In the 11/25/09 issue of the Wall Street Journal three eminences of public education, Harold Ford Jr., Louis Gerstner Jr. and Eli Broad reflect on ways to improve public education, “Race to the Top in Education.” Alas, over the last several decades there has been a lot of racing, significant funding and abysmal achievement. “Now, however,” they note, “President Obama has launched ‘Race to the Top,’ a competition that is parceling out $4.35 billion in new education funding to states that are committed to real (my italics) reform.” This package note the authors augurs well for meaningful change.
I beg to differ. Despite the emphasis on so called “performance standards and competition,” clearly goals that are needed, my guess is this initiative will fail as all of its predecessors have.
As I see it there are three principal reasons for failure: democracy, unions and the culture.
Several years ago I was an advisor on educational matters for a midwestern state that had competency exams for 3rd, 5th, 8th and 12th graders. I reviewed the exams which had reasonable requirements, although hardly excessive by Korean standards. In the first year this program was instituted less than a third of the students in the aggregate passed. Parents were outraged. “My Johnny is very bright; the exam is a foolish exercise,” wrote one parent; letters of a similar variety came pouring into the governor’s office like a gusher.
A governor, like every elected official, wants to be reelected. As you might guess, he asked to have the exams “modified,” (read: made easier). Alas, this was done, not once but twice, until the reading and math passing scores exceeded 80 percent. Like those in Lake Woebegone everyone must be above average. It’s good for politicians and a conclusion that satisfies parents. Unfortunately Johnny doesn’t read, write and compute as well as mom and dad think.
Then we have the unions whose leadership is concerned with their constituencies solely. As Al Shenker of the A.F.T once noted “when students start paying dues I’ll be as interested in them as my teachers.” Hence competition of any kind among teachers, such as merit pay, is anathema. Unless the NEA’s grip on public education is broken, competition, genuine competition, cannot be implemented. Moreover, how can this administration, already beholden to the teachers’ union for financial support, challenge the NEA?
Last, it should be noted that even the most dedicated and effective teachers cannot compete with the osmotic effect of the culture. Television, computer games, Facebook, sports, texting, diversions of every variety the mind can conjure vie for attention with scholarship. And if the general level of cultural ignorance is any measure, guess which side is winning?
Although it is unfair to generalize from a sample of one, I viewed a Jay Leno program in which he asked a teenager the country Christopher Columbus was from. His response, “Ohio.” Well at least he knew Columbus is in Ohio. Admittedly my experience is anecdotal, but as I visit American universities I find students are more familiar with the words to the latest rap music — if you can call it music — than a Robert Lowell poem or the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As Thorstein Veblen noted “students are being trained in incapacity.” In large part, this is the case because the culture forces deviancy down. This is America’s accelerated dream of egalitarianism in which the bottom quartile moves slightly upward and the top quartile moves down creating a compression at the mean.
The gang of three, Ford, Gerstner, Broad, mean well. They are sincere in their desire to improve public education. But “Race to the Top” is no different from “No Child Left Behind” and dozens of predecessors. Until the real issues are addressed — if they can be addressed — don’t count on any more success in education than we’ve encountered before.