Education Unchained: Some Radical Ideas

Lidstrom, Erik. Education Unchained: What it Takes to Restore Schools and Learning. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Amazon.

Education appears to be a panacea for all societal problems — globalization, automation, artificial intelligence, fake news, you name it. Calling for “more and better education” is uncontroversial and politically correct. Everybody without a better and more specific idea resorts to it.

However, there are surprisingly few fresh ideas on how to improve education and learning. The book by Dr. Erik Lidström brings plenty. They are both radical and proven. Radical, because he is quoting Hayek, Sowell, Weinber and calls for a free market solution to learning. And proven, because such systems worked in the past.

The book is a must read for parents, teachers and policymakers in general. And it provides some just-in-time food for thought related to Mr. Corbyn’s ideas of “cradle to grave” National Education Service.

19th century time traveler would find modern schools familiar

Lidström’s diagnosis of the current system — “universal”, “free” and “compulsory” — is that it is broken in two ways. It is not responsive in the short term and not innovative in the longer term. In the short term, if parents or authorities are not satisfied, nothing much happens. The feedback loop child-parents-school-teacher is almost not existent.

In the medium and long term there is not much innovation in the field of education. A known parable to demonstrate that is that if, say Richard Wagner would time-travel to the present, he would hardly find anything familiar — cars, planes, shops, HiFi, iPods, Internet … But if he was to visit a school he would find it quite the same. There have been huge changes in how businesses are organized and how they operate in the time after World War II while nothing much changed in the ways how schools operate.

To be fair, not much has changed in the churches and in the courts either. Which points to a common property of some institutions. They are not business but rituals with their rites frozen in time.

Innovation in national education systems is slowed down to a creep. Reforms happen every decade or two. They are shaped by political horse-trading, desire of politics to make schools institutions of indoctrination and by pressures of vested interests of teachers’ unions and other professional associations. It takes another decade to evaluate the results and make corrections. Reformers are met with a fierce, organized opposition of teachers and other elements of the system that are likely to lose and lukewarm support of those (parents, children) that are likely to gain.

I remember the climate well. As a minister for education I was expected to care for those that have a job in education system (teachers, teachers of teachers, experts) and not for the customers of the education system (kids, parents, labor market).

Free market solution to education

In a nutshell, Lidström proposes the following:

  • Schools should be private. Not regulated in any way except for things like fire safety. Anyone could run a school. There may exist some public/state schools but not that many to distort the market.
  • Curriculums should not be defined by the state. The state could run some general exams after 4–6 years of schooling to ensure that some basic standards in reading, writing and math are achieved but other than that the upstream schools with entry exams and the labor market should inspect quality.
  • Parents select the school and pay tuition out of their own pocket on a monthly basis. They are free to send kids to another school if they are unhappy.
  • The invisible hand of the market will drive kids and money to good schools, destroy bad schools, encourage innovation, specialization and rise the level of what is learned for all. Like the market has been improving hair salons, car service workshops and restaurants.
  • Such a system should cost about a third of what the current system does.

But, but, but … education is different!

I am sure after reading the five points above the dear reader thought just that. Most of the book is devoted to challenging this deeply set notion that “education is different” and Lidström is quite successful at it.

The risk of the proposed free school system could be that parents would not understand the importance of education, would not be sending kids to school and the level of education would fall. Advocates of the current system would claim that in the 19th century, in countries that had only private schools (like UK and Sweden until mid century), kids did not go to school as much and as long as they do today.

However, this is a wrong criteria. The question is, did the labor market in the 19th century find enough properly educated people or not. And does today’s educational system provide a better match between the demand of the labor market and the outputs of the educational system. I do not believe that it possible to claim that the educational system today is serving the market any better than the educational system of the 19th century. Perhaps vice-versa.

The other argument is a general idea — also accepted by the hard-line liberals — that government intervention or regulation is appropriate where people are not qualified to judge or have the information to evaluate the quality or safety of the product. And, so the argument goes, parents are unable to evaluate the quality of education that their kids are getting. Particularly some parents may not be educated themselves. But the authorities have the experts that are able to evaluate the quality of the schools and make sure that even kids of ignorant parents get a certain standard of education.

Lidström argues that it suffices that some parents are able to judge the quality of the teaching and other parents would follow their lead. Or parents may read evaluations, tests and benchmarks just like they do for restaurants, hotels or cars. An argument that in rural areas schools may be worse than in cities because of the lack of competition. What is forgotten is that shops, restaurants and other services improve in rural areas just as well.

Social justice is not an argument against the free school system. The situations where parents do not have money for the tuition of their kids can be treated in the same way as when they do not have the money for the food or heating. He cites private schools in the Third World where tuition is 5–10% of minimum wage. The social justice criteria, again, is not if poor kids would (under the new system) get a more similar education than the rich but if the poor kids would get a better education in the new than they are getting in the old system. Quality matters, not equality.

Lidström’s revolutionary idea is that the primary task of schools is to teach skills. In the modern schools systems this task has been made secondary to promote social integration, uniformity and even indoctrination.

Kids have different talents

Lidström is a fierce critic of the current approach to education that treats all kids equally, regardless of their individual talents, and does so until they are 16-18 years old. Kids are different, they excel in different things. The “Great Society”, as the author likes to borrow from Adam Smith, offers infinite number of niches where just about anyone can find one to be good at. He rightly warns that learning is cumulative and that over the course of 9 or more years in common-for-all primary school, some kids accumulate a learning lag of up to 5 years. Some don’t learn anything after the age of 12. Which makes them unhappy and frustrated. Why?

He draws from another almost heretical discipline, evolutionary biology, that teaches that boys, after reaching puberty, want to compete with each other. Like hunter gatherers. In a uniform school same for all, there is only one scale of success. Only some talents are rewarded, all other kids are losers and learn to be losers in their formative years. Which is then compensated by all kinds of bad behavior.

He calls for differentiation after first 4–6 years so that each kid can find a topic where he can excel. Or go to work. This reminds me on the old Austro-Hungarian school system where there would be a common-for-all primary school lasting 4 years and then differentiated options for the next 4–8 years. Today in most Europe the common track is 8–9 years. According to Lidström half of that time may be lost for most kids. Some parents might agree.

In a free system, schools would specialize to attract kids and most kids would find a school that would fit their particular talents. There would exist a market for special needs and special talents.

Wrong kind of teachers

Lidström notices that one of the reasons for the deterioration of the public education system are the teachers. In the past, the smartest young people studied to become a teacher. Not so any more, even in the Pisa winning Finland. Also, in the past people with a passion for mathematics, physics, chemistry, history became teachers of mathematics, physics, chemistry or history. Today people are attracted to teaching because they “like to be with children”. They are “people” persons and not “things” persons. Learning to be a people person is a skill of biologically primary nature — it comes naturally to us to socialize, play, run …

He makes a valid point that pedagogy has retreated to teaching and practicing these primary level skills (socializing, collaborating, discussing) because they are easy and everyone can be successful at them. And has been downplaying biologically secondary skills such as mathematics that requires logic, reasoning, repetition and hard work.

Bad news from the book: if you want to excel at anything you need to work hard on it for 60 hours per week for ten years. Lidström’s argument that kids and parents would select — on an open education market — schools that are hard and that challenge kids are not very convincing. The hope is in the fact that at least some would.

Is a revolution of learning likely?

I can agree with all those who are repeating the phrase that “education has never been more important than it is today”. So it is important to improve it but it is also immensely risky to change it in a wrong direction.

Lidström calls for a revolutionary and abrupt change of the education systems. There is no room for gradualism. Changes need to be total and state wide. And such changes are unlikely. There are several reasons for that:

  • We have all been educated in “our” universal, “free”, compulsory system. And we are happy with our education. It is in the human nature to be satisfied with what she knows. Why change something that has obviously worked so well for us?!
  • As Lidström is pointing out, in our societies, education system is more than a service enabling learning. It is a ritual with its own rituals, customs, events, sacred places etc. It is hard to change rituals.
  • Those opposing change — teachers’ unions, faculties and institutes of pedagogy, ministries of education, state school inspections, curricula committees, and other bureaucracies — would lose in a free system. Their loss is tangible, substantial and they are well organized. This force stands against the kids and parents who are disorganized and whose gain would be incremental.

The proposed free education system is more likely be implemented in a country with an educational system in total disarray than in countries with reasonably functioning system and favorably ranked in PISA. It could well be implemented in life-long learning and reskilling where government intervention is currently weak.

The proposed system may be an utopia. But the role of utopias is to show what could be and raise the ambition of what is. Even as such they are very valuable.

You can get the book here.