Friday, September 15, 2006

Unfocused Education Reform

Somebody commented that I was being unfair to David Brooks in my last post, because at least Brooks is tossing out some ideas. I think that assessment is far too generous to Mr. Brooks, as his ideas were weak and sorely lacking in specifics (e.g., bank accounts for newborns), reflected his lack of knowledge and possibly a sexist bias (making single men eligible for the earned income tax credit - they already are), contradicted his prior positions while failing to address costs he had previously suggested were unaffordable (high quality daycare for the poor), or, again without respect to cost, something that sounds good in concept but would be exceptionally difficult to achieve (tailoring education to each individual child). Oh yes, and the notion that you can "strengthen the family" or "strengthen marriage" by cutting a (small) check to people who aren't necessarily even married.

I know where Brooks is coming from with his proposal for individualized education, particularly given his implicit biography of his own high school experiences. He feels, quite rightly, that a smart, well-behaved kid who has been resistant to the temptation of marshmallows since toddlerhood is underserved by an education system that focuses on teaching kids to sit still, be quiet, and behave, and which more than ever is focused on bringing undreachievers up to average. The kids who operate at a level well above average, as I assume Brooks did (despite his often obtuse columns) are assumed capable of taking care of themselves. And if they can't, who really cares - they sit quiety and behave, and do better than average on standardized tests. Under "No Child Left Behind" schools don't fail for declining to help the smart kids get ahead. They fail if they don't focus on the lowest common denominator.

Meanwhile, people who should know better present such arguments as, "We'll just import engineers from China" or "It doesn't matter if our public schools are bad, because Americans have a lifetime of educational opportunity".
Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We're often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school -- and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students' hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies -- when they emerge -- and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.
And we can make up for that by buying books from the "For Dummies" series, or getting a dipoma from a community college or private diploma mill? Seriously - if we look at the leaders of commerce and industry, review inventors on patent applications, or look at the best and the brightest in any given profession, we're going to find large numbers of late bloomers who overcame weak public school educations by getting Associates Degrees at the University of Phoenix or reading "Excel for Dummies"? Or we hear arguments for meaningless or counter-productive reforms, such as same sex schools or eliminating teacher certification.

Don't get me wrong - I think it is important to make education available to people who, at some point after they leave high school, realize that they want or need more education in order to pursue their personal or career goals. But having those options available, or having huge self-help sections in bookstores, does not make up for dropping the ball in elementary and high school education, or for the economic and social pressures which are diminishing the value of a college education.

In individualizing education, can we assume that Brooks is not speaking about kids who qualify for special education, as they already receive individualized learning plans? Can we assume he isn't complaining about the kids who fall into the great center - the pool of kids who, by virtue of their interest or aptitude, are adequately served by the present system? That is, isn't he really talking about gifted education - while avoiding that word to avoid its "elitist" implications? If so, he should take note of the fact that post-No Child Left Behind, budgets for gifted education are being slashed. I don't personally have a problem with expressing that some kids demonstrate a lot more aptitude than others, sometimes for particular subjects and sometimes across the board, and that yes, we as a nation would benefit from fostering their gifts and interests. But it's not going to happen. We're not going to hire more teachers. We're not going to change teacher certification in a manner which increases teacher salaries. We're not going to invest in significant infrastructure improvements for public schools. We're not going to fund voucher programs in a manner which would significantly benefit secular private schools.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there are schools in this country for which a fresh coat of paint would be a marked sign of progress. The problems can be significant, and the sources of the largest problems may be external to the school.
Those [Baltimore] teachers [who overcame bureaucratic obstacles and taught the author's children] were real gems, and we were grateful to be working with them. Some other teachers seemed burned-out and disinterested, unable to muster even a smile or a greeting for visitors. We also encountered a phenomenon we'd often heard about but hadn't seen firsthand: The spectacle of white (usually young) female teachers totally ill-equipped to deal with preadolescent black boys who, we often discovered, were being raised by adults who had no detectable interest in their children's education.

When my wife held her first meeting as president of the PTA at our former school in Montgomery County, Md., so many parents attended that their cars filled the parking lot and several surrounding blocks. When she held the same event as the president of the PTA at our Baltimore school, eight parents showed up. Most of them formed the tiny but critical core of involved parents who helped organize school events throughout the year.
When will Brooks, or any other columnist of similar prominence, call in unambiguous terms for the investment of money, resources and political will necessary to turn around even a single inner city school? (And no, their sputtering, "But I support No Child Left Behind" isn't quite what I'm proposing here.)


  1. Wow, Aaron, you really unloaded. I was just trying to be generous to Mr. Brooks' ideas. Frankly, I'm in greater agreement with you.

    Educational reform is a hopeless morass, you must know, and it's been continuously attempted for more than 50 years without yielding many positive results. As the culture goes, though, so go the schools -- they're a reflection of our collective values.

    Without getting bogged down in the details in the comments section of your blog, I agree that U.S. education is frequently pretty awful and that Brooks often reads like a buffoon. However, I can't heap so much scorn on him for being unable to correctly diagnose and solve a situation that has only gotten worse over many generations.

  2. I may have unloaded, but not just on Brooks. I think I have some Kristof and Mallaby links in their, and perhaps some others. ;-)

    I do agree with you that our public schools reflect our collective values. But (as any politician can attest) it's a lot easier to give lip service to reform and profess deep concern about our nation's children, than it is to take a good hard look at that reflection and admit what it says about our actual values.

    I can accept your last sentence if the column truly reflects the peak of Brooks' ability. If he's not capable of thinking harder or forming more coherent thoughts on any subject, then I shouldn't be too hard on him for spewing pablum on the subject of education. No, if that's the case, the scorn should be heaped on his employer for keeping him on its payroll.

  3. can we assume that Brooks is not speaking about kids who qualify for special education, as they already receive individualized learning plans?

    You meant to say, they are already SUPPOSED TO receive individualized learning plans.

  4. Good point. But I still think it is safe to assume that Brooks is talking about himself... er, I mean, kids like he sees himself as being - bright, studious, highly resistant to marshmallows, but bored in class.


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