heavily regulated or has a national curriculum, you’ve done very little, because the amount of freedom that educators have to innovate or to tailor their services to particular kids, is so restricted that you have very little variety. Without variety then choice is rather meaningless. Parents can choose from one among many identical schools or very similar schools. It doesn’t amount to much.

If you have these four factors. If you have choice and financial responsibility for parents; competition and freedom for educators, historically, you’ve eliminated the worst cases in education. You don’t have very many abysmal schools being perpetuated over long periods of time. They simply go out of existence over time as parents cease to send their children to them. You tend to control costs fairly effectively because parents are footing the bill, to some extent, and there’s competition. So if you’re offering a service equivalent to that of your competitors, but you charge more for it, you’re out of business in the short order.

These factors do help to, again, as I say, avoid the worst abuses in education. But by themselves, they don’t generate excellence, and they don’t generate innovation. If you just have these factors, you can have essentially the sort of private schools that we have today in this country, which are operated as non-profit organizations. While, in many respects, today’s private schools are better than today’s public schools, even after adjusting for differences in their enrollment, the level of superiority of the private sector is fairly modest. In fact, if you really think about it, it’s embarrassingly modest. The best private schools today enroll no more students really, or perhaps 10 percent or 15 percent more students today, than they did 100 years ago. This is unimaginable in any field of endeavor outside of education. In fact, if you just think about software companies today, having gone from 20 employees to 20,000 employees in just a few years.

Even if you think about areas of human life where people have actively renounced progress, it’s hard to find areas that have shown as little progress as public schooling. I recently read that the Amish are now using cell phones. This is a development in the Amish community which is much grander than any improvement in the art or science of pedagogy, which I am aware over the last 100 years.

Basically, you need to add to these first four factors the profit motive, the incentive to not just be satisfied with the kids you’re serving, but to expand your facilities to reach more and more students. If you add the profit motive, you encourage research and development because, in sort of a non-profit environment where spending is fixed, as in the public school sector or in the charter school sector, no one is really going to innovate in the long run, because they can’t afford to do the research, which is necessary. No one would have invented...let’s get back to cell phones for some reason. No one would have been able to invent cell phones, or to sell cell phones as they currently do for next to nothing, or, in fact, give them away for free, if 10 or 15 years ago, they hadn’t been able to charge $1,000 a pop. It’s only through the ability to recoup research and investment costs early on that businesses take the financial risks and make the investments into developing new ways of delivering services or developing new services entirely.

So, if we actually want the same level of innovation in our education sector that we see in every other sector of our economy, we have to introduce the profit motive, or we can just expect stagnation in the long term.

So, these five factors—choice and responsibility for parents, and freedom, competition, and the profit motive for schools—have, in my research, shown to be essentially tied to excellence in education. Their absence has been associated with either stagnation or decline over time in the quality of schooling. What I recommend, when you next find yourselves at the ballot box, I would recommend looking at whatever education or reform proposals are available, and evaluating them based on how many and to what extent they enjoy these factors. I suggest the success of the worth of any education reform is dependant on the extent to which it addresses these factors. Thanks very much.

David Theroux

Many of you who are here tonight, and many of those who you may work with, are, of course, trying to struggle with the situation that they’re facing, either in public schools, or with different sort of approaches, whether it’s private schools or charter schools or reforms of existing systems. Of course, many of the people here are somewhat familiar or well-familiar with vouchers, and I mentioned private scholarships earlier.

Our next speaker is someone who has been knee deep, more than knee deep, in this work for a long time. Myron Lieberman is chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington DC. He received his Ph.D. in education from the University of Illinois. Having started out as a high school teacher, he later became a professor and served in such capacity at the University of Southern California, City University of New York, Hofstra, Yeshiva University, University of Oklahoma, Ohio University and the University of Pennsylvania. For many years, he served as the chief negotiator of union contracts for school districts in Arizona, California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Dr. Lieberman is the author of 18 books, at last count, including one of the books that we’re featuring tonight, The Teacher Unions, as well as the books: Public Education, Teachers Evaluating Teachers, Teacher Union Bargaining, The NEA and AFT, Public School Choice, Privatization and Educational Choice, Beyond Public Education, Public Sector Bargaining, The Future of Public Education and so forth. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Myron Lieberman.

Myron Lieberman
Author, The Teacher Unions

I, ordinarily, do not like to refer to personal experience, because my own view is, if the speaker can’t cite non-personal experience, he or she may be on an ego trip. I am going to just mention a few things.

David didn’t mention the fact that I was a candidate for State Superintendent of Education in California in 1982. For those of you who were around then, that was the year that Wilson Riles was running for re-election. I had it figured out how I was going to be the State Superintendent. First, I’d left my liberal years behind me, and I was moving on the other side. I had spent seven years with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as an expert witness and consultant. So I had my civil rights flank well-covered, and then, I had written books and articles and done other things that seemed to excite Jewish voters. I figured, if I could hang on to the conservative vote, and get in on these other two, that I might make it.

The problem was that I needed money. I finally got to speak to a fellow that, as I understand it, was in the Reagan “kitchen cabinet”—you know that small group of leaders who made sure you didn’t have to worry about where the next dollar was coming from. I finally got in to see the gentleman, and he said, “We’ve never given money to a candidate for this office.” And I said, “My God. Over half the state budget is going for education, and you tell me you’ve never supported a candidate?” He said, “If you get Milton Friedman’s endorsement, that would be worth $25,000.” So, I tried to find somebody who knew Milton Friedman, who could introduce us. Finally, in desperation, I wrote to him, saying “this is what I believe” and so on and so forth. Sure enough, I get back a letter that says, “Although I do not know Myron Lieberman personally...”

He’s not an easy person to get a hold of. Finally, I got him on the phone, and I said, “I understand why you wrote that, but let me come and talk to you, so you don’t have to say that anymore.” Well he said, “Let me think about it.” Finally, about three days before the election, when $25 million wouldn’t have done me any good at that point, I did get to know him. We’ve been friends for a long time.

Now, another reference by one of the previous speakers was a headline in the San Francisco paper. I don’t know why anybody should be surprised at that. In the late 1980s, John Jacob Cannel was a pediatrician in West Virginia. He was puzzled by the fact that some of the children that he was treating were so far along in school, but couldn’t read and write. It got him interested in looking up state testing scores, and he found that every state claimed that their kids were doing “above average.” It’s the “Lake Woebegone” effect—they’re all above it.

I happen now to be working on a study of the real cost of public education. The government statistics on it do not give the real cost. It’s the producer’s stake. The producer wants you to think the product or service is doing well, so you get the exaggeration on that side, and the producer doesn’t want you to think that you’re running an uneconomical ship, so the costs are vastly understated. I hope that we can have that done.

Somebody mentioned the District of Columbia here. I live in the district. The district was paying for the tuition for prison inmates at the Lorden Prison in Virginia. What finally happened was, the prison inmates took over the student government. We had, I kid you not, to change the rules so that didn’t happen anymore.

I’m not going to take 20 minutes, even with those comments. If any of you finish before I do, feel free.

In 1962, I was a candidate for the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers. At that time, the AFT had two caucuses of fairly equal strength in the union. It’s a very rare situation. I was on the progressive caucus, which included the New York local. The caucus had a vote on Tuesday night before the nominations to choose its candidate. I won by a very narrow margin in the caucus by about 40 votes out of 750. Before going to bed that night—the debate ended about midnight—my campaign manager recommended that we have stickers printed saying, “I like Mike.” It sounded like a good idea. I said, “Go ahead.”

In Detroit, which is where the convention was, they had all-night printing shops. About six in the morning, I woke up to good and bad news. The good news was the stickers had been printed. The bad news was they had been printed by a non-union shop. We had to go through the hotel, trying to find all these stickers that we thought were going to be so helpful. The point of this is, I think about this in connection with the school choice movement in the United States. The lesson I may draw from this is, somebody may believe in you, they may share your principles, they may think you walk on water, but they still may do more harm to your cause than any of your opponents. That’s the lesson I drew from that. That’s the way I feel about the people who advocate school choice...most of them.

I’m going to make one other observation before I go into that in a little bit more detail. School choice is a very vague phrase, and its popularity among conservatives is partly due to its vagueness. If you looked at the arguments for school choice, for example, a very common one in the beltway among conservatives, is that they think the parents in the inner city should have the same rights as Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is the only person in Washington, D.C. who lives in public housing but sends his child to an expensive private school. Among the conservatives, they were all saying, “We think the inner city parents should have the same right.” But they’ve got the same right; they don’t have the money. That’s their problem. To argue that is the straight liberal dogma that we’ve got to equalize everybody’s buying power. If you believe it, fine, but this is coming from people who claim not to hold onto that particular point of view.

Now, the problem we have now in the school choice movement is that school choice is applied to everything that expands parental choice. Like Andrew, I think he and I would agree on this, I believe that what is needed is a competitive education industry. That’s not privatization and it’s not something called school choice. If you look at the programs that come with the label school choice, it is fair to say that there isn’t one of them in the United States that even comes remotely close to a competitive education industry. Not one. In order for an industry to be competitive, as the economists would ordinarily use the term, there has to be ease of entry, inefficient producers would have to go out of business or improve, there has to be information, prices have to reflect the cost. There is no place in the country where school choice meets those conditions.

On the other hand, the advocates of school choice are tending to treat every school choice example without any differentiation. We’re just about at the threshold of the period when all these so-called “experiments” in school choice are going to blow up in our faces. With that, I believe they are going to then create an enormous handicap for those of us who believe in a competitive education industry.

Even the language of the conservatives—and that’s a big umbrella term—even their language shows how careless they are. For example, we refer to pilot projects as “experiments.” “Have you heard about the experiment in Milwaukee or the experiment in Cleveland?” What hypothesis is being tested? Believe me, I’ve gone to dozens, if not hundreds, of meetings on school choice, and I’ve heard these cities referred to as experiments, and if the only thing that characterizes them is something called school choice, you couldn’t blame people for staying off that. “So the test is done and it doesn’t work out, then I’m against school choice.” The whole notion of treating these pilot projects or these places like Milwaukee and Cleveland like experiments, I think, is a very serious strategic mistake.

Now, the opponents of a competitive education industry have two very important strategic advantages. One is that they’re unified, and they know what they’re against, and they can shift their resources wherever they’re needed. When you had Proposition 174 in California, they got money from the NEA. Resources and staff were put in here. The other thing is, they’ve been very successful in focusing the attention of voters and parents on achievement. That’s been a tremendous strategic mistake on the part of the supporters. Suppose I gave you your choice of cars. One car cost $5,000 and got 25 miles to the gallon. Another car cost $50,000 and got 26 miles to the gallon. Otherwise, there were no differences between these cars. Well, if all you were doing was pointing to the analogy of the achievement, you’d say I’d take car B, but you wouldn’t if you knew how much more you were spending for that small increment of improvement. I think it is very probable that, in some of these so-called “experiments,” the public school kids are going to do better. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t, given the fact that they’re spending so much more in those schools than the private schools that are supposedly the test.

Now, it’s legitimate to say that we have a school choice movement in this country. To regard every expansion of parental choice as part of the movement is perhaps a good thing, but it should be recognized that these so-called “experiments” or pilot projects or whatever you want to call them, are not tests of what education would be like in a competitive industry. And we should be very clear on that point. I’m not against these limited school choice projects. I’m just against the idea they will tell us anything about what a competitive education industry would do.

Let me just close by saying that there isn’t time here to get into the critics of my position here, but one is that I have a sort of “pie-in-the-sky attitude.” Or that this thing has to be done incrementally and so forth and so on. Let me just conclude on what I regard as a very interesting historical note. In 1962, Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, the book which, more than any other, set forth the case for a competitive education industry. Nineteen sixty-two was also the year that we had the first collective bargaining agreement in public education. Ten years later, over half the teachers in the country were working pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, and today, about 70 percent are. Meanwhile, here we are 37 years later—we do not have a competitive K-12 education market anywhere in the United States.

So, like you, I’ve heard all the great progress that’s being made. You know, in the past year alone, the California Teachers Association has increased its membership by 37,000. The most implacable opponent of privatization and vouchers! That’s what I see. To me, evidence such as this suggests that, unless the individuals who support school choice or support a competitive education industry reassess their strategy and the tactics, it may be a long time, indeed, before we see a competitive education industry anywhere in the country. Thank you.

David Theroux

One of the other reason why the work that Andrew has been involved in, and also that Myron’s been writing about, and others—and this also fits directly in with Bill’s efforts to try and overcome the really bad ideas—is the new technologies that are facilitating the possibility of creating a more competitive climate in education. One of the most interesting developments in higher education is the University of Phoenix, which is expanding all over the place. It’s a for-profit firm and there has been, unfortunately, the tendency for a lot of people to think that education is defined by a certain institutional makeup. We know by the kind of developments on the Internet and so forth that there is going to be revolutionary change that’s going to drastically change the landscape. Part of that might lead—if we understand what kind of direction we should push it in—toward a truly competitive system.

I’d like to open up to any questions, and if you would like to direct them to a specific speaker, Carl has a microphone...this gentleman right here.

Audience Member 1

Question for all three speakers. Are unions and education incompatible?

Williamson Evers

In terms of the things that I’ve been working on, the top leadership of one of the major unions has been interested in improving instructional techniques, and that is the American Federation of Teachers. In other issues, this union is extremely militant, opposing the kinds of things the other speakers have been talking about, but the late Al Shanker was a very strong critic of foolishness and fads in education and wanting to boost student achievement. Indeed, right now, in Los Angeles, they’re having an election race for school board. This is a major contested race. The mayor of Los Angeles, who is a moderate Republican, is sort of aligned with the United Teachers of Los Angeles. While I can’t say that their record has been one of real greatness in terms of the schools, but remarkably enough, they have seen that the schools are a disaster zone in Los Angeles, and if they don’t at least get a better school board in there, it’s going to get worse a lot faster. The situation will be a lot worse for them.

I think from a point of view of classical liberal political theory, which I know is of interest to some of you here, freedom of association is part of classical liberal political theory, so you have to allow people, whether they’re employers or employees, to associate with each other. Now, obviously, because of the way the government is tied into this, this is not really what we have in the public sector, and in the Wagner Act, and so forth. In some sense, certainly, associations are legitimate.

Andrew Coulson

My own feeling on the unions is particularly, you’ll notice this if you read the book, that I don’t attribute many of the problems that we have with our public school system to the unions. I do think that having a teacher’s union in the public sector is very different from having one in the private sector. In the private sector, unions tend to be self-regulating. If the employees of UPS had demanded a quadrupling of their salaries, say....either, if the management had caved to this request, UPS would no longer be in business, or these employees would have been fired, because that’s simply not attainable to demand in a competitive marketplace. Alternatively, in the public school system, if a union over some period of years, say 40 years, gets a quadrupling in the salaries of its employees, which has actually happened in the public schools, there is really no competitor that can challenge that kind of rather exorbitant demand. There are no other public school systems to which parents can send their children, and so, in the field of public schooling, I do think that unions have a negative effect overall on the system, by raising prices in a way that they would not in the private sector. But this is something that, in the private sector, I don’t think there is any incompatibility whatsoever.

Myron Lieberman

By the way, in the book that I have out there, there is a chapter on the union impact, and also a chapter on Al Shanker. Al Shanker was the most implacable foe of privatization and competition that we had in this country.

Bill Evers

That’s not inconsistent with what I said.

Myron Lieberman

If you believe that competition is essential to improve education, as I happen to believe—it’s the most single important thing that we need—this is a good example where I think that the group that generally favors a conservative approach here. When the NEA and the AFT merged, there wasn’t one single educational issue on which they disagreed.

Bill Evers

You mean when they tried to merge?

Myron Lieberman

There wasn’t one. This notion that somehow the AFT was a reform-minded organization and the NEA was different...Al Shanker was the most shrewd manipulator we had in this country.

Bill Evers

I don’t disagree with you that he was a fantastic publicist, and I also think that, even on the ideas he had favoring solid education, this goes only a certain distance down in the Washington or sometimes the state-level hierarchy.

Myron Lieberman

Can you name one difference between the NEA and the AFT on educational policy?

Bill Evers

There are mostly stylistic differences between these unions. I think that’s fair to say. I wanted to mention the kind of thing that really is an obvious counter-productive way of organizing things that we see in the public schools, and that might actually be attributable to the unions. If you look at science and math teachers, we really need good science and math teachers, whether it’s a private school or a public school. It’s bad for teachers that have got their degree in physical education, usually, to transfer over to teach physics. Yet, we find this a lot, especially in the public schools where people have backgrounds in some other field, and they’re teaching math or science at secondary schools. This is not really a good plan.

Obviously, there’s an engineer out there who can teach this or whatever. Generally, it’s a wise thing that somebody would have majored in this as a subject matter when they were an undergraduate. Part of the problem is, it’s difficult to get pay differentials. You tend to have math and science teachers yield to the English teachers’ pay, and forget the fact that a math or science teacher has other alternatives. This may be could be part of the culture of the public schools as they’ve evolved, but certainly, the existence of strong unions has added to this. The other obvious problem that unions bring is the job security focus that they have. The overwhelming way that a parent sees the effect of the unions is that, if there is a weak, mediocre, or even terrible teacher, it’s very, very hard to get the teacher fired. It costs tens of thousands of dollars and years of school district time. The administrators, who tend to be not really the most bold people in the world, don’t do it. That’s something the unions are probably contributing to the situation.

Audience Member 2

One of the reason we have 37,000 more teachers in California paying union dues is because our “conservative Republican” governor implemented a reform that he thought would work to improve education, but within the existing public education system, that was reducing class size, thereby having to need more teachers. No matter what you try to do within the system, and this is to Bill, improving standards goes exactly against some of things that Andrew said is needed. For instance, there are charter schools and there are voucher proposals in various states—Texas being one of the main ones—where they want to try to impose certain state standards that a lot of private schools are going to find very difficult to organize around. That impulse to regulate, the monopoly to limit competition, I think is one of the worst things we have in our education system.

Myron Lieberman

For the most part, people who make a big issue of standards, in my view, are unrealistic. As if we don’t know who can’t read or write. What’s the mystery? You could have dozens of tests and they would all show that a student doesn’t know how to read or write or calculate or whatever. Here we are, there has been a movement for 10 years or more trying to get this national assessment, we are still not even to first base on that. It’s an example of the unions—especially Al Shanker, by the way, who favored that because he favored any solution that would not threaten the union privilege. So high standards, he knew as well as anybody what little chance it ever had of getting through Congress, and if it did, how long it would take to work out and so on and so forth. That would be my reaction to that question.

Bill Evers

I think you have 80 to 90 percent of the children in public schools. They go through life once. It seems to me, you can want them to really learn history, and you can want them to really learn English, and you can want them to really learn math—and you can have separate views about the best structure that this could have, whether it should be found in a private sector or a public sector. But you can still think there are better and worse ways of teaching reading. I have been concentrating on that.

I completely think—Pam Riley asked this question and she’s right—that an effort like the standards movement could be perverted to crush private education and its independence. It could be perverted to crush home schooling. There are a lot of bad things that could be done. There isn’t any surefire answer to that, and I think people who want those to be independent, have to fight. They have to be extremely alert to the potential for this. Surely, the great fear that some conservatives have about the voucher movement—the regulations could follow the money—is not, looking at the European experience, a frivolous worry on the part of those conservatives. There’s a lot of things that you have to be careful about in the field of education. I don’t think it’s wrong for us, whether you have a child in public school or private school, you’re just a taxpayer, whatever, to know more about what’s going on. The great advantage of the standards movement is it’s not doing what you’re calling for, but it’s getting us a lot more information about what’s going on. That’s really useful. It does put pressure on people to do a better job.

David Theroux

One thing that I mentioned, and this gets back to Andrew’s talk, a lot of parents have simply not been aware of what happens in the schools or what works and what doesn’t work.

Bill Evers

Some states now require report cards on the schools that are actually fairly informative. As we get into that sort of thing, it will have an effect.

David Theroux

If parents and teachers and others interested in education were to learn what is working and what doesn’t work.

Andrew Coulson

I would just like to add a little something on standards. If you look at the public opinion data, parents want their kids to be tested on basic subjects to find out whether or not they’re learning anything. My own experience, based on my research, is that standards tend to work best when they’re driven by the consumers, rather than imposed by the state. A lot of the standards movement has been taking the opposite approach to the one I took. It’s starting from an idea that sounds plausible—let’s have nationally imposed standards imposed by the federal government and see if that improves education. My approach has been to look at the reverse, to look at school systems that are actually doing well and have high standards, and find out how they achieved them. If you look at the data from the very recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study,—it’s just been released, over the last few years, to different grade levels—I think a professor named Richard Wolf did a study comparing the nations that had national standards imposed by the government, and those that didn’t. He found no correlation between having government-imposed standards and having high achievement. Some of the good-scoring countries had them and some of the bad-scoring countries had them. Over and over again, I kept coming back to the fact there are just certain market incentives that drive excellence in education, and imposing standards on a system that doesn’t have these market incentives is not likely to do much. In fact, you often see the result that you see in the San Francisco Examiner story, with test scores being inflated. We have this measure: well, we’ll just corrupt the process and inflate the measure. So they don’t actually serve the purpose for which they are intended to serve.

Audience Member 3

I just need a one word answer if you can... What’s the generic word for, like, a fad...sort of a body of knowledge that hasn’t been tested, that has no social research behind it, but people study in colleges? I know there aren’t very many of them. Like phrenology. I’m not trying to be funny. So much of public education seem to be like this. Is there a generic term for study or that kind of pursuit? What is the body of knowledge called that you study that has no support underneath it?

Andrew Coulson

Maybe pseudo-science would be a little gentle.

Audience Member 4

I wanted to know, and I sort of got the answer from Andrew Coulson, what do each of the speakers feel is the solution to the inequity of education, depending on the location and the financial situation of different communities? For instance, you could call them bad teachers, or you could just say teachers who aren’t trained, tend to be recruited by the school district which needs them, which tend to be the school districts which serve poor communities, so what’s going, for instance, in Jonathan Kozol’s writing? How can we correct situations where some school districts are failing and some public school systems aren’t doing as badly?

Bill Evers

I think the point that the questioner is making is... For many years we heard the problem was money—inequality of money between different school districts. We’ve had reasonably equal money in California for quite a while now. It hasn’t solved the problem. The point that she made, which is that either poor teachers—not very competent teachers—or new teachers, ones that are not very experienced—tend to be in some of the districts where the people come from educationally weak backgrounds. Their parents aren’t highly educated and so forth. What could be done about this? Well, obviously if you go to a privatization model, you sort of solve that, in that you hire the best teachers you can afford, given the market situation there. It sort of plays itself out along those lines.

Within the public school situation, they could pay premiums to people. Just think about the egalitarian culture among the teachers and then listen to this proposal: suppose you offer people with higher SAT scores, higher salaries to go teach in an urban school? Or people who were high in their class rank? Usually the people who teach in public school are in the bottom quartile of their class, and their class is probably a CSU [California State University] system school. There are plenty of smart kids that come out of CSU, but from probably the bottom quartile of CSU, you’re not getting the best people. The work that a child that comes from an educationally weak family setting has to do is more work than the child from Palo Alto. He has more to learn. She has more to learn.

Audience Member 4

I wasn’t as clear. I’m not just talking about economic inequities. I’m also talking about the systemic, the bureaucracy that goes on in systems where, ok, maybe we can go by a culturally-biased test, that someone who has really high SAT scores is going to be a better teacher, but it seems to me there is more going on in the systems that certain schools . . .

Bill Evers

I think you and I would have to have a long talk because I don’t think we really agree. I think the truth of the matter is... SATs are really out there to predict the first few years of college performance. They do ok at that. Obviously, the colleges are within our culture, and so you can call the test culturally biased, but that’s not important, because the colleges are within our culture. So are the public schools and also private schools. They’re trying to equip kids to thrive within our culture. If you go to a Jewish day school, you’re targeting a sub-culture within the larger culture, but you’re also trying to effect a unique culture within the larger culture. I think we can’t successfully remake society to conform to some perfect model where people can’t observe their own cultures. But I think any civic leader can say to parents of any social class or any ethnic group or any religion, look, education is really important. It’s even more important than you may think. One of the reasons that East Asian families do well in American society, is that there is a cultural heritage there of valuing education. If we could get white suburban families to pay more attention to education than to little league, it would help education in America.

Myron Lieberman

There are over 10 times as many teachers as there are doctors. This notion that you’re going to get a level of talent in an occupation of that size is just I think out of the question. Another point, this discussion illustrates something that I see over and over again. A lot of attention is devoted to issues that the market would take care of if we had a market system of education. Does Toyota have merit pay? Who knows? Who cares? We get people talking about teacher tenure. Should we have merit pay? How to teach math. How to teach reading.

Bill Evers

You’re right. It would be completely imputed back from the decisions of consumers if it were a market system.

Myron Lieberman

I’m just saying, if you look at the strategies and the resources, and where they’re going, they’re going into secondary issues, instead of on changing the basic system of educational delivery.

Audience Member 5

I just want to follow up on this because I have a problem with the competitive education industry. I was in a very good private high school for 12 years, and I became aware to what extent look, and culture, and a tremendous amount of effort come into play when you create an entity like a school. Now, you are comparing schools to General Motors, and I would argue that schools are more like the San Francisco Opera or any other cultural endeavor, which is very, very seldom self-supporting. It’s subsidized. They have to do a lot of things. Schools, even in many of the things you said tonight, would have to spring up as an industry out of thin air. There’s no evidence of what works. There’s no research that gives you the market research aspect. When you start building cars, you don’t just do it out of thin air. There is a huge body of information that you can find that you can put together, and all you have to is to produce cars. That’s all. Here you have to produce human beings. I would be very interested in hearing what your response to...

Myron Lieberman

Do you know how much you’re spending out of your own pocket for public education?

Audience Member 5

In terms of the amount of taxes that I pay?

Myron Lieberman

Do you know how much you’re paying for it? You personally.

Audience Member 5


Myron Lieberman

Does anybody in this room know? Do you feel you know how much you spend from your own pocket? You’ve put together all the local taxes, all the state taxes, all the federal taxes and you allocate it to share it.

How much in federal, state and local taxes are you paying for public education? Does anybody know? And who benefits from that income? Again, the producers benefit, because you don’t know how much you’re paying for it and you’re in a weak position to argue you’re not getting your money’s worth. That was going to be the first part of my answer.

The second thing is whether you have the result and the cause. Sure you could say education is like the opera now, because that’s the way it is. We’re not going to have an education system that’s a majority for-profit, but that’s what we need...Non-profit enterprise shares more characteristics with government than it does with the for-profit system. The burden, it seems to me, would be on those who argue that. Why would education be different? You take your child to a doctor who’s working for profit, to a lawyer, to a dentist. This caused everything, except this thing called school...which, by the way, is vastly overrated in terms of its impact on kids.

Andrew Coulson

I’d just like to add something too on this idea that education is different from other human enterprises. This is a concern that a lot of people have raised ,but it is something that is directly treated in my book. There have been half a dozen completely free markets for education. Schools being operated for profit. In fact more than half a dozen over the past 2500 years, and the evidence is in. The very first competitive market for education was in classical Athens. Most people are aware that Athens gave us much of Western culture, did tremendous work in mathematics and the sciences and produced just a huge volume of cultural output. They were an economic superpower at the time, a very diverse city-state, and they had a free and competitive private market with no government involvement in education whatsoever. The world’s first public school system was about 100 miles away in Sparta, and they produced a name for high school football teams. There’s absolutely no comparison historically.

Today, there is an example of a competitive for-profit market for education in Japan in the after-school schools that 90 percent of the kids attend, called juku. The competitive market for education there works extremely well, and, in fact, most parents consider it so important that they pay tuition. The government doesn’t subsidize this at all. Their kids go every day after school for several hours a day to study at these schools. There is hard evidence on this kind of approach to education and it does work.

Audience Member 6

My wife and I are both public school teachers. She had a higher SAT score than I, so she should probably saying this. But we have found that the majority of our colleagues are committed and dedicated teachers who really want kids to succeed, but we teach high school, and what we find is the lack of interest of parents. We can’t get them to participate. We can’t get them to take an interest in their child’s performance in school, where Cs are satisfactory, chronic truants, running through the halls. This is the daily thing that we put up with. My feeling is that, what we need to do, is have fewer kids in school. We need to tell those kids, much like they do in college, you’re on academic probation until you bring up the grade. If you can’t, we show you the door, like they do in many countries. That’s what I see as the problem, too many kids who really don’t want to succeed and parents who don’t support their success.

Bill Evers

I think you have two things going on here. I think the market economics people would say that parents don’t have a very good incentive situation to care. In other words, it’s unlikely, if they do put an effort in, that they will be able to have any noticeable effect. The cultural conservatives would say, you’re probably right, there are a lot of parents that don’t care, and they should shape up and care because it’s important. If they care about the future of their children and their children’s success and their children being cultivated individuals, they should care about them getting a good education.

In terms of the teachers... by the way, there’s an interesting book called Beyond the Classroom by a man named [Laurence] Steinberg that talks about a lot of these issues. What kind of culture do the parents and the kids bring to the schools today? I also think that teachers have the tendency to say, look, we have some recalcitrant material here, and it’s really tough for us to do our job. I think the teacher has to take a slightly different attitude. A teacher has to say, yes, it would be better if the parents were better involved or if the kid had better parents, but really, even if the kid is an orphan, our job, despite this, is to really try and master the subject material. I think teachers can too easily—I’m a teacher myself—come up with excuses for their kid not performing that well. It’s really our job, and we haven’t really succeeded at it if they don’t learn the material.

David Theroux

I want to thank our speakers, Bill Evers, Andrew Coulson and Myron Lieberman. Copies of their books, What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms, Market Education, and The Teacher Unions, are available upstairs for those of you who have not gotten copies. Each of our speakers would be delighted to autograph copies of their respective books for you and speak privately as well. And thank you all for coming and making this such a successful evening. Thank you again and good night.


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