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October 21, 2012

Society must invest in human capital

At almost a trillion dollars per year, education is just behind health care and Social Security spending and ahead of defense spending among all government expenditures. Clearly, education is an important public investment.

Last week, I made a claim that surprised me. I often write about the state of education, sometimes from what I know, the university experience, and at other times on kindergarten through secondary education. I lament that education seems run less for what the child wants and more for the needs of the industry of education and its vocal stakeholders.

I was wrong, though. While students are the obvious stakeholder, education is not about them. Nor is it about the various guardians of the institution, the professionals paid to further students’ interests. Now, various interests compete to influence education. Taxpayers are rarely fully included in the discussion.

Historically, lone teachers or professors were the guardians, from a one-room schoolhouse to a Socrates spreading wisdom among his flock. This tradition and model lasted for millennia.

Over the last century or two, education delivery became an industry. No longer was a student’s education determined by a relative few. The industry was run like any institution, with practitioners, managers, funders and parents. Individual students probably had the least say.

Eventually, even individual teachers lost control, with most important decisions left to teacher and faculty unions and senates, administrators, legislators and parents that would try to influence them.

Each of these groups has different objectives, some at odds with each other. One group might want to be paid more and have fewer students, while another might prefer lower pay and larger classes. Lost in the struggle was the individual decision of appropriate pay and the right class size, or, for that matter, the optimal subject matter. Education had become commodified and politicized.

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