Tyler Cowen's Fixes For America

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I have to say I agree with three out of four of economist and New York Times columnist Tyler Cowen's plans to fix America. But one of them is based on wishful thinking.

Here are the three that I think are a good idea:

Second, we need fundamental entitlement reform toward the goal of limiting government spending...

Third, we still need to shrink the financial sector, which absorbs too much American talent and receives too many government bailouts...

Fourth, our current economy has too much regulation and too much litigation...

You'll notice that list starts with the word "second." My problem is with Cowen's first, and probably least controversial, proposal. I'll quote it in full:

First, our kindergarten through 12 education system has been delivering stagnant results in terms of graduation rates and test scores. That is unacceptable. We can start by instituting procedures to fire the worst school teachers in poorly performing districts. We already know how to do that; it is simply a matter of will.

The idea that our schools are failing is a popular one. But it is largely based on the hidden axiom according to which all students are educable to a high level. There's simply no basis for this assumption.

It is, in fact, demonstrably false. Unfortunately, it is built into our national education system in the form of "No Child Left Behind."

We need to rethink what constitutes a "poorly performing" school district. Our current model of education is a command and control model. Central planners decide what children should be taught and what constitutes success or failure. A more market based education system might look at low scores on math tests as a sign that demand for math skills among students is low. That could be a result in a subjective decision not to learn math, although I suspect this is rarer than commonly supposed. The lack of demand for learning math is likely the result of an actual dearth in intellectual surplus available to "purchase" math skills.

In other words, our schools are failing for the same reason our mortgages are failing. We're in a balance sheet educational recession.

We tried to buy more education than we can afford.

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