Education Reform

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Introduction

The present system of education must die. The predominant Prussian school model will inevitably disappear from this planet. This book paints a model of perfect learning. This model capitalizes on the best qualities of the human brain. Perfect learning is by orders of magnitude more powerful than the usual learning prescription we receive at school. At the same time, paradoxically, even perfect learning cannot cope with what is popularly believed to be a necessary minimum common core curriculum. The dissonance between what we think we need to learn and what we are actually able to learn is staggering. It sets us up for youth filled with stress, and results in an epidemic of mental disorders. We set up an education system that is a perfect prescription for an unhappy society.

My perfect learning system cannot replace the current education system today. There are too many variables to consider. There isn't a brain in existence which could take all those variables into consideration. However, there is an education system that can step in to help. That education system must employ local optimization process to provide the best education for each individual brain. This is similar to market economics. No command economy has ever succeeded in the long term because of the complexity of the planning process. The government can push through expensive programs, like landing on the moon, but it cannot micromanage each individual enterprise. For similar reasons, we can employ educational programs but we cannot micromanage individual brains.

For complex problems, we are usually happy to come close to the optimum given the available data, algorithms, processing power, and time. We employ local optimization where decisions are made locally based on the best available information. A parent, a teacher, or a psychologist are usually far better equipped with information about a particular child than a government minister, let alone a parliamentarian.

Local optimization and the wisdom of the crowds can be employed to transition towards a perfect model of education.

This chapter will paint a proposition of a system that may cost nothing, and may be implemented tomorrow. The gist is presented in Grand Education Reform: Outline. The summary is here.

Brain science

A common way of thinking is that school reform should be undertaken by politicians, economists, and professional educators. The problem with this approach is that all reforms to date have followed the same pre-conceived erroneous plan that ignores the ABC of brain science.

This is why the next reform must start in the heads of people who know how learning happens. The reform cannot outline the goals unless the designers have a good understanding of what is possible. As nearly all good learning is incremental, and all long-term learning is incremental, the goals should only be set in terms of conditions for real-time trajectory optimization. We simply cannot decide that we need a specific number of people in STEM in 20 years. We need to provide conditions for maximization of human potential, which will make it easy for any number of people to be happy to take on STEM or switch to STEM when needed.

Talking to kids

Your usual reformers speak to parents and teachers, headmasters, principals, directors, power figures, etc. When collecting material for this book, I took a different course. I focused on talking to kids.

Not because they understand the need for the reform better than adults. They know better their own feelings and motivations. It is not the system that will decide their greatness, it is their own talent and potential given enough freedom or opportunity. The goal of the education system is to provide opportunities. The goal of the reform is to stop the system from inflicting harm on health, creativity, and the joy of learning.

Path to the future

The optimum trajectory from the present system of education to the future ideal approach to education needs to stick to the following principles:

  • small steps: the process must be incremental, not revolutionary. The incremental approach makes it possible to observe side effects of individual changes and improve the trajectory
  • evolution: market of ideas should employ evolutionary forces to inch towards the future optimum. Bad ideas should die like unfit species in the evolutionary process
  • local decisions: local optimization based on individual decisions relevant to each child and student is necessary due to the complexity of the problem. Children should be empowered to chart their direction. Parents should assist in decision making. Local educators should provide further wise assistance in the process. Governments should assist financially with minimum interference

Education Reform Principles

  • the most efficient form of learning is self-learning based on a natural learn drive. It must be self-directed and self-paced
  • to increase self-learning, we need to increase freedoms across the board: for students, for parents, for teachers, for schools, for societies
  • as the debate about various educational systems is hot, as educational goals differ, as the criteria of success differ, we have only one rational option: employ a free market of ideas to shape the system. In the free market of educational choices, we might have public and private schools, democratic schools, homeschooling, pre-schools, colleges, on-line schools, and solutions that go beyond the imagination of today's reformers
  • due to a serious diversification and stratification of resources, talents, and opportunities, a degree of support from governments would be welcome. A school voucher system is an example of support that would not violate the principles of the reform

Grand Education Reform: Outline

The key to the Grand Education Reform is freedom. The system cannot enslave kids or parents. The system must respect the Fundamental law of learning. Kids and parents must be free to choose schools, homeschooling or unschooling. Kids and parents must be free to choose curriculum or free learning. Teachers must be free to choose their methodology. Schools must be free to choose their methods, profiles, benchmarks, teachers, etc. In the ideal world, education would not only be free, but also free of charge or subsidized. Societies will do great by providing free learning assistance within affordable limits.

The above may sound a bit like school choice, however, if the implementation disallows of free democratic schooling or unschooling, then it is not actually free.

Sweden claims to have implemented school choice, but introduced a ban on homeschooling. It is as if someone told you you are free to leave this prison, as long as you do not cross the perimeter.

See also: On freedom of education and freedom of information

Free market of ideas

For the education market of free ideas to work: the market must be open to all forms of learning and schooling, open to all forms of curricula or unstructured learning, and it must be driven by a market of ideas for the best progress and achievement benchmarks.

Open learning market

Education should be legally opened to all sorts of ideas. Not only private vs. public schools. It should also be opened to homeschooling, unschooling, democratic schools, charter schools, magnet schools, vocational schools, MOOCs, pre-schools, cram schools, virtual schools, reform schools, private tutors, on-line tutors, Montessori schools, religious schools, Khan Academy, Finnish model, Wieman model, and even an occasional SuperMemo school.

Students should have a free choice that would best match their needs and dreams in consultation with parents and the best resources available locally and on-line.

The free market allows for a free competition of ideas, comparisons, research, evolution, etc. We need to abolish the old totalitarian approach in which we program young minds. It would not be that awful to produce cookie-cutter citizens if it ever worked. In the Prussian model, students can differentiate after leaving schools, and they do. However, the present system does not work because only self-directed learning based on the learn drive can bring reasonable results in learning.

Freedom from curriculum

Learning must be free from the pressures of curriculum and testing.

These days, experts in mathematics are horrified with awful test results and push more rigorous standards. Experts in language learning or social studies do exactly the same. No sane government official would ever call for lower standards. The bar is always pushed up. Reforms intended to ease the burden end up adding more. At the same time, in real life, students face ever greater burdens, longer hours, harder tests, more stress, less sleep, more hate, less playtime, more ADHD, and the ultimate result is misery for millions. On rare occasions, like in Finland, national or local governments wake up to the problem and introduce smart measures, e.g. later school hours, less homework, smaller class sizes, more play at pre-school, less pre-school, later starting school age, better teacher training, more respect for teachers, and more teacher freedom (see: Finnish paradox). However, the temptation is always there: we want a smart workforce, we want a smart society, so adding more material and raising the standard is never thought of as a bad thing. It must change and it requires a cultural paradigm shift.

Benchmark market

There is only one universal benchmark for the efficiency of education: happy and productive human lives. The scourge of testing distorts the optimization of education and channels it into a short-sighted race for the short-term achievement.

Competition between schools should not be understood as an economic market. It should be viewed as a competition of concepts.

America has tried hard to improve the performance of schools. As always, it was hoped that competition might help. However, competition is based on results, results on measurements, and measurements can only measure the measurable. They fail to measure the human aspect, the creative aspect, and the imponderables. In that, competition tends to distill that what can be easily measured, e.g. academic knowledge, and cut corners on all others skill sets and qualities. Again the problem is systemic. A dedicated parent or a great teacher is irreplaceable. But they are in short supply. The kids need to be shunted through the system and this process is inherently inefficient. What happens in Finland seems to be too socialist for America, but it also brings better outcomes. In short, a Finish formula for the successful school is "less school in school". Instead, more freedom, more free time, more trust, more self-direction, more inspiration, etc. More freedom implies less pressure, and this implies less standardized testing. This is then amplified by a huge investment in quality teaching.

We need to step away from driving the competition by means of test scores, and develop a market for ideas for a variety of progress benchmarks that should all be subjugated to the ultimate goal: the betterment of society and human existence.

Evaluation cycle

In a market of ideas, we need to bring up a kid, help a student self-educate, and 30 years later we can see if the approach has worked. This makes the efficient flow of information extremely important. The cultural paradigm shift is needed to make sure kids, parents, and educators do not look at short-term measures. The length of the evaluation cycle in optimization is always a tough nut to crack. With a 3-decade-long cycle, we cannot rely on simple measurements and need to ultimately resort to culture, knowledge, and the wisdom of crowds. Naturally, on occasion, paradigm shifts can happen in a compressed timescale. Wars and natural disasters can spark accelerated change. Hurricane Katrina prompted New Orleans to "discover" the value of charter schools. Now they boast the highest percentage of charter schools in the US. The greatest value of the charter school is that these are schools of choice and they are freer to innovate, which accelerates the evolutionary process. Naturally, they can also innovate how to reap the best profit and need a great deal of bureaucratic oversight. Evolution is slow, but we may still be nicely surprised.

Local niches

Local isolated niches favor evolution. I am no fan of national borders and national divisions. In case of education, however, they make it possible to see which system works worst. There are plenty of over-engineered school systems around the world that win that race to the bottom by taking away most freedoms and the fun of youth. This, in turn, drags them down in the GNH. Unhappy youth leads to unhappy populations. Learning is one of the most rewarding activities. Governments have a knack for transforming educational fun into the misery of schooling.

Learn drive trumps curriculum

What do we want to learn?

In terms of the curriculum, content, and skillset, we can employ local optimization, in which a student decides what to learn, or a global optimization, in which a group of experts picks the optimum body of knowledge to be learned in a set period of time or at specific ages.

Chaotic global optimization

High-quality global optimization of education is impossible as it requires a given student's status of the mind on input. Educational systems around the world are largely optimized by trial and error without the use of adequate optimization tools. The optimization criteria change with changes to the political orientation of the ruling party in democratic societies. Instead of global long-term optimization based on good societal outcomes, governments employ short-term optimizations based on test results in individual fields.

Educational systems are optimized without employing the neural networks that power the learn drive. Education is optimized without employing the best natural optimization tool in existence. As a result, school systems drift in dangerous directions that affect millions of kids around the world. The negative outcomes will last for generations!

Unintuitive local optimization

In terms of knowledge selection, individual optimization based on self-directed learning is far more accurate from the point of view of the individual. Globally, individual optimization produces good outcomes based on the wisdom of crowds. High-quality knowledge is born through emergence, which is a highly unintuitive concept of systems theory. This book explains emergence with simple metaphors. See: tree metaphor, jigsaw puzzle metaphor, or crystallization metaphor. One of the main objections against the local optimization of learning is the fear of parallel societies. This fear is not justified and can easily be mitigated (as explained in Ban on homeschooling).

In economics, we have long discovered that free markets employ highly efficient optimization. We have also discovered that government interventions are necessary for trajectory correction where markets drift in highly undesirable directions. Economics and education are not only similar in terms of optimization, they also touch upon the subject of freedom. As much as freedoms in economics are vital for happy entrepreneurs working hard to the benefit of society, freedoms in education should provide for happy youth and smart adults.

Many people look with disdain at large greedy corporations and see them as the main reason for the capitalist misery around the world. The same people should then realize that greedy corporations feed on the uncreative and greedy workforce that leaves the assembly line of modern education. Freedom in education translates directly into the quality of unshackled workforce and the quality of modern lifestyle.

Education lags economics by no less than a century. We are now at a stage equivalent to Soviet-style socialist central control, and we suppress individual learn drive at a huge detriment to society. See: Modern schooling is like Soviet economy. Even great business minds are slow to realize that students are like little enterprises that cannot be micromanaged (see: Bill Gates is wrong about education, Zuckerberg wasted $100 million).

In education, we need to break through the Berlin Wall of old stereotypes. We can leave a bit of efficient Chinese-style central planning, but we have to primarily rely on the most efficient optimization tool, the equivalent of free markets for knowledge: self-directed learning.

We are stealing happy life from the young generation. We suppress the learn drive. We send sleepy kids to school in the morning, and keep them working tired over homework in the evening. We drive them towards obesity, mental disorders, and psychoactive medication. We leave hardly any room for the Self, for individual interests, hobbies, play, creativity, art, reading, curiosity, amateur science and research, invention or budding entrepreneurial spirit. The smartest kids are under an immense pressure to drop out and to taste the freedom they crave. They see that the school sets them to "meet standards" based on averages. It does not provide a good footing for lifelong success. There is no Me in young lives anymore. Tired and creatively suppressed, kids flock to Facebook, YouTube, or computer games, and keep wasting their time and lives. No wonder then that adults do not trust the choices of the youth, and claim that only the gaming industry would benefit from self-directed learning initiatives. They should look at the example of democratic schools, or hole in the wall, or the nearest toddler (assuming she has not already been damaged by micromanagement of daycare).

Freedom powers innovation

My ideas on education would help freedom thrive and learning explode. Everyone could define his own version of the "explosion". For some parents, child emancipation in a democratic school would be paramount. Others would say that Korean cram schools would seem more appealing. At worst they will go for easy grades, scores, and certificates. That's the price of freedom.

I personally love the idea of unschooling. As a kid, I loved to learn on my own without interference from the oppressive adult world. The old system of centrally planned public schooling cannot be compulsory! Not only does it not work, it is also harmful! It might deprive societies of its most gifted prospects. We need to help all kids, but for prosperous future, we need to pay particular attention to not standing in the way of the gifted ones! Educating the population is expensive. Freedom for the gifted carries virtually no cost!

Milton Friedman

In 1955, the future Nobel prize winner-to-be, 43-year-old, Milton Friedman wrote about the need to reduce the role of government in education ("The Role of Government in Education"). His idea gave birth to the concept of school choice. Friedman was also a proponent of a voucher system. Friedman's ideas have been implemented ineptly in a couple of countries. At the moment of writing, 20-25 countries use a mutation of the voucher system with more countries in line to join the bandwagon.

The problem with the Friedman's model of school choice is that he was an economist, not an educator, or a psychologist. He was primarily motivated by the economic inefficiency of the system in delivering the product: quality education. Sudbury Valley School was only to come into existence a decade later, while homeschooling was to explode only 3 decades later. See the picture:

Use of "homeschooling" in Google Books in recent years

Figure: The use of the term "homeschooling" in Google Books in recent years

Without the backup of neuroscience, Friedman has always been interpreted as a conservative economist. His intellectual influence is often mixed up with the political influence of the fundamentalist Christians. This has largely inhibited and limited the appreciation of Friedman's genius in reference to education.

Friedman reasoning is correct, but his writing is burdened with the same erroneous hope that the Prussian education system can be improved incrementally towards perfection. Friedman was surprisingly tolerant of freedom-limiting totalitarian approaches and government interventions for the sake of better society. He wrote his words just a decade after the end of the greatest totalitarian debacle in human history. No wonder, he was open to totalitarian tools, like schooling, in hope that they would limit totalitarian dangers.

Friedman opposed inefficient government intervention. I oppose harmful compulsory curriculum. However, our conclusions are similar. His theoretical model of school choice is nearly flawless.

Friedman looks at the system of "responsible units" in which parents make the responsible decisions for children. I believe we need to go much further. Because of the way the brain works, it is children that should be far more responsible for their own education and their directions. The government may help a bit, parents can help a lot, but micro-decisions at the very bottom level should be made inside a young brain.

Friedman believed that the biggest gains stem from elementary education, while early instruction also carries the biggest risk of inflicting harm on young creative minds.

Friedman could not possibly see that his approach can easily lead to a blind alley. All economists are aware of local minima in optimization, however, the assessment of local minimum dangers depends on the parameters of optimization. Without understanding the brain, it is difficult to optimize education. In six decades since the birth of Friedman's genius model, we have learned more about the brain than in the course of the entire prior human history.

The education system must allow a free flow of choices in the direction of self-directed learning free of the warehousing approach typical of modern education. This is why stereotypical school choice implementations of Friedman's ideas in New Zealand or Sweden are a failure from the optimization point of view. Homeschooling is illegal in Sweden. Richer parents are not allowed to add to the voucher value. This factor alone disqualifies Sweden as a valid implementation of school choice (despite praise from many economists). All implementations thus far have been full of bureaucratic limitations. Bad implementations lead to bad research, bad models, and dismal conclusions, such as "Friedman was wrong. School choice does not work". Only well-designed randomized trials show the true impact of choice.

Governments are careful in how they spend their money. In the process, they block solutions that could accelerate innovation and progress in education. In that sense, Friedman was the most accurate in his original premise: governments should stay away from micromanaging education. As much as it would be tempting to micromanage reproduction, no sane (modern) government program would attempt to regulate who we should love. We are yet to wake up to the fact that modern education is an equivalent of arranged marriage in reference to learning. It is no less oppressive. An arranged marriage is often more stable than a marriage of love. The couples tend to fall in love eventually. This leaves proponents of arranged marriage blind to the benefits of freedom. The exact same blindness affects the proponents of school.

The market of ideas in education must be truly free to drift away from the old rigid models. It must be free of coercion. Children should have a right to learn, and be free to choose what they learn, when and how. Children should also have a right to receive assistance in proportion to societal means (e.g. as determined democratically).

Friedman knew little of unschooling, homeschooling, spaced repetition, incremental reading, hole in the wall, or on-line learning. However, the mind of the economist has correctly predicted that a truly free choice of educational options is the future. His model has been corrupted by inept implementations. It is time to put the genius mind's ideas to economic practice with all the necessary enhancements provided by neuroscience.

The best part of the school choice is that if it is driven by child's dreams, it will naturally comply with the fundamental law of learning. In reality, it will be ambitious parents who would attempt to chart the future for the child, and this danger can only be reduced by a cultural paradigm shift and incremental progress in societal awareness of what stands for efficient learning.

School vouchers

Once we have a free education system set in place, we can start thinking about incrementally making it free of charge. In Africa, education is often a privilege. In the industrialized world, it has become a burden. The countries that I chastize for a ban on homeschooling, Germany and Sweden, are actually pretty well advanced on their way towards making education free of charge.

As all individual educational decisions must be made by the child, with some help from parents and/or educators, all financial support in education should be targetted at making those decisions free and unconstrained. The only egalitarian and workable system that supports free decision making is the voucher system. A school voucher or an education voucher is a government certificate of funding for education. A student can pick a school or his form of education and pay the costs with a school voucher. School vouchers provide indiscriminate support for all kids (see: Must we educate?). The idea of school vouchers was proposed in the modern form by Milton Friedman in 1955 as a tool for promoting school choice and free education. The voucher idea took off in serious in the 1990s, esp. in the wake of establishing Friedman's EdChoice foundation. The voucher system is supposed to eliminate the principal-agent problem (esp. in terms of asymmetric information), which stands at the core of inefficiency of the education system on many platforms: economic theory, control theory, brain science, psychology, and more.

The voucher system can make education free of charge, and paradoxically, it can also save a lot of money to governments. There are three reasons for which the voucher system can be cheap and easy to implement: (1) a voucher usually covers an amount that is significantly less than the average spending per student in a public school, (2) vouchers can be introduced incrementally to cover more and more years of education, and (3) vouchers can incrementally increase in value in proportion to economic development and an increase in the GDP.

In the ideal world, the kid should have her most critical years of free education supported freely by society, and should self-direct that education towards his or her elected goals. With increases in affluence, we can extend that support down to daycare and earlier, and up beyond college towards the adult education of all forms.

There are dozens of possible implementations with different degrees of freedom and trust. By 2017, a form of the voucher system was used in some 25 countries. There are dozens of different implementations and those could compete as well for the best assessment in comparative analyses. Vouchers can provide each kid with the same chance, and each education idea with a good chance to compete for kid's attention.

The list of arguments against vouchers goes beyond the scope of this book. Complaints include: "no government regulation", "private schools can be selective", "public schools lose money", "unemployment of certified teachers", "teaching corrupt ideas", "high-profit margin for private schools", etc. Prominent skeptics include President Obama who called the voucher effect "negligible" despite a prompt protest from economists researching the impact of vouchers. With all his best intentions, Obama is wrong not because of the research that inevitably uses skewed metrics such as grades, test scores, or even college admissions. Obama is wrong on principle: free education is the only education that works.

Each time you see criticism of vouchers, ask one question: "Does the criticism have a child's interest at heart?". If so, "Can a family avoid harm by exercising choice?". If not, "Is the harm any different that all sorts of harms that come from economic markets? Or harms that come from public schools?". In the end, we can all be tricked by deceptive marketing. Bad teachers and bad principals can be found everywhere. The strongest protection from chicanery is the culture of knowledge. In the meantime, the role of the government would be to enable and protect, not to control, restrict and coerce. Opponents of vouchers have one thing in common: they believe that the public school system works, or that it can be improved towards workability. This is why teacher unions and straight A students are richly represented. President Obama belongs to that last group too. There is nothing wrong with being a straight A student, esp. if it is backed by genius and vast knowledge. However, those qualities don't make humans omniscient. The critics of the voucher system need to read this book and realize that they are defending the status quo that does not work, and will never work. The whole concept of school will slowly but inevitably be relegated to history and replaced with the concept of high-quality learning.

Research may or may not confirm the value of the voucher system, and, in the end, it should not matter. Vouchers are about choice and freedom as opposed to what Robert Pondiscio calls "policing". This is enough. Incidentally, best research comes from unbiased cases where kids receive vouchers by means of lottery. Only then we can see that the voucher system works like a charm.

Opponents of vouchers should consider a swell of support for ideas akin to basic income. Today, basic income sounds like utopia except... it incrementally becomes reality with many cases around the world where individuals or families receive unconditional support from the government without providing a contribution and without being accountable for how they use the support. Basic income is based on trust. Unemployment benefits are often lax in setting conditions and in monitoring. Similarly, we do not ask retirees how fast they plan to die and how they plan to spend their money. Retirees earned their contribution in the past, kids will earn their contribution in the future. Education vouchers can come with strings attached, or may be granted to all children without any curbs on how they are spent. The common theme here is trust. We trust people to spend their pensions, income and vouchers wisely (on average).

Like vouchers, basic income can be introduced incrementally down from symbolic levels. It might be instituted as a negative income tax (an idea also championed by Milton Friedman). The main idea is to make people a bit happier, more hopeful, and a bit freer. We might give citizens a bit more trust in the wisdom of their own choices, and soften the negative effects of the spiraling rat race. When Friedman spoke about vouchers, he had "accredited institutions" in mind. However, accreditation should not impose restrictions either. What if the kid insisted on an unaccredited institution?

Instead of fearing the impact of fanatical schools, we should rather make sure that the law prevents pouring hate into young minds. I explain in Ban on homeschooling that this should not be a big issue in modern societies. The kid who opts to attend an Islamic school should be free to do so (unless his decision is coerced). There is more value in peaceful and harmonious development, independent of the background philosophy than in coercion to adopt a specific system of values, and restrictions in free speech and free thinking.

I believe everyone should be given a free choice. This could dramatically reduce the cost of bureaucracy and supervision in the voucher system.

In 2016, Poland introduced "Family 500+". It is a system of unconditional support for families with children. The savior of the Polish economy, Dr Leszek Balcerowicz complained that the program makes people lazy. However, this wasteful approach is also based on trust, and it is pretty popular. It provided a swell of support for otherwise pretty bad and contentious government. Balcerowicz is right, however, there are psychological benefits to those who honestly struggle for resources. In terms of the impact on child poverty levels, the program is largely considered a success despite its limitations, astronomical cost, and the original prognosis of a major debacle. What we lose on resources, we might gain back in public happiness index.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
On the matter of funding education, I admit being seriously biased. All my education was subsidized by the Polish communist government. I had a free rider ticket for 22 long years. Despite my education being compulsory, it still felt reasonably free and unconstrained in what I wanted to learn and explore. It is the human learn drive that can turn truly free education into a great fun adventure. The voucher solution I propose here is not affected by my bias. The degree of funding is a matter of democratic choice. Even a tiny Pell Grant can change a life. Most of all, the voucher system, by its economic definition, provides for budget savings. It is ideal for those who believe in limited government and those with more utopian visions. The balance can be achieved in a democratic contest.

Market of ideas, not competition for resources

My free market of ideas is not aimed at sparking competition for students and resources. My approach is primarily aimed at freedom. I want students (or parents) to make their own choices. Competition and all its negative side effects are just a result of proposed freedoms. If governments opt to preserve public schooling and keep the public system uncompetitive, they should have the right to wastefully do so as part of the democratic process. The freedom to stay fossilized or backward is also part of my outline and should close arguments about the impact of competition for resources on learning. Last but not least, Finland shows that public schools can have their own powerful contribution to the understanding of what works and what does not work. No option should be ruled out. No freedom should be curtailed.

Increase in inequity

It is true that school choice leads to further skill and capacity polarization in society. However, polarization is as inevitable as the emergence of the rich and "filthy rich" in capitalism. As inevitable as the emergence of big corporations. As inevitable as the emergence of Usain Bolt in the ocean of minnows. There will always be gifted students and the only way to prevent polarization is to stifle the gifted. In addition, for true equality, we would need to invest vast sums into problem kids. Equity of funding seems more reasonable than equity of outcomes. Giftedness leads to an extreme version of the Matthew effect. It leads to an exponential increase in returns. As a result, the entire society benefits immeasurably. If we complain of the emergence of little geniuses from amongst our kids, we kill the goose that lays a golden egg.

Separation of state from church

Opponents of school choice complain that the voucher system would help religious schools thrive. Even the US Supreme Court struggled with this seemingly simple issue. Justice Souter noticed that most of the voucher funding goes to religious schools, and I see his dissent as rigid adherence to constitutional principles with disregard to free thinking. Many academics think that only public schools can ensure a secular point of view.

Supporters of creationism and intelligent design are among the most vocal supporters of school choice. While it is true that religious indoctrination might benefit from school choice, no form of governmental assistance can ever be fully separated from the free will of individuals to use state benefits as they please. We cannot determine how tax deductions should be made use of. We cannot mandate who will drive a subsidized road. Accordingly, the US Supreme Court agreed that parents should have a say in the choice of schools, even if these are religious schools, as long as the government does not introduce its own bias.

The freedom of choice leads to good outcomes on average. Once we start imposing conditions, we give a start to bureaucracies, limits of freedom, and associated social discord. Striving for separation of state from church in case of education will be as fruitful as the Prohibition. In the era of the Internet, indoctrination requires enslavement. Free minds with free access to the web are much harder to indoctrinate for life. We need to let the cultural evolution take its own course.

Imposing limits on school freedoms is almost a guaranteed shot in the foot. While suppressing schools with religious leanings, the opponents would also put limits on schools that might breed future Einsteins, and fossilize the ailing system of public schooling.

I prefer happy students in a classroom peddling indoctrination over helpless run-down kids stifled by force-fed knowledge of the only truth. Happy kids stand a better chance to grow up as intellectuals and this is the shortest path to a worldview correction if indoctrination leads them astray. The kids I see graduating from public high schools today are devoid of most of their zest for further learning and exploration. They may harbor "the only truth" in their minds, but that truth has no life!

A nice litmus test of intellectual progress is the support for the evolutionary origins of the human species. Despite a constant rise in homeschooling, and religion being an important reason for homeschooling in the US, support for evolutionary origins of humans in American youth has finally reached above 50%. With indoctrination, fake news, and mind sheltering, the truth is slow to come, but the process is ruthlessly unidirectional.

Reform cost and timeline

Reform cost

The cost of my reform is zero! It may cost a bit of time for the executives or legislators to read the memo and enact freedoms. There may be a cost to introducing a good funding scheme, which in the end may pay back in savings. There may be costs of side effects that accompany any change in any system. However, the proposed solution is incremental, evolutionary and optimum (at the presented degree of detail). As such, it should be enacted at the earliest possible date. In the long-run, the reform will bring major positive returns in happier and wiser population.

Reform timeline

There is no reform timeline. There are no hopes for a comprehensive introduction anywhere in the world. The gap of knowledge to traverse is immense. Generations have been raised and shaped by the old-style Prussian school system, and it will take little less to undo it. In my own country, Poland, the discussion is not about how the brain works, or how learning works, or how children learn, but which literature items should be made compulsory.

The progress will be incremental, and the only good news is that the progress is accelerating. Homeschooling is on the increase. Democratic schools show up around the globe. Khan Academy is growing. On-line access gets easier. Kids complain. Most of the good news comes courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee. The unheralded hero of the modern era who is the best exemplification of what I mean when I say that giftedness brings exponential returns.

Reform ideas outlined in this section are just an approximation of goals. We are on a slow, inevitable, and irreversible trajectory towards those goals.

Smart people will slow the reform

Smart people are a treasure. However, from time to time, smart people are a problem. Once they get convinced of their smarts, they tend to believe in their own omniscience. There is only one remedy for that ailment: extensive knowledge. Knowledge can make the difference between being smart and being wise. Naturally, knowledge can also make things worse. We should cherish the existence of stubborn know-it-all smart alecks. In their own area of expertise, they are indispensable. Outside their own field, they can be a problem (see: Martha Albertson Fineman). Smart people will be a major obstacle on the way to introducing my Grand Reform.

In the modern world, smart people are often marked smart because they have survived the system of schooling unscathed. Actually, their survival at school is the prime reason they consider themselves smart. After all, they could always easily take the lead and scoop the best awards. They may be oblivious to how many of those left behind are serious lifelong casualties of the system.

Having survived, they may live with an undying conviction that school has contributed to their greatness. As a result, they have selective and glorified recall of their school years. They make wrong attributions in explaining their own success. They do not dig deep. They do not analyze. They do not introspect or retrospect. "School is good" is a dogma that helped them survive school. Those who hated school had dropped out long ago and often live a life of low self-esteem due to their school failure.

Smart people often do not see the harm of schooling. They evaded the harm and credit the school with their own success in life.

Smart people like order, efficiency, science, and predictability

Bill Gates takes an industrialized approach to education. He praises individual approach and the importance of knowledge and intelligence. However, his vision reminds me an assembly line for brains. Bill is smart and Bill might not like the unpredictability of the free course of my reform. See: Bill Gates is wrong about education.

Martha Fineman Albertson takes an egalitarian and utilitarian approach to education. She values knowledge and science. However, her vision brings back 1984 to mind. Martha is smart. She will not like my reform where every kid can go in an unpredictable direction. See: Ban on homeschooling.

Tom likes the social aspect of schooling. He attributes his own success to the competitive spirit of his school. He does not like my reform (yet) for he does not trust in self-directed learning. He believes in the guiding hand of the adult world.

Smart and not so happy?

Interestingly, I observe a powerful correlation between the conviction that students need to be forced to learn, and a sheer joy of life in people.

We all know that coercive learning leads to learned helplessness that can develop into a depression. However, that correlation between the disposition and the point of view on schooling may go two ways: kids who get forced into years of unpleasant learning, develop an unhappy disposition, however, a happy disposition also comes from better defenses against coercion (e.g. coercion sparked via social pressure).

Many people claim that school gave them the tools needed to be successful in life. I rather believe that equally often, school robbed them of a more important thing: the ability to fully enjoy their own good contribution to this world. If you don't live with the conviction that learning should be pleasurable, it is harder to seek rewards from productivity in hard work.

Good schools contribute to the problem

Paradoxically, good schools contribute to the problem of schooling. There are great teachers, great schools, and examples of great effects. It is always hard to see that those schools and those teaching approaches are not easy to copy. There are great inventors and great inventions, but nobody has ever come up with an invention of mass inventing. The same problem affects schooling. The less informed people look at those great examples and think they can be reproduced on a massive scale around the world. Ivan Ilich was also pretty scathing about people with suggestions like mine presented in this chapter. He would proceed directly to massive unschooling, while all market reforms only dilute his radical thinking about the damage caused by schooling. I sympathize with Illich and propose a diversification option only because (1) cultural changes are needed for radical school reforms, and (2) we need more research on the impact of unschooling on the whole range of kids, personalities, family types, parenting approaches, etc. School can liberate a child from a pathological family, from strick authoritarian parenting, from close-minded indoctrination, from poverty or from abuse. We need research and we need multiple scenarios to investigate.

For people like Gates or Tom, the educational system provides an illusion that it works. It is easy to overlook the fact that most of the credit goes to kids' brains, and very little is attributable to the system itself. This is how smart people and good schools slow down the transition to the only rational system outlined in my Grand Education Reform.

Summary: Education Reform

  • Grand Education Reform should focus on the freedom of learning to universally enact the respect for the fundamental law of learning
  • the freedom of learning for students should be enhanced with the freedom for decision-makers (parents, teachers, educators, etc.)
  • all laws that foster coercion in the system must be abolished (compulsory schooling is a violation of human rights)
  • all optimization decisions in the reform must stem from brain science with prime focus on the power of the learn drive and the natural creativity cycle
  • the reform must return decision-making to local level to avoid the principal-agent problem
  • reform must be incremental due to a high degree of disruption it will entail
  • reform must be evolutionary due to a high degree of uncertainty about handling special cases (e.g. disabilities, pathological families, psychiatric disorders, poverty, violence, etc.)
  • the reform should drive towards the ultimate goal where high-quality education is achieved free of charge
  • in the transition towards the ultimate goal, the well-established tools can be employed: school choice (freedom) and the voucher system (funding)

What next?

If you agree with this text, protect and cherish learning freedoms in your own surroundings. If you disagree, read again!, or just write to me. Angry mail is welcome. Beware though, your words may be quoted!

Further reading