Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Douthat on Education

In recent comments on education, Ross Douthat comes across like a pullstring toy - pull the string in his back and out comes a recorded phrase, no thinking required.
Then there’s the public education system, theoretically the nation’s most important socioeconomic equalizer. Yet even though government spending on K-to-12 education has more than doubled since the 1970s, test scores have flatlined and the United States has fallen behind its developed-world rivals. Meanwhile, federal spending on higher education has been undercut by steadily inflating tuitions, in what increasingly looks like an academic answer to the housing bubble. (If the Occupy Wall Street dream of student loan forgiveness were fulfilled, this cycle would probably just continue.)
Boy did he put it to "Occupy Wall Street". Tee, hee, giggle, giggle.

Can we start by observing that, when it comes to educational achievement, the U.S. has never done well in comparison to other nations? There was no magic period in the 1950's or 1960's or 1970's when you could say, "That's when we were on top." To the extent that our nation achieved through those eras, it was not because the average American student was outperforming his international peers.

Douthat references only two metrics: cost and standardized test performance. He doesn't take a step back and ask, "Why am I using the 1970's as a starting point, not an earlier or later date." My guess is that if he were to identify his source, you would find that they cherry-picked the starting date in order to magnify the cost increase. He similarly takes no time to ask, "What is causing that cost increase?" While it is perfectly reasonable to note that the U.S. pays some of the highest education costs in the world and to wonder why average student performance lags, Douthat displays no interest in a mundane, reality-based analysis. Pull the string: "Teacher's unions!" Pull the string: "Democrats!" By all appearances, he's simply not interested in learning or thinking about the issue - he takes an approach to identifying the problem that instead exemplifies the problem: While our nation spends a lot of time talking about the problems with public education, most people (including most of those doing the talking) don't actually care about education or how it might be improved.

Let's take a moment to look at the high cost of public education. While it is expensive, public school funding appears to be quite comparable to the funding of parochial schools, and falls far short of the tuition charged by the best private schools. What's the point of complaining about cost? Why compare cost in isolation - haven't other western nations seen similar cost increases, with a huge present controversy in the U.K. over increased costs for higher education and what portion of the increase should be borne by students?

If your reform is for schools to do more (e.g, "Let's make inner city public schools more like KIPP schools") you need to acknowledge that to do so will increase the cost of public schools. For that matter, if you are truly concerned about improving performance what do you hope to accomplish with an abstract complaint that schools cost too much? Are you proposing defunding all extracurricular activities, sports, art, gym, vocational programs, and anything else that's not "on the test" so we can focus exclusively on chasing high scores on international exams? Do you believe that cutting school funding, cutting teacher salaries and benefits, putting more kids in classrooms, cutting special education funds, and similar cost-savings measures will increase student performance? What are your ideas for reform, and how do you plan to pay for those reforms?

If you want platitudes, Douthat has them aplenty. Pull the string: we have "a public sector that has consistently done less with more". Pull the string: We need "a public sector that worked for taxpayers and parents rather than the other way around". Pull the string: The root of the problem, of course, is "a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class". No reflection, no solutions, just finger-pointing and platitudinous jabber. Don't take it from me, here's his actual solution,
[The alternative to the liberalism of the past three decades that caused all of our nation's problems] should be a kind of small-government egalitarianism, which would seek to reform the government before we pour more money into it, along lines that encourage upward mobility and benefit the middle class. This would mean seeking a carefully means-tested welfare state, a less special interest-friendly tax code, and a public sector that worked for taxpayers and parents rather than the other way around.
On reflection, perhaps identifying that as "platitudinous jabber" gives Douthat too much credit.

1 comment:

  1. It's not a problem that the richest have become richer than ever even as the average American has suffered. The problem is that there's a population of middle class working stiffs who Douthat doesn't believe have suffered as much as the other working stiffs, and that travesty needs to be ended.