Exit is more powerful than voice

In this post, I wrote about how competition and choice is important for encouraging bottom-up innovation. When we say things like “roads are socialized” we gloss over something very important. There isn’t a single road department. There are many. We have Federal highways, state highways, county roads and city roads.

Each department operates somewhat independently and tries different things to solve the problems they face. Every now and then, one happens across an improvement that works well and other road departments can choose to adopt it. That type of innovation would not happen as often if there was a single road department that pushed one set of standards.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes this point well in this post about how education was rebuilt in New Orleans after Katrina, when describing the source of innovation in education:

What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly.

I agree. In the comments of his post, I suggested re-framing this in terms of the benefit to the user (edited slightly here):

It is not a simple substitution of a choice between free-to-the user public and cost-to-the-user private, but a system substitution of more choice by the user.’

We often get hung up on the public/private distinction. That doesn’t matter as much as how free the users — the direct beneficiaries — are to make a choice.

The freer the users are to choose to exit their current option if it isn’t working for them, the better.

This dynamic drives innovation. Why, you might ask? Because the freer your users are to leave you, the harder competitors will try to give your users what they want to encourage them to leave and the more honest soul-searching you may do to figure out why your users are leaving you. If you can’t figure it out, you end up going away.

My parents decided to move to exit a school district that wasn’t giving them what they wanted. That choice was much more powerful than their voice would have been had they decided to stay and try to change the direction of the school district.

So, whenever we think about why one system works and another doesn’t, maybe we should think in terms of how free users are to choose.

“Stupid in America”

Check your FoxNews lineup and set your DVR to record John Stossel’s recent education special, Stupid in America.  If you know when it will next air, let me know and I’ll provide an update.

It originally aired last weekend.  I watched it tonight.  It’s worth watching.  He covers teachers unions, union bosses, firing teachers, the Washington DC school district, charter schools and Khan Academy.

In an interview, one union boss, who represented a district with bad student test scores, assured us that he knows his kids are learning because “he can see it in their eyes.”  Now that’s compelling stuff.  I certainly think there are numerous issues with test scores as a measure of teacher performance, but I much prefer those over what this man sees in his students eyes.

This same union leader defended bad teachers from being fired (I’m paraphrasing): It would be a tremendous cost and a major adjustment for the teacher. We need to seek professional development opportunities for that teacher.

lol?  I did.

I find it strange that we should have to train teachers to be teachers (isn’t that what they were supposed to do before they became a teacher?) to prevent them from not being a teacher. I also find it strange how a trade that’s based so strictly on credentialing (e.g. education certification), would then want to take on the expense of the training the teacher what he or she apparently didn’t learn before.  With that logic, why require credentials at all?  Just let anyone come in and they will be trained.

Of course, this union boss believes training will be the antidote.  What if the teacher doesn’t want to teach?  Why not free up the spot for someone who does?

Another union boss proclaimed that he would try to physically prevent people from going to charter schools in “our” (meaning teacher union) buildings.  Excuse me, aren’t those the taxpayers’ buildings? I didn’t realize that the teachers union now owns their buildings as well.

As Stossel so aptly put it in the show, much of what is wrong with education is that we have “adult fools” running things.

Stossel also showed lots of signs of progress education.

  • Charter schools where the kids love to come and learn.
  • Kids digging math because they’re watching Salman Khan videos.
  • Teachers in charter schools that say things like (paraphrasing again), why shouldn’t they be able to fire me?  If I was a bad doctor, I wouldn’t have any patients.
  • A charter school where the principal actively watches and coaches her teachers to improve their teaching (many businesses can learn from this).
  • A post-Katrina, charter school-based rebirth of education in New Orleans.  One founder of the Sci Academy started with just himself in 2008 and now has a “school” based in trailers and his students are testing well.  He said, if you hear someone in education talking about having top notch facilities, that’s a sign they’re not putting education first.