The last 100 years have seen drastic technological innovations — from the way we communicate to the way we travel to the way we consume entertainment. One thing that hasn’t changed is the way we do school. Teacher, chalkboard, lesson, test, move up a grade, repeat.
Maybe the best argument for school choice is that we have no idea what kind of innovations could improve education until we allow radical competition. After all, if government ran the entertainment industry, we might still be watching black and white movies and listening to phonograph records. Instead, we stream films and songs online through a galaxy of services from Netflix and Hulu to Pandora and Spotify.
Where We Are
Think about how many features of our existing education system are wrongly treated as inevitable:
- Students are segregated by age. This means that all students have the same amount of time to learn a certain amount of stuff in nth grade before we test them to see if they can move to grade n + 1.
- We divide our school curricula into discrete subjects: math, science, language, history, arts, physical education, and so on. Students learn the math required to do science in math class and read about history in history class but read literature in English class.
- The school day starts in the early morning and runs until mid-afternoon, and the school year is a fairly big chunk of 175 to 180 days (with a few small breaks) followed by a two- to three-month summer break.
These are just three routine features of school that we barely notice, let alone question.
Once we do question them, alternatives quickly come to mind. One could imagine, for instance, a school that didn’t teach math, science, and history as separate disciplines but found creative ways to teach them in combination — or schools that aren’t automatically structured by age.
School choice allows schools to experiment with different curricula and teaching approaches, but it also allows them to experiment by modifying some of those features that we often take for granted but probably shouldn’t.
How We Got Here
To fully appreciate the need for experimentation in educational spaces, let me introduce two terms, one from behavioral psychology, the other from economics. The first is status quo bias, which sounds like what it means. Behavioral psychologists have discovered in people a marked (often unconscious and uncritical) acceptance of the way things are. When we experience the world a certain way, we often become attached to that way without even realizing our attachment. Of course students are divided into grades based roughly on age. Of course we teach science and history in different classes.
The second term, from political science, is path dependence. Path dependence is the idea that certain things come to be the way they are because past decisions affect the range of available subsequent choices. Picture a business spending lots of money on a certain software program that everyone at the company learns. The business and employees will become so invested in the current program that it will be hard to switch to a different one later. Even if a much better program comes along, the cost of switching may become prohibitively high, so the company will stick with what it knows.
Path dependence caused the unquestioned features of our education system to evolve the way they did. Why are schools open in fall, winter, and spring but closed during summer? The myth is that this schedule has to do with the days when kids were expected to work on farms, but really the shape of the school calendar is a vestige of the pre-air-conditioning era.
With widespread air conditioning, why do we continue to adjourn for summers? Because we have structured so much of our social fabric on the idea that kids and teachers have summers off. Theme parks, summer vacation destinations, and other business interests depend on kids having summer breaks. Parents plan for their children to be off during the summer. Summer break has a cultural inertia akin to a company’s commitment to legacy software. Once we get used to schooling done a certain way, we come to think of that as how school should be done, which ensures that even things like summer break continue well past their usefulness. That’s path dependence.
Status quo bias factors in when we become so used to schools having a summer break (or operating from early morning to mid-afternoon, Monday through Friday) that we fail to think of this system as anything but the way it has to be.
The Way Forward
Surpassing the educational equivalent of legacy software is precisely what makes school choice important. Competition allows some people to experiment with different ways of doing things while others can stick with what’s familiar. Markets also disrupt the kind of lock-in that path dependence often creates. While it may be costly for our imagined business to switch to the new software, other businesses may find it easier, and the market will help decide which decision was wiser.
One could object, of course, that new alternative schools — with their different schedules of operation or different approaches to curricula — will get things wrong, to the detriment of students. Yes, some schools will try what ultimately fails. But unlike big centralized bureaucracies, businesses learn quickly from their failures and adapt — or they go broke. Contrast that process to the time it takes for government to abandon a program everyone knows isn’t working.
Unless you think the current school system is doing fine, the only way forward is through innovation, and innovation requires the sort of experimentation that happens naturally in the free market.