But kids and schools did not just appear on the scene five decades ago, and neither did the debate over school governance. That point is most sharply driven home by a letter from a successful lawyer, outlining his views on schooling. He was born in the early sixties in a small town and lamented the fact that it didn't have a high-school, so he decided to found one himself. But rather than fully endowing the new school, which he could easily have afforded to do, he chose to supply only a third of the necessary funds. In his letter, he explained his decision this way:
What's remarkable about his letter isn't so much its contents as its
context. As I said, it's author was born in the early sixties--not the
early 1960s or the early 1860s, but the early 60s of the first century
A.D. His name was Pliny the Younger, and he was a citizen of the Roman
That consistency is crucial. It would be one thing to point to a single obscure school system from ancient Mesopotamia and claim it as a basis for laying down modern education policy. It is quite another to say that one approach to schooling has consistently proven superior to all others, irrespective of prevailing cultural, technological or economic conditions. And that is precisely the conclusion my study of the history of school governance has led me to reach.
But what does it mean to assert that one school system is superior to all others? My answer to that question is that it is better at meeting the public's educational goals. I've studied those goals, as reflected in international public opinion surveys and focus groups, and distilled them down to three simple criteria. A good system, according to the public, is one that:
Of course things aren't quite this simple in reality. There are many nuances and variations that are lost when people's goals are stated in such a simplified form, but these three criteria nonetheless constitute a common, representative core of the public's most deeply and widely held educational aspirations. The whole basis for choosing these criteria, however, is subject to dispute. They all rest on the view, which I hold, that the direction of a child's education is best left to his or her parents. Not everyone agrees. In fact, a long line of educators have argued just the opposite, that parents are neither sufficiently knowledgeable nor trustworthy to oversee their children's education, and should therefore be replaced in that capacity by experts-usually state-appointed and state-certified experts.
At its core this is a moral question: Who decides what kind of education is most appropriate for a particular child? What constitutes a good education? Unfortunately, disagreements on moral grounds are frequently unresolvable, but in this case a moral dispute can be easily side-stepped. The critics' argument, after all, is testable on its own terms. Over the last two-and-a-half thousand years, there have been both parent-driven and expert-led school systems, so we can simply have a look at them and see if the unregulated decisions of parents really have been worse than those imposed by state-appointed pedagogues. To wit, I have added a fourth criteria to the three already listed. One school system is better than another if it leads to: more sound, effective, and efficient pedagogical choices. In other words, a school system is good if it teaches children the knowledge and skills they actually need and does so using the most effective pedagogical methods available, and at a reasonable cost.
Using these four criteria as a yardstick, I have spent the past three years comparing school systems from ancient Greece to twentieth century America, and I have found that one approach has excelled all the rest: a free and competitive educational market. Conversely, government school systems have generally performed badly, with the worst-case scenario being the sort of system most industrialized countries have today: government ownership, funding, and management of schools. It is true that government school systems have been considerably more harmful when operated by totalitarian regimes than by democratic ones, but the public school systems of democratic nations have suffered from many of the same flaws as their autocratic predecessors.
This is a radical, even heretical conclusion, and it naturally demands
an enormous amount of supporting evidence. It isn't possible to present
all that evidence in just a few minutes [I'm having quite a time trying
to fit it all into a single book], but I can describe a few of the key
historical precedents, and try to explain what it is about educational
markets that has allowed them to work so well.
Poor families could not afford to send their children to school for as many years as wealthier ones, but education and literacy were nonetheless much more widespread among the lower economic classes in Athens than in any other society of the time. Parents with limited incomes worked hard to educate their children, providing them with a combination of academic and practical job training, and many of their children rose to prominence in public life.
Despite the absence of government regulation, a common core of elementary subjects evolved, upon which a tremendous variety of higher studies were based. Apart from a vigorous competition among teachers, the public's wide ranging educational choices produced little or no friction. It was generally accepted that every student had a right to study what, how, where, with whom, and for how long he or his parents chose. So though Athens was one of the most liberal and diverse societies in antiquity, it was also one of the most cohesive.
The only contemporary state-run school system aimed at the general
populace was to be found just a hundred miles away in Sparta. Spartan
public education rejected instruction in academic and career skills,
focusing solely on military training. It gave no one any choice, and
forbade change of any kind. Based on what parents want today, and what
Athenian parents seem to have wanted then, the pedagogical decisions
made in the Athenian marketplace were superior to those imposed by Spartan
public schooling. It's hard to say what Spartan parents wanted, because
no one asked them.
Though it was a society grounded in a single religion, it was not intolerant of other religions in its early days, and many non-Muslims lived, worked, and sent their children to school in Arab lands during early medieval times. The atmosphere was so comparatively open and free from conflict, that a modern scholar by the name of Abraham Blinderman has described it in these terms:
Perhaps few other periods in the tragic history of the Jewish people have been as meaningful to them as this period of Judaeo-Arabic communion. The renaissance of Jewish letters and science in Arab lands is a glorious testimonial to the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Arabs at a time when Jews in Europe were being burned as witches, plague-begetters, and ritualistic murderers.
So, once more, a free educational market not only did not lead to social friction, but actually fostered the harmonious coexistence of very different groups.
Both secular and religious charities subsidized the education of the poor during this period, acting on the common belief that all children should at least be taught to read and write. Their success is hard to measure precisely, but historians seem to agree that literacy reached a broader segment of the population under the early Muslim empire than anywhere else in the medieval world.
Eventually, however, the state took over funding of schools, and state control soon followed. Schools became sectarian religious institutions meant to promote one branch of Islam over another, leading to intense rivalries, a decline in science instruction, and a general calcification and circumscription of education. This does not appear to have been what Muslim parents were looking for at the time, and it is certainly not what modern parents want.
For-profit private schools were the first, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries the only, to offer instruction in modern languages, mathematics, technology, and practical career skills. The government-subsidized schools run by the major religious societies of the time emphasized religious doctrine rather than academics, gave short shrift to reading instruction, and sometimes ignored writing altogether in the belief that it was not necessary for the children of the lower classes. For these reasons, most poor families sought out and obtained entirely private schooling which did concentrate on academic basics, and which seems to have done a better job of imparting literacy.
Low income families were very loyal to their children's private schools
and teachers. It was only in the mid-to-late eighteen-hundreds, when
government subsidies had grown to cover almost all of the costs at subsidized
schools, and after competition from private schools had forced the subsidized
institutions to update their approach and curriculum, that parents began
to abandon the private sector. With the introduction of state-run schools
in 1870, most of the remaining private schools were eventually squeezed
out of existence. Ironically, the drastic reduction in the size of the
private education market virtually extinguished the competitive pressure
for government schools to remain responsive to families, particularly
Private school teachers report parent apathy to be far less common.
The responsibility of directly paying all or part of their children's
tuition forces parents to take a more active role, and gives them considerably
more power over the content and direction of the instruction their children
receive. Difficulties of course arise in the case of very poor families,
and I'll return to those difficulties in a moment.
Printed with the kind permission of Andrew J. Coulson. © Andrew J. Coulson. All rights reserved. Based on a presentation at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
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