The Problem with Making Education Market Based

Craig Barrett has a nice opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today, but you have to have online access to view it. I agree with much of what he says. The U.S. education system needs dramatic improvement to help prepare citizens for the jobs of the future. The stereotypical liberal idea is to throw more money at the schools. Yeah it might help to pay teachers more. Then perhaps we would get a better crop of teachers instead of having so many who go into it because it is easy and you get summers off. But, there are plenty of examples of schools with lower spending per pupil ratios doing better than schools with higher ratios. The conservative answer to this is to make education more market based via vouchers or whatever. While this is certainly a better idea, it doesn't address a major problem with education – there isn't enough demand for it.

A market can't fix a problem when the demand is all screwed up to begin with. Demand for education is like demand for fitness – we all want to do it, we all know we should, we all know it will help us, but it is hard and boring and we would rather watch American Idol. How many people really go to college to learn? Not very many. Most go so they can get a degree and thus get a job. It's not about education, it is about job training. How many people read to learn once they are out of school? My guess is less than 10% of the population. It might be higher if you factor in people who need continuing education credits like CPAs, MDs, etc. But when was the last time someone told you about a cool non-fiction book they read? Probably never.

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Bloggers may be a little different. I know most of you blog and read blogs because you are interested in ideas and are probably above average in intelligence and education. But I can tell you that in a place like this (Kentucky), most people really don't care. Most people I know haven't bought a book since college. A few weeks ago, I had a a friend tell me he had picked up a popular science book on string theory, just to see what it was about. I remember that event because he is one of two people I know who would ever consider reading something without being forced to do it. Most people want to expand their knowledge, just not enough to put forth the effort that it requires.

That said, I don't see where there is any hope for improving American education. There will always be a small percentage that love to learn and can push things forward. Everyone else will just follow. Long-term, the lack of education will probably destroy the democracy (via public choice theory). People aren't educated in economics, so they want protectionism. They aren't educated in science, so they want to ban stem-cell research on moral grounds. They aren't educated in money management, so they have to rely on the government for their retirement. I could go on and on and on, but I think you see my point. What is needed is underlying cultural change, and I don't know if that can happen.