For the past 200 years, educators have typically used two analogies to describe their work: manufacturing and gardening. Each year, depending on test scores and the cultural climate, the pendulum will swing towards one or the other.
Those who are more pragmatic tend to see education as a manufacturing process. For them, a school takes something raw (a child) and makes it something useful (worker, citizen, responsible adult, etc.). These pragmatists insist on “data-driven practices,” maximizing efficiency and predictability in learning, and mimicking the professional behavior seen in large corporations. In their imaginations, administrators are managers and data analysts, teachers are technicians who specialize in a certain task, and classrooms are stations on an assembly line.
Those who appreciate the humanity of their students take a broader view of success in education. They usually advocate a more “natural” and “hands-off” approach to instruction, preferring students to find their own path. Instead of seeing students as raw materials to be refined and assembled, they see each student as a unique plant that must be specially cultivated by a patient gardener-teacher. Teachers with this philosophy tend to despise standardized tests since—in their eyes—tests make education more a matter of performing tricks and winning awards and less that of realizing one’s talents and personality.
Both analogies have their merits but are inadequate for truly capturing all the dynamics involved in education. In truth, schools are communities where teachers teach groups of human beings. The analogies of a factory or garden recognize only one part of this. Treating school like a factory addresses the group component, but not the humanity of that group. Treating school like a garden acknowledges the humanity of students, but only in an individual capacity.
What Economic Systems Can Teach Us About Education
To best capture how learning works in a school environment, a more deft analogy would be to compare education to economic systems. After all, schools have their own version of rich (top-ranked students) and poor (remedial students), prosperity (high test scores and college readiness) and scarcity (low scores and high dropout rates), and social mobility (the ability for students to succeed or fail by their own effort).
Many of the economic challenges that communities face are like the ones educators face. Just as nations deal with the challenges of maintaining order, encouraging innovation and effort, providing a safety net, and guaranteeing equal opportunities for people at all levels, schools must do the same. As evidenced by history, some economic systems are much more successful at achieving these goals than are others. All of them, however, have benefits and drawbacks.
With this in mind, it would be instructive for both the education-minded as well as the economic-minded to review how well these systems work in reality. Even if this doesn’t yield a clear solution, it could at least indicate a way forward that respects the humanity as well the educational potential of today’s students.
How a ‘Socialist’ Educational Model Is Doomed to Failure
Societies seeking to address problems of mass poverty and oppression frequently adopt a socialist system in which the government takes over the main means of production. Instead of responding to market forces of supply and demand, allowing private production of goods and services, the government attempts to ration goods according to need. To ensure universal compliance, this is typically coupled with restrictions on freedom. This way, everyone can theoretically expect to have “basic necessities” and enjoy true “equality.”
Similarly, schools with large at-risk populations often embrace an interventionist approach to instruction that targets students who struggle. Instead of respecting students’ different levels of effort and ability, these schools force teachers to “teach to the test” and drill students with same materials so the entire class has at least a basic level of proficiency. They will also strictly limit students’ freedoms, again, to maximize compliance and order. This may make school boring, but it’s at least safe and predictable.
As history shows, the socialist system inevitably backfires wherever it is applied. In its quest to eliminate poverty, it discourages wealth creation, rewards corruption and laziness, and punishes hard work and innovation. No nation has ever become rich through socialism, although all too many have become desperately poor.
Schools that adopt the equivalent of socialism also experience contrary results. Instead of a rise in scores and better behavior, they see the opposite. Students become less motivated and see little point in exerting themselves when they feel like prisoners. Every period becomes a remedial class, and low-achieving students do as little as they did before standards were lowered. Motivated students will try to leave these schools with the same desperation as wealthy citizens leaving socialist countries.
‘Welfare-State’ Schools Have Their Own Shortcomings
What most people mean by socialism, however, is not true socialism, but a welfare state. This is where the government imposes heavy taxes in return for providing social services. This system predominates in many European countries that offer “free” health care, college, and daycare. In other words, the government assumes a monopoly on these services to assure universal access to them. Unlike socialism, which means to solve wealth disparity on behalf of the poor and working-class, the welfare state primarily appeals to the middle class.
The educational parallel to a welfare state would be a school specifically devoted to extracurricular programs above everything else. These schools take pride in their athletics programs, academic University Interscholastic League programs, the fine arts programs, and anything else that promotes school spirit. To maximize these programs, these schools will prioritize them in their schedules, budgets, and policies. As one might expect, such an agenda may capture the largest share of the student body, but those at the top and bottom who lack the time or the enthusiasm remain on the peripheries.
In both economic and educational terms, the welfare state and extra-curricular school can work, but only with significant buy-in from the majority, adequate resources, and no outside disruptions. Scandinavians have typically normalized and accepted high taxes and government-run services; Americans prefer to keep their money and shop around; poor Nicaraguans can only dream of having such services at their disposal.
Certain school bodies may prefer letter-jackets and pep rallies to more Advanced Placement (AP) or remediation classes. Others may complain that this does not help them with life after school. Many schools already have a difficult time paying for staff and utilities.
Additionally, the welfare state doesn’t do well with change and often foments resentment against outsiders. Immigrants from a poor country or re-zoned students from poor neighborhoods threaten the system since they cannot immediately contribute and may struggle to assimilate. As a result, it becomes all too common for outsiders to live on the margins and remain trapped in a cycle of dependence. For schools, this situation can be seen with at-risk students who wallow in ineffective remediation classes or in-school suspension while the rest of their peers move on.
A ‘Capitalist’ Philosophy Leaves Some Students Behind
Countries that avoid the perils of socialism and the precarious benefits of the welfare state usually have a free-market capitalist system. In this system, private companies compete to sell goods and services while government attempts to keep the competition fair, free, and safe. This system accounts for higher productivity, innovation, and greater overall wealth. Yet it also results in inequality and the possibility that some members of society could be exploited.
This kind of inequality can be seen in campuses adopting the capitalist model by putting the smart students first and foremost. While prestigious prep and magnet schools nurture the country’s best and brightest, impoverished schools house the country’s least privileged.
In a school filled with motivated students trying to enter the best colleges, it is usually best to have more laissez-faire teachers who know how to step aside and facilitate. At schools charged with less-motivated students, this approach will either lead to high failure rates (because students cannot meet standards) or low rigor (to reduce failure).
‘Corporatist’ Schools Have Incorrect Priorities
Finally, alongside socialism, welfare state economies, and free-market capitalism is corporatism (or “crony capitalism”). In this system, the government patronizes certain companies in the hopes of helping certain constituencies or helping large businesses compete on a global level. These companies are usually favored because of their political connections or size, not because of their productivity or quality. Consequently, corporatist societies inevitably have the inefficiencies and stagnation of socialism alongside the inequality and occasional exploitation of capitalism.
In education, this system is represented in schools that throw all their eggs in one academic basket in an attempt to improve. They spend on an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, an AP program, a dual-credit program, or some kind of “academy” to compete with charter schools and stop the brain-drain affecting their campuses.
Sadly, because these programs are artificially propped up and serve no real demand, they usually end up as empty labels that end up helping few students. Meanwhile, the small fortune used to pay for these labels is usually taken away from remediation and disciplinary programs that might have better served the needs of students. In the rare cases that such programs do work, as with Jaime Escalante’s calculus program featured in the film “Stand and Deliver,” teachers and administrators will work to shut them down out of jealousy.
Schools Should Choose What Suits Their Needs
In themselves, these economic systems and their educational equivalents have a logic to them that can work out in reality—except maybe socialism. Much of their success or failure depends on the contexts of those who implement the system as well as those who live under it. If a nation or school have an unusually competent and skillful government or staff, or if it has unusually competent and skillful citizens or students, any system can enjoy some level of success.
In the real world, however, creating a prosperous country and a safe, happy school takes time. There will necessarily be trade-offs, and it will typically involve a mix of different systems.
A rich, advanced country or school may want to find ways to minimize intervention and limit the government’s role to maintaining fair competition. A poor country or school may want to focus on maintaining order and safety before it considers what it can do for its upper class. A country or school experiencing growth may want to temporarily invest in successful academic programs. If a country or school’s population request some service or extra-curricular program and agrees to make the necessary sacrifices, then the political or education leaders should consider doing so.
The kind of flexibility schools need to maximize their potential is only possible in a free environment—in educational terms, wherever there is true school choice. Schools should try to do whatever they can to best meet the needs of their students, but they are held back by the current reform-resistant system that gives monopoly power to public schools. In this regard, the United States could learn from Sweden’s example—let schools compete and let parents decide which school works for their children.
A smart, hardworking kid can thrive in any system, even if some systems are more helpful than others. A good school, like a good economy, will only encourage these good qualities. A good household can actually bring them into existence.