I’m currently taking a doctoral level course on education and economics. At our first meeting, the professor (whose PhD is in Economics) noted that the past two decades have seen the increasing influence of economic theory on education policy, with a sharply rising curve in the 21st century. I asked him why he thought that was and he gave me a great (and honest) answer: Economists have better theories. Economic theories have been honed for decades, even centuries, and economists have vastly better and more convincing quantitative tools to measure outputs. Besides, he said, economists think they’re right and tend to be aggressive. Teacher in a Strange Land, January 2007.
Last year, the nation’s most famous economist, Alan Greenspan, admitted that he may have been "partially" wrong in trusting banks to protect their shareholders. Those sharp quantitative tools and rock-solid economic theories crumbled in the face of rampant self-interest. And we've been paying the price in lost trust ever since.
Benjamin Barber, in an eloquent blog on Huffington Post, traces the economic collapse back to lack of trust:
Trust is a crucial form of social capital, a recognition of the common ground on which we stand as citizens. It is the glue that holds rival producers and consumers together and lets them do the business that would otherwise do them in. Whereas the whole point of the market is competition - selfishness and narcissism as self-conscious instruments of market calculation.
Although it was bad loans and greedy bankers and stupid hedge fund managers and ignorant investors who made the mess, it has been four decades of de-democratization that has done the real damage. A hemorrhaging of social capital that nobody noticed because government was supposed to be the problem and markets the solution.
Democracy's real product is trust. As the war on government became a war on democracy it drew down the well of social capital and eroded trust, causing citizens to lose faith in each other and their common power to govern themselves.
Social capital and trust. Can we apply these lessons to our public schools and the barely-breathing ideal of democratic equality in education before they completely implode, too? When people who have resources and power move their own children into sheltered schools—schools they trust—and then use their personal bully pulpit to demean and erode public education, the ultimate outcomes harm us all. It’s not just about my children. It’s about everyone’s children, because we’ll be living on this planet with all of these children for the rest of our lives. And eventually, they’ll be running the show.
One of my favorite books is Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider. Bryk and Schneider, in a series of case studies done in Chicago in 2002, provide convincing data showing significant increases in student achievement—measured by every economist’s favorite tool, standardized tests—when multi-directional trust is present. When teachers trust principals, when parents have confidence in teachers and administrators, when teachers feel free to take risks in improving their practice—student learning and school operations improve. It’s as simple as that.
Our national values are spread out before us for re-examination. Individual gain vs. public good? Free markets vs. effective regulation? Me and mine vs. you and yours.