How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.

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A Bad Teenager

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


…..I repeated my senior year in a high school closer to home that was not nearly as good as the first. I don’t know why I did that. I was like a sheep walking insouciantly and sure-footed to the slaughterhouse. There was no reason to think I would do better the second time than the first. I had not failed from bad luck, or because I did “not test well,” in the mealy-mouthed gobbledygook of today. Rather, it was because vast blank, empty steppes overlaid my mind. I doubt one year would have been long enough to fill up the blanks even if I had tried. At any rate, my heart wasn’t in it. Someone should have yanked me out and sent me to work full-time. I could have learned something useful, like the basics of charcuterie, for example. Perhaps everyone around me got caught short and no one had an alternative plan. At this distance in time, I have trouble evaluating to what extent my parents would have thought such a pragmatic solution to my aimlessness socially unacceptable. I went back to high school as the default solution. I performed just as badly the second time around. That second senior year would have been a total waste except that it changed radically the trajectory of my life. I was the beneficiary of a positive injustice. (I went to California a first time, on a scholarship.)

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Gogol Bordello and Multiculturalism

Donald Trump is about to be President of the United States. Trump’s victory is the result of a great plethora of political and cultural attitudes. It is not a “white-lash” (both candidates failed to attract the hispanic and black audience); it is not because America is, beneath the diverse veneer, intrinsically racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic, etc., etc.; it’s not simply that Bernie might have won had the DNC not been skewed in Hillary’s favor, nor is Trump’s unexpected win simply a retaliation from general conservatives after a double Democratic term. One of the largest elements in Trump’s victory is the cultural shift toward political correctness, and the backlash from not only conservatives but apolitical entities as well. People on the left won’t understand (except maybe accelerationist Marxists), but the infiltration of academia by progressive ideas, the shifting of institutions into liberal political pandering, and the emerging call for the repression of free speech has bent a great migration of non-Republican and nonpartisan minds into the Trump vote.

Establishment-left politicians are effectively finished after the failed Clinton campaign, just like the old-school GOP is finished following the election of their ugly duckling. What emerges from the left wing will most likely be more radical and extreme than Donald was to his political label. The movements all function under one shared umbrella, one unlikely to back down now that its worst nightmare is in charge for four years. Moving on from these facts, and recognizing that political correctness is a feature of the direction of left politics in general, I’ll comment on my first real experience with the anti-neoliberal left.

As a freshman in college, I took an introduction to Multicultural and Gender Studies course (the sheer fact that cultural, ethnic studies and gender/sex studies are combined implies the sort of ideological commitments necessary to teach these classes). My professor, unlike many in the major, let us be led into her viewpoints, rather than beginning sharply from her own and forcing us to abruptly commit or retaliate (as happens in Political Scienc classes). This approach is more gentle, more clandestine, leading to a greater deal of brainwashing. A few weeks in, she asked, “What is race?” I answered promptly, “a social construction.” MCGS155 was, in a sense, the first class I became utterly submissive to my teacher, and participated at any opportunity. When asked, “What is gender?” I vocally distinguished between the genitalia (sex) between our legs, and the identity in our heads. Thus far, the beliefs I was committed to then are the same I possess now.

Over the semester, however, I was taught lessons that were more sinister, more nefarious, and at times wholly offensive to the reality of the world. When my professor explained that she needed a male professor to negotiate her wages at my university (because women are not taught how to negotiate or argue, while men are tacitly trained to be argumentative and authoritative), I thought it made perfect sense, and it does. Then I was asked, gradually, to believe all women’s experiences were like this, all the time. Gender and racial monoliths began a glacial formation. Through the acceptance of small-scale experiences, a larger picture began to manifest in my mind: that of systematic discrimination and, eventually, oppression.

Prior to taking the multicultural and gender studies course, the word “oppression” was rare to encounter, especially when applied to a contemporary setting. Oppression was what the victims of Transatlantic slavery faced, for me. Indeed, outside of academia and far-left politics, that’s what oppression is: forced servitude. When leftist vocalizations of “oppression” take to the social field, the primary apolitical connotation is slavery, and so slapping the label on our government or culture can only arouse the most sincere feelings of empathy and rage. “Oppression” was used in my class to describe the conditions under which any and all minorities live in the United States. Using such an authoritative word, I began to understand American society as functioning modern-day slavery. Toni Airaksinen points out that women’s studies classes are built on the conjectures of “patriarchy, intersectional oppression, and social constructionism.” To note that “oppression” does not realistically describe any specific group’s position in American society would be to upset my professor, the major, and an entire national field of study.

The epitome and eventual product of my brainwashing was an extended argumentative essay, in which I concluded that Gogol Bordello was, among other things, cultural appropriation, offensive to diasporadical cultures, faux-ethnically inclusive, and, in some mystical sense, racist. I argued that Funkadesi (a South African-styled, funk/hip hop group liked by Obama) was the true gender and cultural warrior. As a teenager I used to enjoy Gogol Bordello as fun, raunchy music; within three months, however, I’d called them “insincere,” “promoting global fornication” with a “condescending attitude of hemispherical and cultural superiority.” My class, effectively, destroyed the fun in life.

Even as I wrote the anti-Bordello essay (calling Eugene Hütz a “homogenizer”), I felt that what I was arguing was somehow off. When I hung out with friends, friends who enjoyed Gogol Bordello, my conscience nagged that I ought to confront its problematic elements and put an end to their uninformed participation in oppression; another part of me, more internal and sensible, told me uninformed participation is a staple of human aesthetic enjoyment, and launching into a leftist tirade was not only off-kilter but immoral and misanthropic. After I passed the class I learned to reneg the Anglo-Saxon hatred and reinterpret Gogol Bordello not as cultural offensive, but culturally celebratory, inclusive, and self-aware. 

An element, one that I now consider essential to far-leftist politics, that dominated the course was its utter lack of appreciation for any actual social progress throughout history. This is done singularly and topically. In the beginning of class, we discussed the image of America as a “melting pot”; this ideal was rejected in the 1980s as assimilative: the Western Caucasian template would dominate the pot, as minority groups lost their identities (i.e., globalization). The great celebration of the census bureau that we might all mix together our distinctions and emerge more wholesome was decimated by my professor’s politics. Then, we discussed multiculturalism: instead of the stew of the melting pot, American immigrancy and citizenship would come together as a mosaic or kaleidoscope, with our distinctions still celebrated even as we learned to function together. Multiculturalism, for the second third of my semester, seemed enlightened: different groups would no longer be processed into a Western canon. However, this too was to fail as equally problematic. (Those of you outside of culture and gender studies who might think multiculturalism is still upheld as the ideal, guess again.) My teacher proposed that our society must enter something like a post-multicultural state. Multiculturalism was too tokenizing, too uninformed, too patronizing; somehow, the Caucasians had won again, and we had to move on to new philosophical horizons.

This tradition of dissatisfaction with formerely satisfying solutions is across the board with modern leftist movements. Just lately, a (brilliantly un-self aware) Guardian writer Zoe Oja Tucker wrote about college-aged men being severely punished for a sexist sheet of paper, all while desperately holding on to an ideology that says this sort of punishment is culturally nonexistent. The far-left has been eating itself alive for a while, like when Canadian Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Gay Pride parade. One might suspect that post-multiculturalism will be answered by a sort of apartheid, and indeed, that seems to be the case with new segregationist options offered for minorities. (The pre-Civil Rights are back, but the positions have switched.) Meanwhile, by squabbling over increasing theoretical accuracy, legitimate gains that have been made are seen as neutral events, or political façades for continued oppression. Thus, the entrenched Marxist doctrine (which informs much of the left’s perception of politics nowadays) that society is composed of only two groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, at once twists into the cultural Marxism of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and simultaneously loses its secondary category to internal disputes over minute aspects of the ideology itself, enlarging at once the first, privilege-possessing class. Progress in women’s rights, gay rights, etc. are even seen as PR-masks for the real tyranny – that of capitalism – by Marxists. So when law is passed specifically to aid the working class, not even this can satisfy the theory of endless, eternal oppression. The dissatisfaction with solutions is also seen with Marxists’ continued rejection of campaign voting: even though an increase in the third-party vote would alter American politics for the next campaign, Marxists across the board have rejected participation, dismissing the entirety of presidential elections as a corporate charade. (In essence, never doing anything for their own progression. Yet this dead philosophy hangs on.)

Leftist political scientists don’t care about legitimate social progress, because the great bureaucracy of professionalized philosophy requires tedious publishing year after year, and if ever theoretical perfection (or genuine satisfaction) were reached, the opportunity for tenure is lost. Thus, utter shit is churned out, like studies on online drinking photos promoting “regimes of gendered power,” dildos as tools of oppression, critical analyses on testicles, or studies on how to convince young women they are systematically oppressed. Freud would probably have castrated himself before he saw his methodology used for such off-base and imbecilic purposes today.

Feminism fought and won victories: in its first wave for voting rights, in its second for sexual freedom and abortion rights. It is not fighting for equally protecting legislation anymore. It is now fighting a culture war, and the only way to fight a culture is by seeking to replace it with a new ideology, and there is no immediate reason to assume the new one will be better than the old one. Third-wave feminism might best be described with a quip occasionally offered by its constituents: “if you’re not offended, you’re not paying attention.” (Or: “if you’re not finding oppression: look harder.”) Thus, the quality of “uninformity,” i.e. ignorance, discussed earlier, so despised by leftists and attributed to any of their opponents, is reckoned as the price to pay for not being enraged all the time. We must be offended constantly, or risk ignorance; this sort of position, of course, propels the lack of satisfaction with actual social progress, disturbs the sense of civil mobility, and leads to a rejection of enjoyment of almost anything.

Porque privatizar (ou desestatizar) o ensino é uma das melhores reformas que se pode fazer

Talvez seja somente uma percepção subjetiva sem maior relevância objetiva, mas a impressão que tenho é que a privatização do ensino é um dos maiores tabus da sociedade brasileira. Até onde eu sei nenhum partido, figura política ou figura pública de destaque está defendendo a privatização total do ensino no Brasil. Segundo as notícias que chegam até mim, o recente anúncio de corte de gastos na educação causa uma de duas reações: indignação ou pesar. Alguns reagem com indignação, e não aceitam que qualquer corte seja feito; outros reagem com pesar, mas consideram que os cortes são necessários. Ditas estas coisas, penso que cabe a mim agir como Walter Block e “defender o indefensável”: o governo (ou o estado – use o vocabulário que lhe convir) não deveria ter qualquer papel na educação. Para isso irei expor brevemente o que é economia, como ela funciona, e o que isso tem a ver com governo, indivíduos e educação. É uma exposição breve, e pode deixar alguns pontos pouco desenvolvidos. Para uma exposição mais profunda deste tema, recomendo o livro Educação: Livre e Obrigatória, de Murray Rothbard.

Economia é a gestão de recursos necessariamente escassos que possuímos. Os recursos são necessariamente escassos porque somos seres humanos finitos, e não deuses. Alguns paradigmas econômicos (notoriamente o marxismo) partem de um pressuposto de abundancia de recursos, mas isto é falso e até mesmo perigoso: até mesmo o homem mais rico do mundo tem somente 24 horas no seu dia. Tem somente um corpo, e não pode estar em dois lugares ao mesmo tempo. Tem energia limitada, e fica cansado. Todos nós possuímos recursos limitados (ainda que alguns possuam mais recursos à sua disposição do que outros). A economia é a arte de melhor gerir estes recursos.

A gestão dos recursos limitados que possuímos é feita através de escolhas. O nome que os economistas dão a isso é “custo de oportunidade”: a não ser que você detenha infinitos recursos, gastar em uma coisa significa não gastar na segunda melhor alternativa. Exemplos: comprar o carro A significa não comprar o carro B; morar na cidade X significa não morar na cidade Y; casar com Z significa não casar com W; e escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como disse um antigo professor meu, “a vida é feita de escolhas”.

Considerando que possuímos recursos finitos e precisamos fazer escolhas, qual é mecanismo mais eficiente para tomar decisões? Certamente muitas pessoas gostariam de tomar decisões com base nos seus gostos pessoais. Gostariam de escolher aquilo de que mais gostam. Porém, aquilo de que mais gosto nem sempre está ao meu alcance. Exemplos: ainda que eu goste mais de uma Ferrari do que de um fusquinha, talvez eu precise me contentar com a segunda opção. Ou ainda que eu queira viajar, talvez eu tenha que me contentar em pagar o tratamento para um problema de saúde que acabei de descobrir que tenho. É por coisas assim que a economia ficou conhecida como “ciência triste”. Muitas vezes ela está aí para lembrar que nem sempre podemos ter o que queremos. Dito isto, a melhor forma de tomar decisões é pelos preços: os preços nos dizem se aquilo que desejamos é compatível com os recursos disponíveis.

Os preços são geralmente definidos em termos de dinheiro. Dinheiro é melhor definido por aquilo que faz do que por aquilo que é. Muitas coisas podem ser dinheiro: papel, metais preciosos, cigarros, balas ou dígitos num computador. Mas o que dinheiro faz é servir como uma linguagem: o dinheiro transmite de uma pessoa para outra o valor dos recursos envolvidos numa mercadoria ou num serviço. E valor é algo subjetivo. Contrariando a teoria do valor trabalho, é impossível saber de forma objetiva qual é o preço de uma determinada mercadoria ou serviço: é necessário que este valor seja definido por relações de oferta e procura. E é de incontáveis relações de oferta e procura que os preços são feitos. Em outras palavras, os preços nos transmitem de forma simples algo que jamais poderia ser calculado por uma pessoa: uma infinidade de relações de oferta e procura, escolhas e preferências, dentro da economia. Como disse Friedrich Hayek, “a economia somos nós”.

E assim chegamos à educação. Como eu disse acima, escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como essa decisão é feita? Certamente que muitas pessoas escolhem sua carreira com base em aptidões que percebem em si mesmas, ou em considerações sobre o que poderá ser uma atividade profissional mais prazerosa. Porém, este é um luxo que não está disponível para todos: muitas pessoas precisam escolher uma carreira com base no que pode dar mais retorno financeiro com menor investimento e menor risco. Posso escolher uma carreira que promete um grande retorno financeiro, mas com grande risco de não conseguir emprego num mercado de trabalho altamente competitivo, ou com um investimento de recursos (em tempo em dinheiro) que não posso arcar. A vida é feita de escolhas, e essas escolhas muitas vezes envolvem riscos. Escolher uma carreira é dizer não (ao menos temporariamente) para todas as outras. Algumas pessoas tem a chance de arriscar mais. Outras não têm o mesmo luxo. Considerações como relação candidato/vaga, salário médio, nível de empregabilidade e outras são semelhantes aos preços, e podem ser bons parâmetros ao se decidir por uma carreira. Mas com o governo criando vagas em universidades, determinando regras de acesso ao mercado de trabalho e adotando outras medidas, os preços não refletem a real relação de oferta e procura. Em outras palavras, a linguagem é distorcida, e as decisões não são as melhores, nem para os indivíduos, e nem para a sociedade.

Compreendo que pensar assim possa soar extremamente cínico, e pode ser um banho de água fria, especialmente para os mais jovens ou mais sonhadores. Muitas pessoas preferem tomar decisões considerando seus gostos pessoais, sua vocação, seu desejo de ajudar o próximo ou outras considerações. Não estou desmerecendo nenhuma destas considerações. Estou apenas dizendo que somos seres humanos limitados que vivem num mundo de recursos limitados. Precisamos fazer o melhor uso possível destes recursos. Embora os recursos sejam limitados, nossa criatividade para aproveitá-los não demonstra um limite óbvio. O uso criativo e sustentável dos recursos necessita de uma bússola, um guia. O sistema de preços é o melhor guia que possuímos. Sem propriedade privada não há formação de preços, e sem formação de preços o cálculo econômico é impossível. Por esta razão os gastos com educação não param de aumentar e a qualidade dos resultados não para de cair: o melhor juiz para determinar como os recursos serão empregados é o individuo fazendo uso de seus próprios recursos. A interferência do governo prejudica ou até desfaz este julgamento.

Em tempo: estou defendendo que o governo precisa sair da educação e deixá-la para a iniciativa individual (até mesmo porque somente indivíduos podem ter iniciativa). Não estou defendendo que educação precisa ser necessariamente paga pelos alunos. Como disse Milton Friedman, “não existe almoço grátis” (mais uma dessas frases que tornam os economistas – especialmente os liberais clássicos e libertários – pessoas pouco populares). Mas quando uma pessoa tem fome e não pode pagar pelo almoço, outra pode fazer isso. O nome disso é caridade, e quero incentivá-la o máximo possível. Caso você se preocupe com os pobres, sugiro que pare de mandar dinheiro para Brasília na forma de impostos, que serão necessariamente mal empregados (segundo tudo que discuti aqui), e procure pessoas que precisam. Com certeza você não terá dificuldade de encontrá-las.

Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”


This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.

Failure and learning

The last few months I’ve been thinking about the relationship between failure and entrepreneurship. Just now I’m listening to a podcast and that old point came up: going to prison teaches you how to be a better criminal. You’d think that failed criminals would be the last sort of people to learn from, but really it’s just about the perfect sort of school. The general assumption is that people in prison have high discount rates, so they probably came into prison with one thing on their mind: what the hell went wrong with that last scheme?! So you’ve got dozens of people who all screwed up and that’s all their thinking about. That’s a whole lot better than you would get at a university; nobody at a school is thinking about how they screwed up, they’re thinking about how stupid other people are!

So the question is: how could you set up a system where the incentives of K-grad school teachers are constantly thinking about mistakes they’ve made and are able to pass those lessons on to their students? Sounds like science fiction to me.