Thursday, May 10, 2007

If You Can Read This...

thank a rent-seeking monopolist.

A quick note about the “noble” teaching profession in America. The American public schools are inferior to those of much of the rest of the developed world, despite spending more per pupil than any other country in the world. (Or perhaps “because of?”)

A current flap in Montana helps explain why. Montana is a largely rural state, with very small towns scattered far apart, each town with its own set of schools, by necessity. These schools have small numbers of students, small budgets, and small teaching staffs, by necessity. So how does one expand course offerings and improve students’ access to knowledge? Here’s a neat way: have professors at Montana’s surprisingly good university system go online and teach courses in their specialties. This way, students can study subjects that could never be offered by a small school, taught by some of the best people available. It’s a very nice approach – it supplements the local offerings and surely must be a win-win situation, beneficial for all, right?

Well, according the Montana Education Association, the teachers’ union, this practice has to be stopped. Why? It turns out that university professors are not certified as high school teachers. And so, the MEA claims, this practice must be stopped in order to uphold quality standards. MEA claims they want to be sure that anyone who teaches really is competent.

It’s difficult for me to comment on the MEA argument in a civil manner. University professors have expertise in their subjects that far exceeds that of any school teacher. Period. And MEA’s members are trained by these same professors. It’s well known that “education degrees” are among the easiest to obtain (yes, I mean “low standards for graduation”). The alleged “concern for competence” is a sham. The MEA’s real concern is with anything that might threaten the union’s stranglehold on education – e.g. private schools, home schools, online education – anything that threatens their near monopoly.

Milton Friedman pointed out the real problem with education in America: we have a system that is run by, and for the benefit of, the suppliers, rather than the consumers. It’s as if supermarkets were run by a food monopoly that dictated which store a consumer was permitted to shop, what goods s/he must buy, and strictly forbade buying anything from any other sources. (See Friedman’s comments in Imprimus. Scroll down to his observations on education for a quote from a teachers’ union official that’s simply disgusting.)

The MEA, and teachers’ unions in general, are among the biggest obstacles to fixing America’s wretched education system. I can’t say how much this irks me, as I’ve seen some of my very best economics students change their career goals from “high school teacher” to something else, when they learn that having a bachelor’s degree in economics, with straight A’s in the subject, doesn’t make one “qualified,” in the insane world of official certification.

Competent people tend to avoid working in the American education system, and those who try get crowded out by the unions. So if you can read this, punch a teachers’ union member.*

* For my foreign readers, this is all a play on a relatively common bumper sticker: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” The irony is that in America, there’s actually some doubt as to whether an observer can read it, thanks to our teachers. At any rate, I suppose I have to add that I am not really advocating violence against these rent-seeking incompetents, this is poetic license. Any punching done should be figurative.

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