I like to argue why not a lot.
Why not public school choice? Because it won’t improve educational outcomes and will increase expenses. Why not higher standards? Because they are based on well-meant but foolish delusions about reasonable academic goals for large, heterogeneous populations. Why not poverty as a reason for the achievement gap? Because poverty is trumped by race, which is probably a proxy for cognitive ability distribution (which does not mandate a genetic cause). Why not blame unintelligent teachers? Why not blame unions that protect those teachers? Because teachers aren’t incompetent, there’s vanishingly little evidence that teacher smarts affect educational outcomes, and unions can be blamed for increasing costs, but not for educational outcomes of any sort. Why not believe we can change and improve public education? Because given its task, public education is not doing a bad job. Certainly not as bad a job as many people believe. Cf: blood from turnips.
What I don’t do is openly advocate for my own vision of public education, which entails ending, limiting, or at least challenging the reforms of the last 40 years.
I gave a brief history of education reform since 1965 or so in The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should, and so I shall quote myself:
So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.
From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.
I’ve written before of my perplexity on this point: Why has there been no organized effort to resist or repeal the legislation and court decisions that buttress progressive reforms?
For example, only recently has the reform movement taken up the tracking gauntlet again, and they are doing so most timidly—even blaming Americans for their reluctance to sort by ability. (Um. What?) And sometimes, they tentatively advocate reforms that teachers want, like discipline and tracking, but never with any acknowledgement that these restrictions weren’t organically generated by public schools, but rather mandates imposed by courts and lawsuits. Other reformers gently chastise us for even thinking about sorting by ability, which can “condemn these high-potential, low-performing students into lower classes…sadly, these “tracks” frequently become castes from which it is all but impossible to escape.” With nonsense like this, who needs progressives? Last summer, Checker Finn announced that private schools were being replaced by charters, as if we should celebrate the increased costs incurred by parents who might otherwise fork out money to educate Junior at a Catholic school. Just recently, Fordham tentatively suggested that districts band together to educate severely disabled students, and a decade ago, it cheered the reauthorization of IDEA without ever challenging it.
Whenever I ask why the right, broadly speaking, has abandoned the field to expensive federal intrusion, a commenter will post in a sepulchral voice, “Conservatives have given up. Regular people have given up. The game is lost.”
As I write this, conservatives are busily pushing voter ID and reviling the mainstream press for claiming the knockout game is a myth. So clearly, it’s okay to mock the liberal obsession with political correctness, access, and race…..except when education is involved?
In twenty years, the modern reform movement has certainly achieved results, but not public buy-in. They get legislative victories occasionally, but polls routinely show lukewarm support at best for their main objectives. The public likes public schools. Where’s the political opportunism, the craven catering to public whim? It’s very irritating.
So this next part is my best effort to interpret the absence of any attempt to push back on the original progressive reforms, and it’s….not to be taken as some grand scheme. Just a combination of typical advocacy fund hunger and genuine—and unobjectionable—political goals. And the absence does need explaining. The current reform movement really doesn’t make sense, given that lack of buy-in.
But advocacy groups need money and the group of education givers include a lot of billionaires, many of them conservatives. Not a group, I’m thinking, that would be open to the idea that public education is doing a good job, that teachers aren’t incompetent, that we should stop treating parents as consumers who can re-allocate their portion of tax dollars to the detriment of public schools. And of course, the billionaires who aren’t well right of center are way off to the middlebrow left and would not take kindly to cognitive reality. So they found their own group of “new left” reformers.
So that explains billionaires and the reform agenda, but it doesn’t explain Republicans as a whole. Why aren’t they pushing back on the reform agenda, which implicitly adopts the same progressive objectives of equity, access, and equal results? That, too, seems more a political strategy than a genuine effort to improve education. Teacher unions pour millions into the Democrat coffers. So I guess the thinking from the Republican point of view is why invite media castigation and endless legal battles on disparate impact, why piss off the extremely activist parents of disabled children, when the alternative is attacking and hopefully obliterating a major source of Democrat money? Once they kill the unions they can focus on actually improving public education. And so the culling of teachers for special opprobrium, for job features that apply to all government workers, particularly those relative bastions of Republican support, cops and firefighters.
Oh lord, you’re thinking, Ed’s gone the way of Diane Ravitch. No. Well. Yeah. But not because I think it’s bad. I’m fine with, you know, whatever. It’s fine to want to stop union money from going all Dem. It’s fine to want to end unions, if that’s your bag. I am not criticizing the goal or the desire to spend money to achieve a goal. If you’re a reformer insulted by my conclusion that you’re tailoring your message to please the moneymen, or a Republican angry that I doubt the purity of your motives, well, remember, I’m trying to figure out an interpretation of your stated objectives that doesn’t make you an idiot. At least naked opportunism and a political agenda makes you deviously dishonest.
So the groups that would logically push for ending or at least curtailing the progressive overreaches, the absurd mandates that hurt public education, are funded by people who, for various reasons, aren’t interested in kicking them over, and the political party most likely to push back sees a big pile of Democrat money. That’s my current take as to the puzzling absence of pushback on public education mandates and expectations.
Whatever the motives, the current reform agenda will only make things worse by delegitimizing and ultimately destroying the public school’s still-essential role as community resource, and increasing both direct and indirect costs at the same time. No, thank you.
Of course, my consistent rejection of reform means I support the status quo, imposed upon us by progressives. Yes. Not happily, and only as an alternative to reform goals. Remember, progressives aren’t deviously dishonest, in my paradigm. They’re idiots. No offense, progressives. But you didn’t need donors to cater to; you all had an entire academic infrastructure supporting your reforms, and a whole bunch of lawyers happy to sue for equal access, disparate impact, and a host of other millstones you hoisted around public education’s neck. And you did all this on purpose.
So here we are, billions wasted on ideas that most people understand won’t ever work. And no one openly challenges the modern mandates of public education.
I don’t spend much time arguing for an end to the progressive reforms. I’m not sure I want to end them all. I just want people to discuss it more, dammit. But I must confess to a temperament that prefers analysis to advocacy. If you put up a list of your top ten films, I’ll critique your choices. Where’s my list for you to critique? Don’t have one. Too limiting. Let’s get back to debating your list.
This gives rise to the claim that I’m just a naysayer. Okay. That I can’t be taken seriously unless I put up my own proposal. Whoops, back up. Sure I can. I am, in fact, taken seriously, far more seriously than I ever envisioned. Good opposition is best when it’s done by the relatively pure of heart. I have no agenda other than convincing you that everyone else is wrong.
This next part is what I set out to do five days ago when I began this essay, without the excessively long throat-clearing:
So suppose I were going to advocate for a particular vision. What would it entail? To which I say oh, please. I can’t even come up with a list of ten best films. However, I will offer up the questions, the issues, that I think we should seriously engage with:
- The public, not the parent, is the intended beneficiary of public education.
- The state should be able to charge immigrants, both legal and illegal, for their K-12 education.
- The state should not be responsible for the education of English Language Learners, whether immigrants or not.
- We should consider centralized schools, possibly federal, for educating the organically retarded or any students with physical disabilities requiring significant financial support. The familial retarded should remain as a local responsibility.
- Public schools should be able to organize their students by cognitive or demonstrated ability without consideration of race, class, religion, or gender.
- High school diplomas should denote tiers of ability, to better reflect a diverse population with a broad range of cognitive abilities.
- Publicly funded college should be restricted as described in this essay, and restricted to the top two tiers of high school diplomas.
- Adult education, as opposed to college, should be an offering for those who haven’t met the top two tiers.
- Immigration’s impact on public education and the job opportunities of the cognitive spectrum’s lower half should be a matter of national attention and debate.
- Public K-12 education should not include charters, magnets, gifted student schools, or any other specialized resource school that can restrict access.
- Select schools should be reserved for incorrigible students who disrupt education for others—and these schools should be educational, but not terribly fun. Hey. We could call them “reform” schools!
- Private school tuition should be tax deductible, with a cap. Benefits of deduction should accrue primarily to middle income savers, not the rich. (I’m in favor of this approach for tuition and other investments in education.)
- The federal government’s role in education should be limited to data collection and investigation. I would like very much to learn what, exactly, we can teach people with IQs lower than 100, for starters.
Far fewer words: roll back Plyler, Lau, IDEA, and any notion of evaluating for disparate impact (as opposed to actual racial discrimination which, for the record, I consider a Bad Thing).
There. I am not necessarily advocating for these positions (cop out! you betcha.) But these are the issues I’d like to see discussed.
We must broaden the field of debate. That’s agenda enough for the time being.
I went off to dinner a few minutes after I posted this, came back and read it again. Ack. Spent four hours rewriting it. The message is the same, but it’s much shorter and, I hope, more focused. Apologies if you read the earlier version.