Education, Democracy and Efficiency

Reading a review of Aerotropolis in the New Yorker I came across this gem: “Democracy Sacrifices Efficiency.” The line was the response of the Chinese ministry to their strategy for flattening villages and relocating ten thousand people to build an airport. No discussion, just do it, this is how things get done.

As I read this, I realized that this approach, which would most likely not fly in the US when it comes to where to put airports, captures perfectly our country’s current approach to school reform. Two interrelated ideas make what would outrage us in one venue possible in another: efficiency and expertise.

For the last century efficiency has been the end game of education. The only thing that has changed is the adjective we place in front of it. A century ago, public schooling was seen as a tool of social efficiency, a way to get people where they were meant to go in the social order. There a lots of stiicky (and icky) assumptions in this approach, and it still rules schools to this day.  Tracking, career tracks and gifted programs are its most obvious vestiges.

Economic efficiency is more currently in vogue.  Taxpayers want an educational bang for their buck, which means getting stuff into kids’ heads as quick and as cheaply as possible.   The current “sky is falling” story in education is that we are falling behind the rest of the world because are not as good at them at stuffing knowledge into kids.  We do it slowly and inefficiently.  Unless we hurry up and get back on top of the stuffing game, we are sure to topple from our current position as the global big cheese.  What is at stake in our educational crisis means that we must act now- and fast.  Leaving kids behind is going to leave us behind.  Our schools are hurting our economy, and we better act fast.

Which brings me to that other E- experts.  We need them now, and fast, to tell us what to do.  They know what is best for us- their special training and years of schooling make them experts on our children’s education.   They know more than us, which means that we need to do as they say- even if does not make sense.  I mean if they have to stop and debate it, let alone explain it or ask us if this is what we want, now that time we don’t have.  Best for everyone to sit on their hands, keep their mouths shut and wait till they fix it.   They would have it fixed right now if the people in schools would do what they are supposed to do.  If everyone just followed directions.

While reforms change in terms of their bells and whistles and carrot and sticks, they have not changed direction in relation to democracy.  They are headed in the other direction.  Educating children is much harder than building an airport.  Coming up with a plan for an airport and then building it is a snap once you get rid of the ten thousand or so people who live there.   School reforms do this in the sense that they work in theory (where there are no real people) but not in practice.

To mix metaphors, democratic education students is more akin to trying to build an airport but not removing the people.  It means asking the questions that we don’t ask in schools.  Do you want an airport?  What do you want? What should we do?  We don’t ask them in schools because they automatically throw a wrench in plans, which are usually made without the people they most impacts.  So better to remove them from the equation, either physically in the case of the the Chinese airport or metaphorically in the case of school reform.