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The Music Man and Public Education

The Music Man and Public Education

Anyone remember the 1962 musical The Music Man?  It provided a lot of rousing music for kids in band.  But there were a couple deeper stories.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbiBx5T2uX0

At one level, it was a story about a con man, a grifter who traveled from town to town selling band instruments, uniforms and music.  Once the sale was made, we has on his way to the next mark.

At another level, it described public entertainment in the growing US the second half of the 19th Century.  Community bands and theater troupes were the entertainment.  The bands were made up of locals, some of them quite accomplished, and they all played the same music.

Question is why did that primary form of entertainment go away?  The answer would be Thomas Alva Edison, who invented the ability to bring every single American the ability to see and listen to world class performances by world class entertainers.  He did it by inventing the ability to record sound and video.  This invention killed the community bands as primary entertainment.  They exist today as a vehicle for those participating to learn music, performance art, and how to play their chosen instrument.  Where did all the performers go?  99% went on to other pursuits.

Here in the US today, we are on the cusp of a similar revolution in education at all levels, as the ability to create and save world class courses presented by world class educators is rapidly changing the education business.  Add to that technologies created by the gaming community for real time feedback and virtual reality, and we have the ability to educate anyone to a high level for pennies on the current dollar.

This revolution in online and distance education is already making its way through the economy via online college coursework.  A significant amount of IT education is already online.  There are commercial companies like the Great Courses that have built a very nice business selling world class coursework to people who last attended formal schooling decades ago.  https://www.thegreatcourses.com/

Here in Alaska, we have demonstrated for decades that per student spending is a negative indicator of successful education.  The homeschoolers who spend a few thousands have superior performance on average over public school attendees who are getting tens of thousands of dollars per student per year spent on them.  The very worst performers are sadly, students in Bush schools that are still more expensive.

From this, we see that the closer the control of education dollars is to the student, the better the education outcome is going to be.  And we Alaskans have been proving this for decades.

So, what to do about this?

The first thing is not to put fingers in collective ears and sing “La, la, la, la, la.”  This is what Alaskan commercial fishermen did 30 years ago when they banned fish farming for salmon in Alaska.  It was a protective measure that simply made Alaska commercial fishermen noncompetitive in the worldwide marketplace.  And that intentional lack of participation in the marketplace is crushing their businesses via simple economics.  https://craigmedred.news/2017/08/07/bad-news-salmon/

I believe the same thing is going to happen in the education world if we keep on doing what we are doing.  This time, though, it won’t be noncompetitive businesses crushed by simple economics.  Rather, it will be our children who will not be competitive in the worldwide marketplace.  And they will have to do some serious catching up during the years after they graduate.

Keep this in mind when you listen to the caterwauling over budget cuts to education in the Dunleavy budget.  We can keep on doing the same thing, engaging in increasingly bitter fights over a diminishing pot of money.  Or we can figure out how to apply the new technologies in a way most appropriate to what we do here in Alaska.

Spending world class dollar amounts per student is not getting world class results.  Perhaps it is time to figure out a better way to get this done.  I would suggest that online / distance education and vouchers are in our very near future.  So are 50% budget cuts in education at all levels.


Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He is a small business owner and Information Technology professional.



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