A Central Problem

Suppose for a moment that the federal government of some rich, free Western democracy called Upper Slobovia recently instituted a policy that drastically altered the way its citizens received news. Instead of private broadcasters, the main source of news would now come directly from the Upper Slobovian News Service, a department of the government. The anchors of this news service would receive their broadcast scripts directly from a committee of news experts within the department, and very few changes to the script would be tolerated. The private news broadcasts would still be available, but they would cost substantially more to view and would not be available at all in some areas of the country. Consequently, the vast majority of Upper Slobovians would now receive only the news as approved by the government. What would your reaction be to Upper Slobovia's policy? Even if Upper Slobovia were a liberal democracy with very little corruption, you'd still have doubts about the policy, wouldn't you?

Now suppose instead that Upper Slobovia's policy was about the provision of education and not news. Curricula would be set by a committee in the Upper Slobovian Department of Education, even down to individual lesson plans. Teachers would receive these plans and have little freedom to customize them. Because private schools become costly and are not universally available, the only realistic choice for most students is to receive only the education as approved by the government.

How do you feel about that?

I was reminded of this little thought experiment as I watched a news story on the German educational system a night or two ago. In one part, a teacher explained her frustration in not being able to alter the content in her lesson plans--no matter how irrelevant she thought the information was--because the law required her to teach it. Perhaps worse, she was not able to teach other things that she did think relevant because what the law required took up all of her time.

My point here is not to call for the end of public education, but rather to show one of the costs that centralization inevitably brings. The reason things are so strict in Germany is partly because of the "PISA-Schock" in 2001, when Germany placed in the bottom third of international countries in both math and science. As a result, German policymakers have been trying relentlessly to push Germany up in the rankings. There's arguably nothing wrong with this goal, but since it has become the goal of German bureaucrats, it has necessarily become the goal of every teacher and student within the system--no matter what they might otherwise prefer.

Currently, Germany is suffering from what The Economist calls "the worst of both centralisation and devolution." Individual Germans states have a broad prerogative in terms of education policy, but changes must be unanimously approved by a national body. Reform is thus understandably difficult as entrenched interests that benefit from the status-quo fight tenaciously to keep it, with ostensibly nary a thought as to what would actually benefit students.

Some cringe at the thought of education as a private for-profit enterprise, but I wonder how much they reflect on the disdainfulness of education as a political enterprise.