Tag: teachers

Ben Chavis to Charles Murray: “Bring it”

In an exchange I had with Charles Murray earlier this month, he complained that there was no bulletproof scientific research documenting miraculous improvement in student achievement attributable to great schools like those of Ben Chavis.

At the time, that objection was beside my point, which is that there is copious evidence that competitive market education systems yield very substantial (if not “miraculuous”) improvements over the status quo government monopoly. We don’t need miracles to prove that there is a much better way of organizing and funding schools.

But that wasn’t enough for Ben Chavis. He called yesterday to pass along a proposition to Charles: come perform the research yourself. In fact, Ben offered to put Charles up in his own house.

I don’t know if Charles will go for this, but I wish he would (or find a grad student who will). And here’s why: I think Charles is so skeptical of the results of great schools and teachers because he has not come across any mechanism in his studies that could adequately explain those results. But I contend that there is such a mechanism: a school culture so strong and conducive to academic effort that it can overcome the absence of an academically supportive culture in the home.

If you read Jay Mathews’ wonderful book Escalante, or Ben’s Crazy Like a Fox, this becomes immediately clear. The school environment in these rare cases becomes a much more powerful influence on students’ willingness to work and expectations of success than is normally the case. These great schools tap into a fundamental human desire to belong to a team that offers them support and to which they feel an obligation to be supportive in return. It’s the same impulse that leads soldiers to put their lives on the line for their buddies in combat, and that sustains the insane work ethic in high tech startups.

This is one reason why free enterprise education systems excel all others: they offer the greatest freedom and most powerful incentives for excellent schools to replicate their cultures on a grand scale.

Is Michelle Obama Right about Teachers?

First Lady Michelle Obama wrote yesterday in US News and World Report that we face a teacher shortage. She laments that up to a third of current teachers could retire in the next four years. The solution, she says, is to embark on an aggressive and multifaceted teacher recruitment campaign.

But here’s an interesting thought: What if a million teachers really did retire in the next four years, and we only replaced half of them? 

Catastrophe? Millions of kids without teachers? Nope. In fact, we’d still have a lower pupil/teacher ratio than we did in 1970. Back then, we had 2 million teachers for 45.5 million students. Today, we have 3.2 million teachers for not quite 50 million students.

For the past 40 years, we’ve added teachers a lot faster than we’ve added students. In fact, we’ve added other staff even faster. As a result, the total staff to student ratio has gone up by nearly 75% since 1970.

There are plenty of critical problems with American education, but a looming crisis in the size of the teaching workforce is not one of them.

Zero Tolerance for Difference

Zachary ChristieWhen both the New York Times and Fox News poke fun at a school district it’s a good guess that district has done something pretty silly. That seems to be the case in Newark, Delaware, where the Christina School District just suspended a 6-year-old boy for 45 days because he brought a dreaded knife-fork-spoon combo tool to school. District officials, in their defense, say they had no choice – the state’s “zero tolerance” law demanded the punishment.

Now, the first thing I’ll say is that I was very fortunate there were no zero-tolerance laws  – at least that I knew of – when I was a kid. Like most boys, I took a pocket knife to school from time to time, and like most boys I never hurt a soul with it. (I’m pretty sure, though, that I was stabbed by a pencil at least once.) I also played a lot of games involving tackling, delivered and received countless “dead arm” punches in the shoulder, and brought in Star Wars figures armed with…brace yourself!…laser guns! I can only imagine how many suspension days I’d have received had current disciplinary regimes been in place back then.

Before completely trashing little ol’ Delaware and all the other places without tolerance, however, there is a flip side to this story: Some kids really are immediate threats to their teachers and fellow students. And as the recent stomach-wrenching violence in Chicago has vividly illustrated, there are some schools where no one is safe. In other words, there are cases and situations where zero tolerance is warranted.

So how do you balance these things? How do you have zero-tolerance for those who need it, while letting discretion and reason reign for everyone else?  And how do you do that when there is no clear line dividing what is too dangerous to tolerate and what is not?

The answer is educational freedom, as it is with all of the things that diverse people are forced to fight over because they all have to support a single system of government schools! Let parents who are not especially concerned about danger, or who value freedom even if it engenders a little more risk, choose schools with discipline policies that give them what they want.  Likewise, let parents who want their kids in a zero-tolerance institution do the same.

Ultimately, let parents and schools make their own decisions, and no child will be subjected to disciplinary codes with which his parents disagree; strictness will be much better correlated with the needs of individual children; and perhaps most importantly, discipline policies will make a lot more sense for everyone involved.

Repeat after Me: “We Are All Individuals”

A millennium or so ago, Steve Martin played a stadium with his stand-up act. He got the crowd of tens of thousands to repeat a series of statements in unison. My favorite, for sheer irony: “We Are all Individuals.”

But, the thing is, we are.

This is why I never cease to be amazed by disagreements like the one currently playing out between the curriculum groups “Common Core,” and “Partnership for 21st Century Skills.”

Is there really one curriculum that is right for every child in this nation of 300 million people? Really?

Rather than fighting a winner-take-all Shootout at the O.K. Curriculum, which is what our illustrious leaders seem to want, how about this peace-loving alternative: we let teachers teach whatever and however they want, and we let families choose and pay for whichever schools they think are best for their kids (with financial aid for those who need it).

‘Cause the thing is, a quarter century of econometric research is repeating, in Steve-Martin-Like unison that: educational freedom works.

Staid Speech Is Cold Comfort

After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:

  • No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
  • Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
  • Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
  • Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with  equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.

    Captain Louis Renault Award: Politics in Government Schools?!*

    As Neal and Andrew have already covered extensively, President Obama is set to address the nation’s school children, and the Secretary of Education has sent out marching orders to government teachers and lesson plans for the kids.

    The administration has now backpedaled from a classic political gaffe and cleaned up the most offensive aspects; asking kids to write about how they can help, explain why its important to listen to political leaders, etc.

    But I think a couple of points deserve repeating.

    From a push for vastly expanding federal involvement in preschool and early education to home visitations in the health care bills, the government remains intent on expanding its dominion (And hot on the heels of President Bush’s massive expansion of federal involvement in schools).

    But this problem didn’t begin with Obama and won’t end with him. Politics in the schools is what we get when the government runs our schools.

    Don’t want your kids indoctrinated by government bureaucrats, special interests, or the President?

    Private school choice is the only remedy, and education tax credits are the increasingly popular and successful way to deliver it.

    When will a critical mass of the people realize that it is dangerous and destructive to allow the government to control the education of our children and finally do something about it?

    * Captain Louis Renault reference

    I Would Rather You Just Said “Thank You, Private Schools,” and Went on Your Way…

    Some well-known bloggers are being terrible bullies, beating up on private schools.

    Felix Salmon kicks things off by hoping the government tightens the definition of a “charitable” organization and begins taxing private schools who don’t “do a bit more to earn it.” Matt Yglesias agrees that private schools are mooching deadbeats and ups the ante, calling them actively harmful as well. Finally, Conor Clarke at The Atlantic agrees, but makes the other two look like panty-waists by proposing the government radically narrow what is considered a charity in the first place.

    Yglesias even has the temerity to indict private schools for the failure of NYC public schools:

    And as best one can tell, their main impact on the common weal is negative, drawing parents with resources and social capital out of the public school system and contributing to its neglect. You’d have to believe that New York City’s public schools would be both better funded and free of this kind of nonsense if a larger portion of the city’s elite were sending their kids to them.

    Really? Would we have to believe what Yglesias says? No, it’s not “the best one can tell.” According to the evidence, Yglesias’ breezy, offhand accusation is demonstrably wrong. Increased competition from private schools actually improves public school performance.

    And the more kids who leave public to go private, the more money the schools have for the kids who remain.

    What ingrates. They complain about the lost tax revenue while dismissing out of hand the billions of dollars that parents and donors spend every year to educate children outside the government system. They dismiss the fact that these parents and donors are saving taxpayers in the neighborhood of $60 Billion a year based on current-dollar public school spending and the number of kids in private schools.

    Finally, if this is all about rich people getting a free ride, why aren’t these guys screaming about means-testing public schools? Why shouldn’t we charge rich parents tuition to attend public schools? If a charitable deduction for private schools is so bad, why isn’t a free public education even worse?