IN case you don't know, I am married to a public school teacher who works for an urban school district that last year was a particular target of Colin and Alma Powell, two Americans so concerned with the state of our public education that they were forced to lie about out-of-date figures just to set the record straight.
[I excoriated Powell, the only Four-Star US General of African-American descent with a 1-2 war record, for his command performance, which included saying "We shouldn't get bogged down by facts" when his were challenged by local media, however gently (you'd think grilling Colin Powell about the "facts" he presents would come as automatically as searching John Dillinger for weapons before you locked him up, but then we Hoosiers blew that one, too). Of course, leadership and inspiration are complex and tenuous things; had I known the Powells would convince Tony Dungy to abandon his coaching career while still young enough to lose ten more first-round playoff games I might have been more circumspect.]
Anyway, I heard news snippets of the President's education speech last week, and I intended to find a transcript, but work presses and I spaced the whole thing. However, it's probably best to filter it through Brooks' assent, since that convinces me I'm right to think it's another fast train trip to Derailment Town.
In his education speech this week, Barack Obama retold a by-now familiar story. When he was a boy, his mother would wake him up at 4:30 to tutor him for a few hours before he went off to school. When young Barry complained about getting up so early, his mother responded: “This is no picnic for me either, Buster.”
That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't know if the whole speech sounded like the worst of candidate Obama's Candy-Flavored Ponies For All stumpers, or if that was just the part that attracted "news" editors, but I do know this: if the President had delivered the same sort of homily designed to shame bankers, or defend strident regulation or higher taxes, Brooks would have written 800 words on the President's out-of-touch Ice Cream and Cake Big Spending Liberalism.
And we're not going to bother speculating on why Kick 'Em in the Ass and Put 'Em To Work! is such a popular solution when it comes to urban school districts. Draw your own conclusions.
The reform vision Obama sketched out in his speech flows from that experience. The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).
And we have no need of speculation about how the solution always comes down to
Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later — a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.
Or, just perhaps, it's a powerfully clear demonstration that children who do well on tests do well in school, especially in a test-happy environment designed to assign failure and blame from age eight.
Measuring progress? Well, perhaps we could start by measuring the competence of New York Times Op-Ed columnists to accurately portray the current state of understanding about our incontinent testing, say by at least admitting there's nothing remotely resembling such consensus, and plenty of evidence testing is counterproductive. What we might agree on is this: we've come up with a way to put numerical rating on something as complex as Education. This is something Americans do a lot of ("Best 100 Movies of All Time"; "Best Wines Under $10"), but not well, as something in our national character seems to preclude understanding how stupid the exercise is. My Top Two Guesses being "Inferiority", and "An almost pathological need to kiss ass if there's a dollar in it somewhere".
The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.
Flunk. Here's the fucking problem, Mr. Brooks: a group of people--let's just call them "conservative" Republican mouthpieces--have been milking votes from the public schools, and in particular the racist underpinnings of White Flight that began with the closing of public schools across the South in response to Brown, and continued with Nixon's southern strategy.
And it worked, quite well. It's almost as difficult to find a voter these days who thinks public schools aren't failing--generally exempting that of his own children--as it is to find one who can marshall a single piece of data in the notion's defense. Excepting, of course, the "evidence" from something like The Colin and Alma Powell Tax-Emempt Association for Finding Some Reason To Give Colin Powell Another Public Job, Ever Again, or some dim idea about testing failure rates garnered from extra-bold headlines and presumed, therefore, to have some connection to reality. It's bullshit. We have no basis for comparison, and we wouldn't even if such testing had a suitably long history; we cannot teach students in 2009 the same things we did in 2004, let alone back twenty or thirty years, unless the entire curriculum consists of twelve years of Latin and Ancient Greek. You cannot solve the epistemological question at the center of the thing.
And you can't solve anything with All Faith and No Facts. Look at your column, fer chrissakes. The single "fact" is the result of your extensive interviews with high school graduates and dropouts to see how many teachers they remembered.
Here's what you claim: the key to academic success is relationships and rigor. We must separate good teachers from bad, based on their emotional bonding with students, then pay them according to test scores. The keys to improving education are testing and accountability; such tests have predictive value, according to Joel Klein. NCLB has established an unquestioned methodology for measuring progress. The self-serving Education Establishment interferes with any attemps to improve education which would involve getting off its lazy butts, and especially vouchers, which prove how little that group of over-paid featherbedders actually cares about students. (It is one of the great ironies of unfettered capitalism that somehow the people who really care about education, and particularly the education of the urban poor, all have chosen to work in some other field.)
Where's the facts? None in the column. Can you defend two of those ideas if I spot you that Joel Klein is a real person? Why is this always the fucking case? Y'all praise Good Teachers, but you sure don't quote any. Testing works because you say it does; schools are failing because you want them to. [Let me interrupt here for a story I can't remember if I told a while back: my Poor Wife rescues decommissioned library books for use as art material; on occasion she'll bring one home to read first. She found one originally from a high school she didn't recognize (closed in the 70s), and when she went looking for info she found a reference to the Indianapolis Public Schools graduation rate in 1957 or '58, thereabouts, and it was under 50%, the same level the Hero of My Lai gets to pontificate and junketeer about today. Yes, apples and oranges to some extent, but not entirely: those schools didn't have a 10% non-English-speaking population, or 20% learning-disability rate, and those with learning disabilities had no recognized legal right to required care or as much mainstream education as possible. They didn't have nearly as many private schools--and no charters--willing and eager to dump any problem student back into the public system to keep their own "results" up. Fifty percent of students weren't from single-parent homes, and 80% weren't receiving free or reduced-price lunches due to family income. Yes, a high-school education was "less important", job-wise, in those days, but does that make students today more academically fit to begin with? And what reason do many of them have to graduate--a job in a fast food joint? The level of pure butt-ignorance that surrounds public education is astonishing, particularly given all the rhetoric about how important it is, but the amount of that ignorance that can be classified as Willful and Politically Motivated is just shameful.]
And, y'know, it's funny, but besides making Top Ten lists the thing this country seems to be good at is raising millions tax-free to support a concerted effort to repeal inconvenient facts in Biology. Though we still can't seem to figure out why, every time some Former Little Lebowski Achiever relates his rags-to-riches tale, all the other poor people in the country don't jump on it and become President of something themselves.
Of course, none of this would be complete without an appeal to Please, Won't Someone Think of the Children:
Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.
Interesting. 'Cause here in Indianapolis, thanks to a Republican administration which cut education 2% across the board in an ersatz effort to "balance" the state budget, and which now refuses to consider loosening the slush fund created by raffling off the Indiana Toll Road for anything other than paying wealthy Republican districts to massively screw up road projects, many hundreds of children have been ripped from their mentors and friends because there was no fucking money to keep their buildings open, with many more to come. But they can dry their own salty tears, I suppose, since their football landed on the wrong side of the fence.