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The most ridiculous metaphor of education courtesy of an economics professor

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Acclaimed academics have policy agendas just like anybody else. And often they let them interfere with a straightforward critical analysis of their output. The monumental capacity for blindness of highly intelligent people  is sometimes staggering. Metaphors and analogies (same thing for metaphor hacking) make thinkers particularly prone to mis-projection blindness. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics prof, is just the latest in the long line of economists and blowhards, who think they have the education system licked by comparing it to some -free market gimmick. They generally reveal that they know or care precious little about the full extent of the processes involved in the market and Glaeser is a shining example of this. His analogy is so preposterous and only needs so little thought to break down, I can’t believe he didn’t take a few minutes to to do it himself. Well, actually, I can believe it. It’s pretty,  neat and seductive. So who cares that it is pure non-sense. Here’s what he said:

Why Cities Rock | Freakonomics Radio: I want you to just imagine if for example, instead of having a New York restaurant scene that was dominated by private entrepreneurs who competed wildly with each other trying to come up with new, new things. The bad restaurants collapse; the good restaurants go on to cooking show fame. You have these powerful forces of competition and innovation working. Imagine instead if there was a food superintendent who operated a system of canteens where the menus were decided at the local level, and every New Yorker had to eat in these canteens. Well, the food would be awful. And that’s kind of what we decided to do with schooling. Instead of harnessing the urban ability to provide innovation, competition, new entry, we’ve put together a system where we’ve turn all that stuff off, and we’ve allowed only a huge advantage for a local, public monopoly. It’s very, very difficult to fix this. I think the most hopeful signs, and there’s been as you know a steady stream of economics papers on this, the most hopeful signs I think are coming from charter schools, which are particularly effective in urban areas. And it’s not so much that the average charter school is so much better than the average public school, but rather that in charter schools, because they can go bankrupt, because the can fail, the good ones will succeed, and the bad ones will drop out of the market. And certainly we’ve seen lots of great randomized studies that have shown the ability of charters to deliver great test score results.

As we know, metaphors (and their ilk) rely on projections from one domain to another. Generative metaphor (of which this is one) then try to base a solution on a new domain which is the result of the blending of the source domain.

So this is how Glaser envisions the domain of New York restaurants: there is competition, which drives up the quality of the food (note that he didn’t mention driving down prices, lowering expense per unit, and other tricks used by ‘wildly competing entrepreneurs’). Restaurateurs and chefs must strive to provide better food than others because there is so much choice, people will flock to their competitors for the better food.

This is how he wants to project it into schooling: give people more choice (and means to exercise that choice by using the intra city’s short commutes) and this will result in competition, the competition will increase experimentation and as a result the quality of education goes up. He also mentions test scores at the end but these have little to do with education (but why should somebody at Harvard know that?).

Of course, he makes most of the argument through a reverse projection, where he asks us to imagine what the New York restaurants would look like if they were run like a centralized public school system. He envisions the end process as similar to Apple’s 1984 commercial: a sea of bland canteens with awful food. But this is just so much elitist blather. Glaeser should be ashamed of himself for not thinking this through.

First, what he describes is only true of the top tier of New York restaurants. The sort of places the upper-middle glass go to because of a review on Yelp. The majority of places where New Yorkers (and people everywhere) eat their lunches and the occasional dinner are either real canteens, some local greasy spoon, or a chain that makes its consistent prices and dining experiences possible through resolute mediocrity. The Zagat guide is for special occasions, not daily nutrition.

Second, Glaser never asks how this maps onto schooling or education, in general. Probably because the answer would be that it doesn’t. Glaeser certainly refused to say anything useful about his analogy. He went far enough to promote his shallow ideology and stopped while the stopping was good. Let’s look at a few possible mappings and see how we fare.

So first we have the quality of the food. This would seem to map quite nicely onto quality of education. But it doesn’t. Or at least not in the way Gleaeser and his like would like.  Quality of the food that can impact on competition is a surface property. We cannot also always trust people that they can judge the quality apart from the decor of the restaurant or its reputation – just like with wine, they are very likely to judge the quality based on a  review or the recommendation of a trusted acquaintance. In Glaeser’s analogy, we’re not really talking about the quality of food but the quality of the dining experience. And if we project this onto the quality of a school, we’re only increasing the scope of the problem. No matter how limited and unreliable, we can at least judge the quality of the overall dining experience by our own reaction to our experience. But with schools, the experience is mediated through the child and the most important criterion of quality – viz an educated human being at the end – is deferred until long after the decision on quality has been made. It’s like judging the quality of a restaurant we go to for an anniversary dinner by whether we will be healthy in 5 years. Of course, we can force such judgements but arbitrarily ranking schools based on a single number – like the disastrous UK league tables that haven’t improved the education of a single child but made a lot of people extremely anxious.

The top restaurants (where the competition makes a difference) don’t look at food from the perspective of what matters for life, namely nutrition. It’s quite likely the most popular restaurants don’t serve anything particularly healthy or prepared with regard to the environmental impact. Quality is only important to them as one of many competitive advantage. They also use a number of tricks to make the dining experience better – cheat on ingredients, serve small portions on large plates, etc. They rely on ‘secret recipes’ – the last thing we want to see in education. And this is exactly the experience of schools that compete in the market. They fudge, cheat and flat out lie to protect their competitive advantage.  They provide the minimum of education that they can get away with to look good. Glaeser also conveniently forgets that there is a huge amount of centralized oversight of New York restaurants – much more, in some ways, than on charter schools. Quality is only one of the results of rampant competition and oversight is necessary to protect consumers. This is much more important in schools than in restaurants (but it almost seems that restaurants have more of it, than schools – proportionally to their importance).

But that is only one part of this important mismapping, which is the process of competition. Many economists forget that the market forces don’t work on their own. They work off the backs of the cheated and underserved. Bad restaurants don’t go out of business by some market magic. They go out of business because enough people ate there and were cheated, served bad food or almost got poisoned. And this experience had to have been bad enough for them to talk about it and dissuade others from visiting. With restaurants the individual cost is relatively minor (at least for those comfortably off). You have to contribute one or two bad meals or ruined evenings a year to keep the invisible hand doing its business among the chefs of New York. (This could be significant to someone who only goes out once every few months but still something you can get over.) Also the cost of making a choice is virtually nill. It takes no effort to go to a different restaurant or to choose to eat at home. Except for the small risk of food poisoning, you’ve made no investment in your choice and the potential loss is minimal.

However, in the case of schooling, you’re making a long-term commitment (at least a semester or a year but most likely at least four years). You can shrug off a bad meal but what about a wasted half-a-decade of your child’s life? Or what if you enrolled your child in the educational equivalent of Burger King serving nothing but giant whoppers. Everything seems fine all along but the results are clogged intellectual arteries. Also the costs of a school going out of business (and here Glaeser is one of the honest few that admit to bankrupt schools as a desirable outcome of competition in education) are exceedingly high. Both financial and emotional. Let’s say a school goes out of business and a poor parent has invested in books, school uniform and transportation choice only to have to start this again in a new school. Or how about the toll that making new friends, getting used to new teachers, etc. takes on a child. How many ruined childhoods is Glaeser willing to accept for the benefits of his ideology? As far as I know, the churn among New York restaurants is quite significant – could the education system sustain 10% or even 1% of schools going out of business every year.

And more importantly what about great schools going out of business because of financial mismanagement of capitalist wannabes? Not all market failures (maybe even not most) are due to low quality. Bad timing, ruthless competition, impatient investors and insufficient growth have killed many a great product. How many great schools would succumb to one of these? And won’t we see the same race to mediocrity once the ‘safe middle ground’ of survival is discovered? How many schools will take on the risk of innovation in the face of relentless market pressures? For a Chef, one bad recipe is just a learning experience. For a school, one unsuccessful innovation can lead to absolute disaster.

But all that is assuming that we can even map the “quality of education” onto quality in any sphere of commercial activity whatsoever. What business do you get a product or service from for four or eight years that requires a daily performance of a complex and variable task such as caring for and educating a young person is? Not your electricity provider who provides a constant but a non-variable service, nor your medical care provider who offers a variable but only periodical service. Also, “the consumers of education’s” requirements keep changing over time. They may have wanted a rounded and fulfilling education for their child at the start but just want them to get to university at the end. You can measure quality by test scores or graduation rates but that still doesn’t guarantee success for roughly 10-20% of students even in the best of schools.

To conclude, fine food plays a role in the prosperity of restaurants but so does convenience and habit. The quality of education is too complex to map successfully on the quality of food (and possibly any single commercial product). And even if that was possible, the cost of making the market forces work is incomparably higher in education than in dining. Glaeser’s proposed model for reform is just as likely to produce pinnacles of excellence as ruthlessly competitive MacDonald’s-like chains of garbage.

There’s nothing wrong with using metaphors to try to look for ways to improve education. But generally, these should be very local rather than global and always have their limits carefully investigated. That means detailed understanding of both domains and meticulous mappings between them as well as the relationships between them. Not all mappings need to be perfect and some need not be there at all (for instance, computer virus is still useful metaphor even though it doesn’t spread through the air), but this should be done consciously and with care. Steve Jones once said of evolution that metaphor is to it like bird excrement is to statues. The same often goes for education, but it doesn’t have to.

Finally, this analysis didn’t necessarily imply that the current system is the best there can be or that it is even any good (although I think it’s pretty good). Just that reforming it based on this cock-a-maney metaphor could be extremely dangerous. New solutions must ultimately be judged on their own merit but with the many market metaphors, very many their merit is irretrievably tied to the power of the initial metaphor and not any intrinsic solution.

UPDATE: It seems I may have a been a bit too harsh on Glaeser. Obsevational Epidemiology posts this quote form his book (the one he was promoting on the Freakonomics podcast):

All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting things as they are or by mindlessly relying on the free market.

Ok, so he’s not just a mindless free-marketeer. So why on earth would he suggest the above as a suitable metaphor to base educational reform on?

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