Creating a Culture of Education (Part 4): The Government’s Role

In order to address 21st century needs, this 5-part series explores the need to create a “culture of education” in the U.S. amid the misguided clamor for accountability and market-based reforms that merely distract from real changes. Part 1 addressed the importance of four interdependent components in building a culture of education in the United States: school; parents/family; government; and community. Part 2 asked why there is so little discussion of parent accountability in education reform. Part 3 reflects on the importance of community and culture. Part 4 will emphasize the need for the government to change existing social policies to make it easier for families to emphasize education.

In a culture of education, the school, family, community, and government need to work cooperatively — one aspect working without the other three can only improve learning and education by so much. Currently, policymakers have been consumed with piecemeal efforts like teacher accountability, putting millions of dollars into research and systems that determine the teachers’ effectiveness on student achievement. No doubt the teaching profession need continual improvements, but not at the expense of developing students and family. The government will need to be a big part of that, but not in the way they have been currently operating.

Right now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other accountability hawks have created a culture that encourage market-based solutions to public problems. What’s wrong with that? Essentially, a market-based mentality will always result in clear winners and losers in a system that claims to leave NO child behind. The “losers” will be the same as the ones before — the poor and the disadvantaged. Activist Joanne Barkan wrote a comprehensive indictment of the current trend of market-based reforms in her article entitled Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy.

So what should the federal and state government’s role be in education reform? Simply to create social structures that facilitate family commitment to education.

This, on top of regulating fairness and uniformity. As I mentioned in Part 3, there is too much “noise” in society that distract families and students (especially the disadvantaged) from focusing on their education; the American popular culture of excess — from entertainment to foods — drowns out priorities.

Here the government must counteract such competing interests through robust family policies on a broad social as well as a tactical level in order to emphasize a culture of education. Unfortunately, our policies are less “pro-family” than those in other developed countries. (See chart below)

The unpaid time American parents are allowed to take off from work takes an economic and psychological toll that cripple their ability to prepare school-ready children – particularly the at-risk parents. Same with early child care and sick leave. Simply put, the more family-friendly the policies, the less parents need to worry about survival, and the more they can nurture a school-ready environment for their child. Other tactical policies need to continue encouraging and rewarding pro-education behavior. This includes incentivized tax-breaks and deep discounts for ALL:

  • Books, supplies, and uniforms
  • Educational shows and performances
  • Private tutoring and other educational supplements

Sustained government action will help to create this culture of education, supported by family, school, and community accountability. The key to building momentum is not by trying to change people’s behavior through nanny state policies (i.e., trying to do what’s best for you); but rather, to understand how people are and change their default behavior by providing better, more attractive choices.

Don’t take away the french fries, just put it in the back.

This means that the government rewards good behavior without encouraging the bad. Look no further than how the government subsidizes certain agricultural crops. Corn is heavily subsidized, which dramatically decreases the cost of manufacturing snack foods and soda that has played a role in the obesity epidemic (particularly among those in poverty). “We have made it more expensive to eat in a very big way, ” says Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition and agricultural economics at UNC and author of The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race. “If we cut the subsidy on whole milk and made it cheaper only to drink low-fat milk, people would switch to it and it would save a lot of calories” (excerpted from Fixing a World That Fosters Fat). Make no mistake, choice architecture has a stronger influence over the health (or education) of a nation than outright mandates.

Imagine the impact if our elected officials apply these subsidies in education. If a parent could take her 10 year-old child to see March of the Penguins, a highly-acclaimed documentary for $5, or see The Dark Knight for the regular-priced $13 (in NYC), which would they go see? On the whole there would be a lot less tendency to see the latter. Now multiply that by ten movies a year for all families, and the difference across the nation would be staggering. This idea can be applied to not just families, but even businesses:

What if natural whole foods like fruits were heavily subsidized? Cheetos would be more expensive than a pound of apples. The implications for the health of the poor would be immense.

What if the government subsidized the production of educational entertainment? More studios would produce them.

What if they subsidized the manufacturing of educational computer games? The educational market would be saturated more software games like I Love Science and less Guitar Hero.

The net effect would be to marginalize less-educational offerings without trampling over free choice, but the biggest gain would be the gradual change in a society towards education. Families would be more apt to consume educational goods instead of being influenced by the whims of popular culture and the market. They just need a little nudge, as I wrote more about in my post, Willing Ourselves to Change Won’t Work. By investing in the family (as opposed to teachers and accountability), the government would have a more meaningful and long term impact on education in the U.S.

4 thoughts on “Creating a Culture of Education (Part 4): The Government’s Role

  1. The idea of government changing its role to be more about developing families is intriguing and not necessarily new, but deserves to be heard. In the long run, we need to invest in families and parents, but I don’t think the current accountability movement fueled by billionnaire philanthropists, and Arne Duncan, Gov Christie, Michelle Rhee, and other accountability folks will ever move in that direction!

    1. I agree it doesn’t look good for us. But the point of this blog is to put it out there in the public forum, so that it has a chance to gain traction. Hopefully such ideas can gain critical mass. Thanks for commenting.

  2. “Educational” TV and radio were created just for this reason. Museums, plays and concerts ought to be subsidized as well. It now costs $12 to $20 to go to a museum, even for students. Employees of corporations get in free. It is a crime.

    1. Good point – all types of media – documentaries, museums, concerts of an “educational” nature should be subsidized as a way to induce this “culture of education.” And it needs to be well publicized.

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