The Political Economy of Education Reform

To understand the education reform in the United States, keep one thing in mind

We judge ourselves by our intentions, and everyone else by their actions

With this truism, you can see past the anguish and propaganda, and see the education reform debate clearly for the first time.


People see their successes, and they see the good they do. More than this, they see the good they intend to do, if it were not thwarted by others, or by political necessity, or the pressures of the moment. The major forces relevant to education reform, and the good they intend to do, are as follows

  • Teachers forgo higher paying careers to nurture young. It is unfair, of course, to expect teachers to willingly teach at bad schools, so teachers try their best to teach at good schools. Publishers intend to give the young a well-rounded education, to often save them from bad environments, and to teach them how to learn on their own. Their intentions can be thwarted by nonsensical regulations, overbearing administrators, and social factors. It is only fair that teachers have due process, tenure comfortable salaries, substantial time off, respect as professionals, and so on.
  • Publishers are in the business of transmitting knowledge on the written (and now electronic!) page at scale, a spirit-liberating calling that has been celebrated since Gutenberg. It is unfair, of course, to expect publishers to lose money in their calling, so they naturally tend towards profitable sectors. Teachers intend to give the young a well-rounded education, to often save them from bad environments, and to teach them how to learn on their own. Their intentions can be thwarted by nonsensical regulations, overbearing publishers, and social factors. It is only fair that publishers have healthy margins, growth business opportunities, the ability to lock-in long-term contracts, and so on.
  • States are the essence of American democracy. It is unfair, of course, to expect States to surrender the powers they retain to people who have never won elections. States intend to give the young a well-rounded education, to often save them from bad environments, and to teach them how to learn on their own. Their intentions can be thwarted by nonsensical federal regulations, overbearing voters, and social factors. It is only fair that States be immune for their actions, maintain independence from the federal government, and to be able to control the legally-created ‘creatures’ (local elected bodies and incorporated businesses) within their borders.
  • Large-scale Consumers of Educated Workers are the future of the American economy. It is unfair, of course, to expect these Consumers publishers to lose money in their calling, so they naturally tend toward hiering workers educated at public expense. Large-scale Consumers intend to revolutionize business-processes around the world through creating the careers of the future. Their intentions can be thwarted by nonsensical regulations, incompetent suppliers, and social factors. It is only fair that Large-Scale Consumers be able to inexpensively higher workers in order to provide high Return on Capital with regards to labor, however that return is measured.
  • The Federal-Academic Complex provides the largest mass of individuals who are professionally bound to consider systematic reasons for the success and failure of American education in the country. It is unfair, of course, to expect the Complex to operate without the ability to influence the practice of education. The Complex intends to use the latest scientific techniques to understand what a good education is, and how education quality in general can increase. Their intentions can be thwarted by nonsensical regulations, overbearing pre-existing stakeholders, and social factors. It is only fair that those in the Complex have due process, tenure comfortable salaries, substantial time off, respect as professionals, and so on.

Almost everything you read about education reform comes from one of these communities. Therefore, almost everything you read expresses the interests of one of these community. Members of each community judge themselves by their intentions, and each other by their actions.

Note that “Parents” aren’t in this list of stake-holders. The view education as a transient cost and risk center, not an essential part of life. As such, while Publishers, States, Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers, and the Federal-Academic Complex care deeply about education, High- and middle-income parents in general are happy with “good school” districts with small numbers of poor people and non-Asian minorities. Low-income parents are politically powerless anyway, and are irrelevant to a discussion of important stakeholders.

8 thoughts on “The Political Economy of Education Reform”

  1. “Note that “Parents” aren’t in this list of stake-holders. The view education as a transient cost and risk center, not an essential part of life.”

    Except, of course, when they do view it as essential–for their own offspring, at least. The Man-bites-dog stories papers like the Times publish about parents obsessing over the right pre-school for their kids (so they can get into the right elementary school, so they can get into the right . . .) are a case in point.

    But that’s a quibble. My bigger thought is wondering if your work at MS gives you cheep or free access to Visio so you can illustrate these conflicting viewpoints graphically.

  2. Hey Michael,

    Middle and high class parents have very easy requirements to meet — that their children are not screwed-up. [1]

    Amusing story of Manhattanites obsessing over which school their children go to (above & beyond just paying for a good one) are amusing because they are so far out of our lived experiences.

    These posts are written on a couch while I visit my family — though in the past my diagrams were done all with open source software (ex: [2,3]) 🙂

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/28/they-want-money.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/11/30/inside-the-black-gangster-disciple-nation-crack-cocaine-gang-corporation.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/07/10/jesusism-paulism-part-ii-caiaphas-and-diocletian-did-know-better.html

  3. I would add to parents as stakeholders taxpayers. Not all taxpayers are parents but taxpayers have a vested interest in good educational outcomes.
    chris christie used a phrase a couple of weeks ago that applies here: parents and taxpayers (this is not exactly right) are the victims of these stakeholders.

  4. Kim,

    You’re absolutely correct that parents should be on the list. I think we’re on the same wavelength. 🙂

    Since this post I’ve added parents as a stakeholder who, along with employers, are focused on the results of the childcare service provided by schools. [1] The Federal-Academic Complex is almost a meta-interest, which sits in the middle of the process [2], a position the teachers front organizations used to hold [3,4].

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/28/they-want-money.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/30/the-bank-of-the-federal-academic-complex.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2012/01/10/how-to-be-a-central-actor-in-the-education-debate.html
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2012/01/14/how-platform-monopolies-fail.html

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