Can Political Leaders Find the Courage to Liberate Education?

Published July 1, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a seven-part series showing why charter schools do not have the freedom needed to create significant educational improvements through innovation.

Educational innovations leading to performance improvements were the goal of introducing school choice in the first place. It is possible that if Moreno Valley High School (MVHS)–a charter school in Angel Fire, New Mexico–had replicated its program across the state, SAT scores and AP enrollment statewide might have increased as additional Socratic Practice charter schools opened, staffed by faculty trained at the proposed MVHS Socratic Practice teacher training center.

Over the course of a decade or two, New Mexico might plausibly have moved from 50th in the nation educationally into the top 10. At MVHS, Socratic Practice programs have resulted in 120 point average annual gains on the SAT, compared to 40 point average annual gains for the United States as a whole, according to The College Board.

Legions of students currently incapable of college-level work, with SAT verbal scores below 300, could become legions of students with SAT verbal scores above 500, higher than the average entering college freshman’s. New Mexico could have the highest percentage of students taking AP courses of any state in the nation.

Why accept failure? If indeed MVHS has such a good program, why can’t the state replicate it statewide and reap the benefits of its innovative program?

Blocking the Way

Note the obstacles to such an approach:

  • Exactly the same program is perceived to be excellent by some, educational malpractice by others.
  • Although some parents, students, and educators love the program, the state regards it as largely a failing program due to noncompliance with regulations.
  • The program, despite its solid, measurable achievements, is similar to progressive pedagogies with a long history of failure and little documented success outside of MVHS and a limited track record even there. It is not a “research-based” reform.
  • In order for the program to be successful, it must be staffed and supervised by expert, highly intelligent Socratic educators, most of whom are not state-licensed and who must be trained in an institution that does not yet exist and if it did, would be completely outside the official university credentialing system and therefore an affront and a threat to that system.

Staking Careers on Change

In short, though some parents and educators are willing to stake their children’s education and livelihoods, respectively, on this program, it is unlikely that bureaucrats and politicians, who must answer to majorities, media, and opponents, would stake their careers on it. It is just too controversial and too risky.

In addition, insofar as MVHS is staffed by non-credentialed personnel and uses an approach that does not teach to state standards, the public education establishment has both the incentive and the ammunition to undermine support for such a program.

Seeing Like Bureaucrats

Learning to “see like a state” means learning to see like the politicians and bureaucrats who constitute the state. To achieve political success, it is crucial to appear to be a leader, on the one hand, and to avoid appearing to be responsible for highly publicized disasters, on the other. Both President George W. Bush, with No Child Left Behind, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), with his reform program that required all charter school personnel to be licensed, were able to portray themselves as strong, assertive leaders in educational policy.

In the hunter/gatherer communities in which humans evolved, the decisive leader was the good leader. A politician who supports diverse experiments, especially in an area of such importance as education, is apt to appear weak.

Worse yet, if some of those educational experiments fail due to “inadequate” regulatory oversight, the media and the politician’s opponents will blame the politician for allowing the failure to happen. Therefore it is much safer to support tightly regulated programs than to support diverse experimentation.

We are all constantly impressed by the world of technological innovation. Read Wired, Technology Review, Popular Science, or Popular Mechanics, or visit Sharper Image or Radio Shack, to be dazzled by the rate of technological change. But the road to the dynamism of the world of technology is paved with untold numbers of failed experiments, failed technicians, failed entrepreneurs, and failed companies.

Experimenting with Children

Critics of school choice sometimes indignantly claim that the public task of educating children is too important to be allowed to a chaotic marketplace in which schools operated by uncredentialed amateurs might fail. But without experimentation, great innovations will not come into being.

Because of the policies supported through the responsible leadership of Bush, Richardson, and the New Mexico Department of Education, MVHS is now on track to be a successful school in the eyes of the State of New Mexico.

The same parties are also responsible for ensuring that New Mexico will likely remain among the poorest and educationally lowest-achieving states in the nation during the coming decades.

Demanding Freedom

Freedom is a prerequisite for innovation in every field of human endeavor. Silicon Valley, “the greatest legal creation of wealth in human history,” was created out of math, sand, and freedom. The Soviet Union had the best mathematicians on Earth and plenty of sand, but in the absence of freedom they were unable to produce innovative information technology. By the mid-1980s, any decent university in the United States had more computing power than the entire Soviet Union.

If we want to create the greatest development of human intellectual power in human history, we will have to allow for much greater educational freedom.

As long as we are led by “responsible political leaders,” regardless of political party, who protect the public from educational malpractice, we will never have amazingly good schools. Until the public supports politicians in liberating education from state control, regardless of whether that means we’ll have public schools, charter schools, vouchers, or tax credits, risk-averse politicians will be forced by the public to support “responsible” policies that prevent innovation and thereby ensure mediocrity.

Michael Strong ([email protected]) is CEO and chief visionary officer of FLOW, Inc. (, a group working to achieve world peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability in 50 years.

For more information …

The College Board’s “Retaking the Test” report is available online at