On Education, Times Reasons Like Soviet Central Planners

August 27th, 2006 6:29 AM

"Comrade. Potato production 70% below target for 4th year in row in five-year plan!"

"True, Kommissar. But we have solution. Will implement training and preparation program for workers!"

"Budem - let's drink!"

The ostensible purpose of this morning's New York Times editorial was to exult at the results of a study finding that 4th-grade charter school students performed worse than their public school counterparts, even when controlling for socio-economic background. Like a tiger on the smallest of mice, the Times pounced on this one result to proclaim that it was "Exploding the Charter School Myth." As an unreconstructed supporter of the union-dominated public school oligopoly, the Times naturally welcomes any evidence that there is no reason to alter the existing paradigm.

Even the Times doesn't have the audacity to claim that all is well in the public schools. But it is the solution it advocates that is so telling as to its mind-set: "instead [of charter schools], home in on the all-important but largely neglected issue of teacher training and preparation — which trumps everything when it comes to improving student achievement."

This is what harkens us back to the bad old Soviet days. You can have all the worker training in the world. But a system that shields schools from competition, and from any meaningful correlation between performance and compensation, is doomed to mediocrity if not total Soviet-style failure.

Under the union rules that govern the public schools, it's easier for the average 4th-grade teacher to dunk a basketball at recess than to get herself fired for incompetence. Similarly, very few districts have managed to adopt, over union objection, any kind of system in which performance, rather than mere longevity on the job, is the major determinant of teacher compensation.

At the same time, due to systems of taxation that force parents to pay for public school whether or not they send their kids there, private schools are at a huge competitive disadvantage. Thus shielded from real competition, public schools have little real-world motivation to improve. They are as likely to go out of business as the old Siberian District 5 Potato Collective.

Of course, eventually the entire centrally-planned Soviet economy came crashing down, victim of its own effort to defy the gravity of real-world competiton. American education is heading for a similar if perhaps less spectacular crash unless through vouchers and other means meaningful competition is introduced into the system.

Finkelstein lives in the liberal haven of Ithaca, NY, where he hosts 'Right Angle,' an award-winning public-access TV show. Contact him at mark@gunhill.net