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Some Thoughts on Responsibility - Elizabeth Unexplained
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Some Thoughts on Responsibility
I really owe people a follow up on my recent poll. You've probably all been wondering why I was thinking about benefiting from responsible choices verses the obvious opposite of suffering the consequences of poor choices. I've been thinking about it off and on for many months now. The whole mortgage bailout fiasco came up in the discussion, and certainly that was part of why I was thinking along these lines, but the thing that made me really sit up and say to myself, 'what the heck, do some of my friends just not care about responsibility at all,' was some discussion about school choice & education reform.

First a brief bit on why I think responsibility is important. As tirinian pointed out, I phrased the question at one extreme. Really, there is a spectrum from wanting people to get all the benefits and/or consequences from their decisions and wanting them to get none of the benefits and/or consequences from their decisions. I fall towards the end where people get to realize most of the benefits of good decisions but have less safety net. I think having to live with the consequences of your actions is the best way to promote better decision making, and I think the world could do with a lot of better decision making. I think many of my friends have a somewhat sunnier outlook on human nature than I do and seem to assume that people will do the right thing even if there are few consequences for doing the wrong thing. While it may be true for our tiny little peer group, I'm pretty sure it is not for society at large. In fact, I'm pretty sure that one of the main reasons why communism failed is because workers all earned the same no matter how well they worked, and that lead to people doing lousy jobs all over. I'm all for a society in general where people have an incentive to make better decisions and do a better job. Also, we do have a robust insurance systems for mitigating some common forms of risk, for example buying life insurance so your kids don't become destitute if you are hit by a bus, so I think there is less room for worrying about catastrophic bad luck than some people might think.

So, you might wonder what it was about the school discussion that got me worked up. Well, with two small kids, thinking about future schooling is a big deal for me right now. I think a big part of it was a difference in point of view between myself and others who were commenting. I have kids, and a substantial number of my friends do not. I was approaching the discussion as a parent, and I think my childless friends would approach the discussion from the point of view of either the children or teachers. I think we also have had different experiences with schools. The result is a major disjoint in how we see the subject of school reform.

After quite a bit of trying I am now the parent of two little children. Some day I am going to send them to school, probably. If life were a roleplaying game and you managed to steal my character sheet and read it, you would discover that at this point my primary game goal is to insure that my children grow up happy and healthy and go one to be good and successful adults who will hopefully produce a number of grandchildren. I assume that most (but not all) parents also have this goal at least on their radar screen. My own parents encouraged me by reading to me from a young age, and I watched a lot of Sesame Street as a preschooler. I arrived at school with basic numeracy skills and a very firm knowledge of the alphabet. Our school district was OK. It wasn't great, but it was in the suburbs at least. Certainly I was terribly bored for most of my schooling. I've had some contact with folks from the pre-MIT era via Facebook, and I'm sure they can attest to the reading under your desk because you were that bored, not needing to pay attention for more than the first five minutes of math, blah blah blah. Honestly, it wasn't terrible and there were a few AP classes, but thank goodness I learned a whole bunch of stuff on my own. I'd say I arrived at MIT at a disadvantage to those who had college educated parents and came from better schools, but it was not insurmountable. Still, I'd say I learned maybe 20% of what I arrived at MIT knowing in school, the rest was from my parents or just doing stuff on my own. When it comes to my own kids, I am assuming that I will have to teach them the basic literacy and numeracy skills before they get to school. We've already started with Margaret. I assume that even a good public school will at best offer them a flawed approach to the basics, and I am going to have do a lot of enrichment on my own. If nothing changes I'm not even sure I want to send my kids to public school; basically I see it as free babysitting with a side of education unless things change.

I would like for public schools to be better. I would also like to win the lottery, and hey while we're talking pie-in-the-sky options a spontaneous pregnancy would be nice a little over a year from now. Under the current system I think that throwing more money at the public schools is not the answer. Given politics and special interests and teachers unions (I'm very anti-union, ask me why if you care), I think that adding more money to the current system will at best only result in marginal improvements. People do note that richer school districts have students who tend to score higher on standardized tests, but I think that's largely due to having better educated parents, not that the schools necessarily do a substantially better job of educating the kids. So, given that I think the current system can't be fixed just by money, other ideas like charter schools and voucher systems are very appealing to me. I'd love to shop around for the best school I can find for my kids. It might even be that the best school for Margaret is not the best school for Duncan. If I could get better schools by shopping around, maybe when my kids get to college they'll have learned 40% of what they know in school. Wouldn't that be cool. Also, if we had a different system in place where good schools were rewarded there may be more good schools and things would be better for everyone.

Of course the objection that gets raised by people are against school vouchers is that if we go to vouchers then those poor kids whose parents don't give a damn will be the only ones who are stuck in the bad schools, schools that will be even worse because they will have less money. Well, that is a potential problem, and ideally a voucher system would have some point at which a school would have to be declared to go out of business if it looses a certain percentage of it's kids in order for such a system to work. I'd like to think that enough parents care about their kids that such a system would work reasonably well and no one would get stuck in the worst schools for long. Even when you bring this up closing schools that loose too much business they still oppose vouchers; I guess they think there are enough bad parents out there that the bad schools wouldn't lose enough pupils to get closed down. Basically as a parent I hear this argument as, "Because there are bad parents out there the kids of good parents have to be dragged down to their level." Actually, a lot of talk about education sounds that way to me. 'Oh, these kids are doing poorly, we need to spend the money we have on them instead of on the kids who are doing well.' (I'm tempted to draw some parallel here about how silly it would be to take your money out of a company that was performing well and invest it in one that made an inferior product, but perhaps that would be useless in a time when the government owns a huge share of two car companies that seem to have a problem making cars that people want to buy.) I would like the think that the people who are against vouchers and such are just so worried about the welfare of those poor students with disinterested parents that they just don't realize what they are saying to those of us who do give a damn about our kids' education.

I do understand about being concerned about the children of the irresponsible parents. After all, it's not their fault. The thing is, the world is not a fair place. I understand that if you're the poor child of a single parent who doesn't look out for you and your school is sub-par life is going to be tough for you. The thing is, that describes the situation that both of my parents grew up in, so it is not a bar to success in life, and while it might mean that the disadvantages kid doesn't go to college, if they work hard they can send their own kids to college, maybe even a really good one. Everyone in this country does have access to opportunity. It's not a level playing field, but everyone does have some access to education, no matter what. I think trying to make the world a little bit fairer is a good goal, but trying to force the world to be fair is not. For example, a free education for everyone through grade 12 is a good thing. If you said that you shouldn't do that because the rich kids would live in better school districts, that would be a bad thing. If you said that we should only educate the kids who have uneducated parents because the educated parents will teach their own kids and be at an advantage, that would not be productive. I think that vouchers would actually help most poor families. I think they would help most families in general, and it's irritating to get as the argument against them the fact that we need to protect the irresponsible from the consequences of their irresponsibility.

What kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where we just assume that people can't do fourth grade math and figure out that they can't afford a certain mortgage? Personally I'd prefer a society where people read the fine print before signing something; if more people had there wouldn't have been so many brokers getting rich on bad mortgages. I'd like to live in a society where parents consider it their duty to make sure their kids are getting an education. I'd like a society where people who work hard get to keep more of their money, and I'd like one where people are encouraged to behave prudently because prudent behaviour will go a whole lot farther than government regulation when it comes to keeping things running well.
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firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 15th, 2010 12:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think this issue in particular is one where your original question might be more accurately phrased as "Do you think it is preferable for people whose parents make responsible choices to benefit from those choices in some way that people whose parents make less responsible choices do not?" People's answers still might be the same, of course, but I think it makes it clearer why many people have a desire to buffer bad choices.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: April 15th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think whether or not your version of the question seems more accurate depends on your point of view. I see my kids getting a better education as a win for me. As I stated, my primary goal in life at this point is to make them happy and successful. If I make responsible choices about there education then I benefit, or not depending on whether responsible choices are rewarded.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 15th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not claiming that you don't have an interest in the matter, I'm claiming that your kids do too, and that it's a more significant interest than yours.

In particular, if you were to not care at all what happened to them, so their happiness was *not* a game goal of yours, then it's a question of their benefit and their suffering due to your choices, even if you don't benefit or suffer at all.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: April 15th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
My interest is not entirely due to my caring. If my kids grow up to be successful they will be more likely to be able to take care of me in my old age should I need it. This is true whether or not I care about their education or not. Of course my kids do have an interest in the matter, but I don't think it's so much more overwhelming than mine that you can just confidently claim it is more significant than mine without any discussion.

I do understand why people want to buffer bad choices. I am not opposed to some buffer. What I don't want is so much buffer that it means my interests and the interests of my kids are practically ignored in order to provide that buffer.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 16th, 2010 01:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Can you say why parents who didn't care about their kids at all would have them in the first place - and not give them up for adoption?
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 16th, 2010 02:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Like the question of "Why is there evil in the world?" I cannot give a *good* reason for why there are bad parents. My little understanding of the matter is that people with inept or abusive parents often grow up to be inept or abusive parents themselves.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 17th, 2010 03:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, we're talking about bad parents. I think most bad parents do actually care about their kids, they just don't know how to do anything for them, or do it wrong. I don't have strong evidence for that, though.
enugent From: enugent Date: April 16th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
The simplest explanation is unintentional pregnancy combined with a fear of social stigma of "giving up your children". Another possibility is that some parents are very fond of the baby stage, but do not really care for older kids. When the older kid gets too old to be interesting, they have another baby.

I also note that firstfrost didn't say that Elizabeth didn't have an interest - just that her children had a greater interest. Given that Elizabeth's interest is almost entirely derivative (the only direct benefit to herself that I can think of is the opportunity to socialize with other parents at the "better" school), I think that's self-evidently true.
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 17th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I was just addressing the hypothetical "if you were to not care at all" part.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 19th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have been guessing, perhaps mistakenly, that the the parents making "irresponsible decisions" are assumed to be doing so because they don't care as much about making decisions responsibly, rather than from a deliberate intention to harm their children, and I was trying to stay within those ground rules.

I suppose I should ask if you can say why if someone has kids, they wouldn't try to make responsible decisions about them?
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 19th, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
First let me note that there's a difference between trying to make responsible decisions, and actually succeeding in making responsible decisions. Examples where the parents might not actually succeed in making responsible decisions might include:

Parents are doctors or lawyers and can't fit PTA meetings into their busy schedules, even though they would like to go.

Parents are drug addicts and end up missing the PTA meeting due to drug induced stupor, even though they had planned to go.

In the case of school selection, replace PTA meeting attendance with taking the time to research the school options and figure out which one is the best for their particular kids.
tallou From: tallou Date: April 15th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
The fear I have with this program (and it could be that there are voucher plans that deal with this) is that the vouchers become a way to pay for part of schooling, and that people who can't supplement that end up locked in low-performing schools, or worse yet, those schools are closed, and they're left with no choices that are both free and their child can get to without being driven. So it's not indifferent parents that worry me, it's a school structure that says that you can have the great schools if you have the money to pay for them, or if your children are so smart they can test in to them for scholarships, and if you have the job freedom to drive your kid to them. (or public transportation happens to be sufficient where you're living)

These things were all irrelevant to me growing up: I was in a rural school district. I could only have gone to a private school if my mom had chosen to work limited hours and drive me the 45 minutes each way. (I was lucky: my local school was reasonably good and the local Catholic school was, from reports I heard, not.) And now I'm living in a place where there are several schools within biking distance. But they still worry me about voucher programs.
greyautumnrain From: greyautumnrain Date: April 15th, 2010 05:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not an expert of voucher programs. Certainly the concerns you bring up are very valid ones that would need to be addressed by any responsible plan. Mainly I just want some options when it comes to sending my kids to school, and the argument that we shouldn't try any voucher-type plan because of the indifferent parents really irritated me.
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 15th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I see you on the indifferent parents issue. The nice part on the indifferent parents part is that there's a certain point in that model where a kid can start being their own advocate, even if their parents aren't. (in a way that it's pretty hard for a kid to start paying their own school fees)
tallou From: tallou Date: April 15th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
(that was me, from work)
psychohist From: psychohist Date: April 16th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Schools can simply be required to accept vouchers as tuition in full, if they accept them at all.
mijven From: mijven Date: April 17th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm living in a state that might just be about to take on the teacher unions, so yeah - I'm interested in your opinion on the subject. I've about a year to get educated, because that's when the next negotiations are due. (Unless the borough budget doesn't pass next Tuesday, which is always in danger of happening.)

As an amusing sidenote, during the various chaos which was my last month, I had a conversation with the principal which essentially said "strings are tied to percentages of students who pass certain tests. Your son is going to pass those tests, therefore funding for programs that benefit him get threatened first." Honest, but true. (Thankfully we managed to reinstate the GT programs as they currently are - which isn't all that great. But once threatened, now shy - so I'm retuning my focus. Including the unions down in MD who gave up tenure. ;)
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