Friday, November 9, 2018

Why does the state pay when a senior chooses his treatment, but not when a minor chooses his education? Who gets dignity and who gets a pat on the head?

A seventy-year old Medicare recipient chooses his doctor, books (or not) his own appointments, agrees (or not) to recommended procedures, and the state pays. 
With privacy, information and selection, the senior
chooses his care, and the state pays.
A WIC recipient shops like you and me at a grocery store. But a 16 year-old is taken to the school that serves his zone, is assigned (mostly) to classes, assigned books, assigned timing, assigned goals. If he chooses differently, he pays--twice (because his parents already paid taxes).

We shouldn’t be surprised that surveys of student perceptions about public secondary schools in aggregate are so bleak. Fewer than 15% enjoy going to secondary school. As Christensen finds in his 2008 study, Disrupting Class, most secondary students would prefer to do something else with their time. More than 80% indicate that what they’re seeking from school is time with friends and feeling good about themselves--not priorities that schools design for. Bryan Caplan describes a climate of cynicism and superficial engagement in The Case Against Education: minimal effort applied to achieve acceptable grades, decreasing hours invested in study, avoidance of difficult classes or assignments not required for graduation, celebration at class cancellations, and pervasive self-reported cheating. Hardly the behavior of a consumer paying for a service.

Healthcare makes a good comparison, because we similarly treat access as a social imperative, but the patient is the consumer, and we believe he should pay for a given service only once. A senior starts with a range of online tools, he considers how he’d like to address his needs. He can find and compare providers, consider distance, years of experience, other patients’ reviews. He can walk away from a recommendation. He can seek a second opinion. He can change course midstream. He can complain, post feedback, file a lawsuit. Medicare is a cash transfer (within constraints) that enables the senior’s decision-making about caring for his own health.

The secondary student, by contrast, is a non-entity. The group he’ll be assigned into, the books they’ll read, the content that’s prioritized,
You can choose where you'd like to sit.
have largely been determined before his arrival and irrespective of his interests. By contrast to the senior, his choices are so minuscule and choreographed as to be insulting-- he can choose his seat in the room; he can choose from three essay topics; he can choose his lab partner (maybe). That the service is good or bad, useful or irrelevant, is measured not by his own assessment, but by a concocted measure of utility devised without ever consulting him. There are no star-ratings for this chapter or that, for this classroom, for this assignment, for this teacher. Did this day exceed/meet/underwhelm your expectations? 

Any feedback mechanism to the many services inside a public school is necessarily indirect: through parents,
Never seen in a public school.
through volunteer organizations, through a long chain of command. Community fundraising likewise benefits students indirectly. Rarely do you see a direct cash transfer to students to select learning options. Instead, laptops, smartboards, voting devices, musical instruments-- are owned, managed, and allocated by the school district. Most critically, in very few places do students have the means to vote with their feet. And in most of those cases, if they choose, then they pay twice. Public secondary school is a state monopoly that allocates resources on behalf of teens according to its own determination of what is collectively good education.

Teenagers are even non-entities in the social iconography of their own lives. In the paeans to school and teachers, teenagers play the role of cherub props. The impassioned voices are not teenagers, but politicians and public figures. They massage our civic imagination of downtown-parades-Oprah’s-book-club-apple-pie-and-cute-puppy-uploads. An actual teenage personality had better be airbrushed in this sepia-tinted world.

Part of the problem of teen students as non-entities is the extension of parents’ simplified management style going back to rearing smaller children. The breadwinners call the shots. They can’t handle another headache. While you live under my roof… and so on.

But it’s not only parents that ride along on teens’ non-entity status. It’s also an industry of child-management (only a fraction of this growth is actually teachers!) that validates and expands itself. It does this through an impassioned, heart-rending double-speak that makes an icon of teen-rearing while nullifying the teen and reappropriating his resources. University administrations latch-on and extend the same iconography: the sacred raising of young minds (nevermind our tuition hikes, monopolistic and untransparent practices, and the career-irrelevance problem).

In any other industry, it’s unheard to say that the industry itself is saintly, even if the overall purpose it’s serving is useful, live-or-die stuff. The heroic healthcare industry?
In his September 1990 address to the United Nations
on the occasion of the World Summit for Children
 and signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
Vaclav Havel lamented years of “bent backs” and “servitude
to hated regimes” supposedly in the name of children.
He recounted horrors of totalitarian regimes “all this
 for the fake happiness of generations yet unborn in some
 fake paradise”, and he wished “if it were possible, I would
add another paragraph to the agreement I signed this morning.
That paragraph would say that it is forbidden for parents and
adults in general to lie, serve dictatorships, inform on others,
bend one's back, be scared of dictators, and betray one's friends
and ideals in the name and for the alleged interest of children,
and that it is forbidden for all murderers and dictators to pat
children on the head". ...We would wave off such a comparison
to compulsory school as hyperbole. But we would also shepherd
children--with great fanfare-- to 1500 hours per year stripped
of civil rights, driven by compulsion, silenced as consumers,
straight-jacketed as decision-makers. 
The martyrs of American food production? How would you feel about a poster with a United Airlines spokesperson patting a radiant passenger on his head? Even childcare centers and assisted living facilities don’t get the mushiness that is heaped collectively on schools.

No consumer is a radiant cherub. No $12,000 sale* is made on mush-factor. Something is missing-- what??

It’s the teenager! The teenager is absolutely a consumer! He or she needs encouragement and guidance, yes. Needs reminders and nudging and discipline, sure. But the teenager should compare and choose, take or leave recommendations, personally assess progress on terms which are valuable to him/herself, change course, vote with his/her feet, and give feedback. When we recognize secondary education as an $206 billion business with 15.1 million consumers**, we will-- as Vaclav Havel exhorts-- stop patting children on their heads, and compete to offer relevant, convenient, timely services. It’s not the end of the world when teenagers call more of the shots for their learning. It’s the end of an abusive hypocrisy.

*The range of per student per annum expenditure by schools varies by state, with New York ($21,206) Alaska ($20,172), District of Columbia ($19,396) Connecticut ($18,377) and New Jersey ($18,235) at the high end, and low-end states as low as $7000.

**Total spending in 2018 for grade 9-12 education by public schools in U.S., and number of enrolled students in public schools grades 9-12 same year.

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