Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Standards, Choice, and Scientific Research

Consider Consumer Reports: The magazine reviews consumer goods based on a proprietary set of standards. They test, analyze, test, analyze, etc., until they are satisfied as to the quality of the products under review. CR then assigns individual product ratings and notes one product as a best buy. Though most Americans accept CR's results as being of excellent quality, the noted best buy is not usually the market best-seller. Yes, I will occasionally look at CR prior to purchasing a good, but I almost never buy the best buy. I agree that the CR standard is scientifically valid, but that doesn't mean I am in the market for the scientifically valid, CR best buy product.

What would happen if Consumer Reports had legislative and regulatory authority akin to government? We would all be forced to purchase the best buy and we would all spend our lives unsatisfied. On the surface it sounds great to have a leading research organization setting the market for "the general good and welfare," but consider your own actions vis-a-vis CR's best buys. The same holds for a government-run education system. Some level of government mandates a set of standards that may be scientifically valid according to a certain set of outcomes, but the set of standards and outcomes are not the standards and outcomes all Americans would choose as acting individuals.

Scientific research can create goods that are bigger, smaller, faster, slower, etc. But just because research can create the good doesn't mean that there is a market for it. No one wants a hypodermic needle that is rougher, wider, longer, etc. The superlatives associated with improvements and innovations from scientific research are not always desired.

A free market system of education would create for those who seek different options a system that encourages the implementation of the spectrum of educational choices -- best viewed as experiments, just as each new product, service, store, etc, is a market experiment. The successful experiments become the market standard that new entrepreneurs seek to surpass.

These choices would involve all aspects of education - including pedagogies, methods, etc. - which would afford those who seek scientific research for guidance a system of scientific research needed to support the spectrum of choices.

Parents would choose their standard of results and they would seek out entrepreneurs who would then hire teachers and administrators that share the parents' vision. The entrepreneurs would purchase products to implement the vision and the science community would be engaged to improve old products and innovate new ones - all due to the market pressures of freely acting consumers, the parents. This is the proper direction of improvements and innovations, from the consumer back to the scientist, engineer, researcher, etc.

The standard set by the consumer, the parent, would end up driving the research that would deliver the product, not the reverse. Currently we have a system where the standards are set by a myriad of governments and agencies which no one really agrees with, and we have a spectrum of research whose real goal is to drive the standards.

There are scientific winners in the field of the delivery of quality, basic education [1], such as Direct Instructions, etc., but we know a significant number of parents, staff, and administrators don't give a hoot about reading, writing, and arithmetic. They want affective education and long for the dream of the ideal child, the product of latest version of Progressive thinking.

I disagree with them, but their solutions may actually end up being correct, or they will fail like Enron, etc. Only a market can show whether they are right or wrong.

That said, we have to keep in mind that Consumer Reports creates valid ratings that we mostly ignore, and we are all better off making our own choices. Our individual wants drive improvements and innovations to provide for our greater satisfaction. Why should education be any different?


[1] "Basic" is not to be taking as simple, non-challenging, etc., it is meant to describe the education that is opposite of the ends sought by the Progressive Movement. Basic is best defined by E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.

[2] The free market is the only economic system where we can disagree yet live peacefully. My wife likes Coke while I prefer Pepsi. In fact, I'd rather drink a glass of baking soda than a glass of Coke (Ok, a little hyperbole for effect). Due to the free market in soft drinks, my wife and I can live happily ever after. Under a hampered economy, or plain socialism, the fight becomes which flavor will be served by the scowling apparachik wearing a faded Babushka? Choose freedom every time.

Jim Fedako

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