Follow along as Professor Wolfram ticks off all the squares on the Bad Market Argument checklist.
Context-free facts in order to create sense of emergency? Check.
Wolfram tosses out the PISA and NAEP results. We rate low in PISA, he declares, failing to mention that our standing, measured by a single standardized test, has always been middlin'. Those NAEP scores show a lack of proficiency, he opines, failing to mention what 'proficient" means on the NAEP, nor to consider the possible shortcomings of NAEP as a measure of anything.
Not that he's saying all public schools stink. Just the urban ones. Seriously-- he wants us to know that nobody wants to go to public school in Detroit. Not that he's going to talk about what decades of deliberate underfunding, systemic racism, and the stripping of resources to fund charters has done to Detroit (or other urban systems).
What's next? Bad and inappropriate analogy? Here we go--
Consider this sad reality: Our nation produces technology so advanced that I could use the phone in my pocket—which is already three generations old—to take a video of you and email it to someone in London, but at the same time we can’t seem to teach a 4th grader to read in Detroit. Does this make sense? Why have we allowed this state of affairs to arise?
Also, since we can put a man on the moon, why can't Taylor Swift find her soulmate? Furthermore, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves.
But let's pretend his comparison makes sense, and look at it. First of all, the production of such advanced technology doesn't come from "our nation" at all, but depends on foreign nations and their willingness to exploit labor at shamefully low pay under shamefully horrible conditions. These wonderful phones are not the result of Yankee ingenuity and hard work-- they're the result of international ingenuity and what nearly qualifies as slave labor.
Second of all, the marvelous phone may be available to Wolfram, but it's not available to everyone-- only the people who can afford it. Because the smart phone market is not organized around providing a product for every single person in the country. Rich people get rally good phones, less rich people get less good phones, poor people get crappy phones, and really poor people get no phones at all. Except- and this is worth noting-- for some poor people who have a phone provided for them by the evil socialist government. So what exactly is there in this model that Wolfram thinks education should be following?
Oh, and before we move on, let's look at that last line-- "why have we allowed this state of affairs to arise?" The use of "arise" suggests that there is some bygone golden age in which every Detroit fourth grader learned to read well with ease. Professor Wolfram is invited to provide some evidence of when, exactly, that era was.
Back to our checklist. We spend too much money already? Check.
Wolfram wants us to know that we spend a whole $15K on that Detroit student. He provides no context for this. How does it compare to tuition at a good Michigan private school? Other urban schools? How is such a number influenced by issues of poverty and history? Wolfram won't say-- he just wants us to goggle at that $15K price tag. Phones are cheap because of the market, but schools are the result of (shudder) central planning. Wolfram may want to visit one of those Chinese iPhone manufacturing sites.
Invoke Milton Friedman and Albert Shanker? Check.
They both said "education blah blah blah evil socialism." Yawn. Moving on.
Do it for the children? Check.
We must make the transition from central planning to a market economy for the sake of our children, and especially for the children of low-income families.
Yes, because, if there's anything the market loves, it's poor people. Market forces have showered a veritable cornucopia of excellent goods and services upon poor folks, who get to drive Lexuses (Lexi?) and eat Delmonico steaks while relaxing in their mansions, because the market loves to give poor folks nothing but the best. Ah, but it's not the market we have to goose into action, because here comes another old favorite--
Attacking the character and professionalism of teachers.
The present system cannot work, Wolfram assures us, because "the current system does not incentivize teachers and administrators to teach children to read or to do math." Yes, the people who pursued teaching as a career, who went to school to learn how to teach children to read or to do math, somehow have no particular desire to teach children to read or to do math. We pursued a career in teaching children to read or to do math specifically so we could avoid teaching children to read or to do math. We're in it for, I don't know-- the big bucks and the glory?
Either Wolfram has a low opinion of teachers, or a cynical view of human nature in general. If it's the latter, then we face a philosophical problem with writers like Wolfram-- if people only do things to get rewarded, then we must assume that Wolfram writes pieces like this (and he's written many) to get rewarded, and if he's just doing it for the rewards, then why should we assume that any of his argument has a basis in anything other than his desire to be paid? Of course, we could assume that's he's acting primarily out of personal conviction and commitment to set of values, principles and behaviors. But then we'd have to assume teachers might be doing the same thing, and the whole argument would be shot.
How we make the transition is open to debate, but to me, it seems as though the best, most efficient path to success is through charter schools. I was on the board of education in Michigan and supported the development of charter schools in the state. I worked with the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her husband Dick in attempting to expand school choice both while I was on the state board of education and afterwards. Charter schools introduce market forces so that the revenue follows the child, and students can attend the school of their choice no matter where they live. This way, if schools fail to provide what students need and parents want, the school loses students and revenue. And gradually, as parents increasingly choose charter schools, the idea of competition in the production of education will gain a foothold in the public square and allow the political transition to purely private schools.
Note. While some charter fans may see a future for a public-private hybrid system, Wolfram-- an old buddy of Betsy DeVos-- sees charter and choice systems as a bridge to the real goal-- the eradication of public education. This would be a good point in the argument to point out how awesome Michigan schools are now, thanks to choice, but
1) He can't because they aren't. Heck, he already told us above in this very piece that one result is an urban system that nobody wants to send their children to and
2) He doesn't really care. He will go on to argue that the true purpose of education in a democratic society is to produce education independent of the government. "It is government production of education that is both inefficient and a threat to true democracy." Because one cannot think independently if one is educated in a government school.
First, this will come as news to millions upon millions of Americans who have managed to think independently even though they received a public school education.
Second, we have sailed right past the notion of a well-educated citizenry being necessary to a functional democracy. If a bunch of folks want to independently think that the earth is a flat disk created in seven days and the rightful property of white men only, that's a problem for a functional democracy.
Third, I don't believe he really cares about independent thought. Hillsdale College is infamous for any number of things, and none of them are the fostering of independent thought. Hillsdale has made it repeatedly clear that if you want to have independent thoughts like "Hey, I'm gay" or "Christianity is a bunch of messed-up baloney," Hillsdale will not be there to stand up for your independent thought. What I suspect Wolfram really means is what many theocratic choicers mean-- I don't want to pay the government to teach my kids that evolution is real and women can have jobs and that keeping black folks as slaves was a bad thing. Democracy is bad because it has let too many of the Wrong People have a say. "We need," I once heard a conservative Christianish person say, "to take back our institutions, including the school system." This is not a new American issue; the Puritans came here not just to escape religious oppression, but to create a system in which they were the rightful oppressors instead of the oppressees.
So no, I don't think Wolfram is a champion of independent thought. Just correct independent thought.
It's one of the other major flaws in the market argument-- the argument is commonly made by people who imagine that in an open marketplace, they would emerge as winners. Many of them once thought that about democracy, but then the system was messed up by all these Other People, these Wrong People. It's a failure of imagination that these folks don't envision a market where those same Other People end up commandeering the marketplace.
Wolfram's argument for market-based education is as lousy as many others that came before him. It's sloppy, ill-supported, and barely conceals the notion that we really need an educational system with a different mission, a mission to serve only the deserving few, as one more step in dismantling democracy itself. It's a measure of how far we've come that this is no longer a fringe argument, but an argument published in the pages of EdWeek and embraced by the secretary of education.