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Nov 10, 2006

Neo-prog’s Educational Agenda

Here is what the next Democratic presidential contender might include in his or her platform in the “education” section. If a Republican one does so, I’ll vote for him, too.

The problems with schools are not as much with teaching, as with learning. Like any worker, a student needs motivation. If for upper and upper middle class the value of schooling is real and tangible, for lower and lower middle class, it is more of a gamble. Some benefit from it, while other don’t. And the odds are not that great. We need to do the same thing Mexico and Brazil do for their poor: provide financial incentives to learning. The programs are called “Progresa” and “Bolsa Escola,” respectively. In these countries, poor families receive cash assistance if their children attend school and do regular medical check-ups.

American attempts to link welfare aid to kids’ school attendance have failed to show significant results (See Campbell and Wright, 2005), but not because monetary incentives do not work. This happened because the US economy is different from that of Mexico or Brazil, and also because the American system of withholding welfare checks is punitive, not positive. There should be significant monetary incentives, attached not to school attendance, but to gains in performance. Instead of having an incentive for “crazy checks”, parents should push their kids to become eligible for “smart checks.” Successful students in poor communities will gain new respect and become role models if their success comes with some significant cash income.

We should design and implement a new generation of accountability:

· It has to become internet-based, so any student can take practice test at any time as many times as she or he wants. To demonstrate proficiency, a wide network of proctored free testing should also be available. Demonstrating knowledge has to be decoupled from schools, so those kids who hate school have the same chance as those who like it. Those who experience high anxiety, should be able to try several times in a low-stakes non-threatening atmosphere.
· PLATO could serve as a prototype of a federal learning measurement system. Although the Federal government has no business in setting educational standards, it can and must provide a new infrastructure for learning for the 21 century. The technology is available; what is lacking is vision and leadership.
· Schools’ performance must be based on both the value-added reading of testing results, but also include the measurements of social capital. The democratic society needs its schools to be civic communities, not places of confinement. Schools should be held accountable to creating such communities.

The productivity revolution has not touched educational sphere yet. We have a very expensive, heavily monopolized, and inefficient industry. Many talented and highly dedicated people work there, but no amount of personal sacrifice can make this system significantly more efficient. No Soviet-style administrative controls can force teachers and students to work any harder. Ultimately, education will become like any other industry, where workers (students) get paid for learning specific things we need them to learn. Later in life, they and their employers will be taxed to replenish the reservoir of knowledge a modern society needs. Teaching will become a service available in many forms and configurations, and students and their families will find the best way of learning what needs to be learned.

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