Mixed Metaphors on Education
A letter to the Post-Dispatch lists some factors that contribute to quality schools, then adds:
When these factors come together, charter and traditional schools have the potential to be lighthouses of achievement. But charter schools are not a magic bullet. [Emphasis added.]
What I want to comment on is not the funny juxtaposition of these two metaphors, but what each metaphor implies about the writer’s view of public schools.
The lighthouse metaphor suggests a few bright lights, with wide spaces in between. Lighthouses don’t compete with each other. If you have one lighthouse in an area, fine; if you have more, the additional lighthouses waste resources without contributing anything. If you add a new lighthouse next to an old one, the old one doesn’t improve. As this writer states explicitly later in the letter, he sees building charter schools as draining resources from existing schools, to the detriment of the district as a whole.
The letter also argues against new charter schools by pointing out that they aren’t a magic bullet. The implication is that only reforms that are magic bullets should be adopted. But any reform be it paying teachers more, adopting new curricula, or opening charter schools requires diverting money, time, and other resources away from a previous use. When you implement a reform, the new recipients of these resources will gain directly from the reform, while the previous ones will suffer. That means that no reform is a magic bullet that will improve everything in the district at once.
Both of these metaphors are misleading. A sailor at sea doesn’t choose between different lighthouses. He just looks to the nearest one. Schools are different. Creating new schools adds to the diversity of the district and gives parents new choices. Instead of lighthouses or magic bullets, think cable TV: adding a sports channel doesn’t harm the people who want to watch the Discovery Channel. It just means that the people who like sports will no longer be stuck watching documentaries about elephants. And although no new channel is a magic bullet that will bring up the quality of all television programming, the variety of channels ensures that each customer will at least have a choice of what to watch, and a better chance of feeling satisfied with his options than if only one or two channels were available.