Education and Infrastructure
posted by Deven Desai
One way to think about any work is whether it helps understand a range of problems. Brett Frischmann’s Infrastructure does precisely that. Indeed, when done, I was not satisfied, despite the range of topics he addresses, such as roads and transportation, telecommunications, environmental, and intellectual infrastructures. Like a good novel, I wanted more. The framework and ideas Frischmann set out apply to complex problems society faces today. As a good theory and framework should do, Frischmann’s work digs into several areas and cries out for future work. One example that comes to mind is education.
Education has been a crisis issue in the past several decades; Frischmann’s Infrastructure sorts major questions that I believe society misses in this area. An assumption is that education is a public good. Yet, I think we are straying from how we manage such goods. As education seems to be failing, the United States has turned to market solutions. The somewhat standard cry of government mistakes, lack of competition, etc. fit into one model of managing the issue. Yet, as Frischmann explains, education may be understood as a merit good and as such there is a demand side problem: “systematic undervaluation of the merit good in market settings.” (p. 45) I would add that mistakes in proper valuation of education as infrastructure lead to the creation of an education aristocracy that leads to problems of the so-called One Percent type many decry today (but are unwilling to address with tax reform).
Recent evidence from Finland shows that taking an infrastructural approach leads to outcomes that we would want, but currently fail to reach. As the article describes:
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality. … When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.
This approach strikes me as a good example of how thinking in terms of infrastructure, social goods, and externalities (p. 49) allows us to recognize different ways of managing complex societal issues. Furthermore, this example has data behind it. Finland is persistently in the top of PISA scores on language, math, and science. And if one wishes to say that Finland is homogenous, different than the U.S etc. there is a control. Norway went with the American model and did much less well. As the article points out, education is a state policy in the U.S. Some states are smaller and more homogenous than Finland. I suggest that a truly innovative state program would look at such an investment to allow the state a competitive advantage. California was arguably such a state with its plan for undergraduate education until folks, wait for it, undervalued education and stopped paying for it on the broad basis.