Education that Works 3

American public education used to be hugely effective.

The first article in this series discussed the part of American education that works so well that foreign students flock to participate - the privately-funded, open-market prep schools and colleges.  Parent-funded kindergartens jealously rank themselves on getting students into high-ranking day schools which rank themselves on getting kids into private high schools which grade themselves on getting kids into the Ivies.

It's performance-based because parents voluntarily choose to pay to send their kids there, often at great sacrifice. Given how much it costs, parents choose carefully based on results.

Government schools, in contrast, are based on persuading legislators to raise taxes to pay for whatever educrats want to spend.  Educational performance and student achievement have little to do with how much money schools spend; bad performance tends to get rewarded with more money in a perfect example of perverse incentives.

Public Education Once Worked

'Twas not always so.  The New York Times has identified a new gap in educational achievement:

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects. ...

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.  [emphasis added]

The Times is saying that public schools used to prepare students for adult life and that they no longer do.  Public schools used to invest money and other resources in imparting knowledge and life skills to their students.

In times past, a poor, intelligent student could get a good education at a public school.  Generations of immigrants were absorbed into America via the New York City public schools.

They had to learn English because all the courses were in English.  They assimilated, learned, and went on to build and become America.  Education was indeed a great leveler - poor kids could get nearly as good an education as rich kids whose parents sent them to private schools because public schools were equally concerned with imparting knowledge.

Modern parents have to invest time and money in educating their children because they can no longer count on public schools to educate them.  The Times points out that wealthier parents are still engaged in their kids' educations:

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Intensive cultivation" is a pretty good description of the way public schools used to work.  There were rewards - smart kids got their tests put on bulletin boards for all to see.  There was corporal punishment - kids who "acted up" could get whacked by the principal.  There was academic punishment - dumb kids got extra homework and were held back to repeat a year.

I remember overhearing conversations in my 3rd grade class about who might get held back.  Kids on the edge were really worried.  Not only would their peers sneer, their parents would give them a hearty what-for!

How It Worked

The Wilson Quarterly explains why public education used to work:

In the 1820s, the state of Massachusetts made the committees [school boards] independent of local governments, establishing the model for the autonomous school districts that exist throughout the country today.

The U.S. Constitution left authority over education in the hands of the states under the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to them all powers not explicitly given to the federal government, and the states passed that authority on to local school boards, reflecting both the localistic tenor of American life and the nation’s skepticism of centralized authority.

Schools were under the control of local school boards who answered directly to local voters who paid the bills.  At that time, boards and principals could fire teachers who weren't performing.  Nobody would dare to suggest that our schools are more effective today than they were back then.

Local control works - in America in the past, and in other countries still.  To this day, Swiss teachers who don't get enough positive votes from the parents of kids in their classes are fired.  American parents didn't usually have this much direct authority but were still deeply involved - they attended teacher conferences and PTA meetings and voted accordingly.

Follow the Money

The Wilson Quarterly explains the ongoing power struggle as various interest groups seek to divide up the billions we spend for education.  Just think about all the parties involved - local school boards, state education bureaucracies, the federal department of education, textbook sellers, teacher's unions.  Everybody has a place at the table except students.

Education reform has taken on the dimensions of an epic over the past 30 years. Americans are collectively writing the script, and its high drama is the struggle for authority. Schools have fought to preserve their independence amid ever-louder demands for accountability. Teacher unions have struggled to solidify and then sustain their primacy over their profession. Charter school advocates have battled entrenched education bureaucracies, and reformers have grappled with establishment academics for intellectual dominance. The fundamental conflict, however, has been all but subterranean, though now it is emerging into the open. It pits local school boards against the national drive for modernization. [emphasis added]

In claiming that local school boards are the forces of reaction who are fighting the "national drive for modernization," the Quarterly seeks to increase federal involvement - after all, state governments and the feds have done such a good job of improving education as they took power from local voter-responsive school boards!  They point to declining parental engagement as a reason for more central control.

It's no wonder that parents aren't as involved as they were; there's no point in it.  They can't influence the system - teachers can't be fired no matter how bad they are.  The New York Times reports:

I [Nicholas Kristof] lost patience with teachers’ unions when union officials in New York City defended a teacher who had passed out in class, reeking of alcohol, with even the principal unable to rouse her.

Not to mention when union officials in Los Angeles helped a teacher keep his job after he allegedly mocked a student who had tried to commit suicide, suggesting that the boy slash his wrists more deeply the next time.

In many cities, teachers’ unions ensured no one was removed for mere incompetence.

If nobody can get rid of even spectacularly awful teachers such as these, why should parents waste their time getting involved with public schools?  For that matter, why should kids waste their time there?

History shows that whenever any function moves from local control to state or federal control, results get worse.  Home lending decisions used to be made by local banks.  When the federal government got involved, huge numbers of bogus loans were made which resulted in our current housing crash.  When the federal government got involved in funding colleges, tuition exploded, with the result that today's graduates are crushed under crippling debts their Starbucks paychecks can never support.  In many cases, their education barely matches up to the high-school diploma of the 1950s.

When public schools were all about education, they could bring poor kids up even with rich kids.  Now that they don't teach anything much, kids learn only insofar as parents pour their own resources into education.  Meanwhile, all the interest groups grapple for power and money instead of worrying about imparting knowledge.

Our fights over public education would be intense enough if people were only fighting over money.  The final article in this series shows that we're also fighting a major battle over the basic nature of our society, with school kids caught in the crossfire.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Politically correct think is a major roadblock to better education. Major resources are spent on children that resist education and who will eventually drop out anyway. But we have to do this because of moral superiority and the goodness of our hearts. In Germany, kids that don't want a all expenses paid College education, and don't want to stay in school can drop out at 8th grade with reading, writing and math skills and go into the manual labor pool. Those with a little more ambition can go to "Realschule" (reality school) and leave school after 10th grade with the equivalent of our high school diploma. Those who enjoy learning can then choose to go into University preparation or technical school preparation through grade 13.

We need to stop forcing ever one into the 12 year high school mold. The kids are trouble makers because they hate school and want to be free to get on with their lives. Let them and then spend the resources on the other end of the student population, those who want to learn. The manual labor segment of our workforce will benefit, and the learning of the rest will improve.

February 27, 2012 1:25 PM

The problem with doing it like the Germans as you describe, is the sneaking suspicion that the choices kids make won't precisely reflect the race, gender, and socioeconomic statistics of the students, thus leading to different results for different groups - which of course would be Racist.

February 27, 2012 1:30 PM

The problems are simple to solve but we don't have the resolve.

The Solution:
1) Do away with the teacher's unions.
2) Parents can't sue teachers, teachers can sue parents.
3) No social promotion, accountability for grades.
4) Manners and conduct would be a criteria for the student to have the privilege of remaining in school.

We must take the schools back from the students and the parents in order to give the child an education.

February 27, 2012 2:00 PM

@ Patience. Yea, the Asian emigrants would all want good education for their kids, and leave the European Americans in the dust.

February 27, 2012 3:10 PM

When I went to public schools in the generally considered by the elites to be backward state of Montana in the late 1940's through 1950's you either learned or enjoyed another year in the same grade. If you acted up in class in elementary school you likely got your seat warmed by either the teacher or the principal, and hoped that the bad news didn't make it home where you'd get more of the same. In junior high and high school it was the same except that you got to enjoy the detention bench in the office for being a screw-up. If someone lipped off to a teacher, especially a male teacher, the chance of getting a whack was still pretty good though. Fearing my parents wrath more than the school's I tended to mind my p's and q's though.

My stepson talked about kids acting up in his high school class, and his mother and I were both amazed that he thought that the little darlings needed to be in class so "they could learn". According to him it "wasn't fair to them" to be kicked out of class. The idea that it wasn't fair to the other kids in class never entered his mind. When his mother and I went to school they'd have gotten the boot, but the teachers and sociologists don't want anyone to be offended or have their feelings hurt anymore.

Living in Seattle there were yearly articles in the papers there about how the public schools were failing the "minority students", although the Asian kids did better than anyone else, with the black and hispanic kids bringing up the rear. That the Asian kids were the smallest minority never seemed to impress the idiots who wrote the articles or the school administration which always needed more money to help out the 'minority' students. A friend's daughter attended Seattle public schools, graduated with honors, got a bachelors degree, went to Caltech and got a PhD. Her parents were concerned that she obtain as good an education as she could, although they couldn't afford private schools, and she did. They made sure that she studied and attended school.

If the parents are concerned about their children and their education, a good education is still possible, but too many parents either don't care or have other more pressing concerns like drugs and booze.

Education must be removed from the control of the federal government and returned to the control of the local school boards and parents. Books might not be as new, and other things might not be as shiny and nice, but the kids will likely receive better a education. They might even learn some real US History too instead of politically correct, uh, baloney.

February 27, 2012 4:35 PM



February 27, 2012 5:06 PM

The Times seems to be really worried about education, but they don't put the blame where most of it belongs - teachers' unions. They're saying that rich parents pay to get their kids into college, which makes the kids richer.

College is becoming two-tier just like our health care system.

The Reproduction of Privilege
As college loses its postwar role as a social and economic equalizer, the political implications are profound.

Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification, with a huge majority of the 24 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 currently holding a bachelor’s degree coming from families with earnings above the median income.

Seventy-four percent of those now attending colleges that are classified as “most competitive,” a group that includes schools like Harvard, Emory, Stanford and Notre Dame, come from families with earnings in the top income quartile, while only three percent come from families in the bottom quartile.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of “How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It,” puts it succinctly: “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

These anti-democratic trends are driven in part by a supposedly meritocratic selection process with high school students from the upper strata of the middle class performing better on SAT and ACT tests than those from poor and working class families.

Contrary to those who say that this is the meritocracy at work, differences in scores on standardized tests do not fully explain class disparity in educational outcomes. When high-scoring students from low-income families are compared to similarly high-scoring students from upper-income families, 80 percent of the those in the top quarter of the income distribution go on to get college degrees, compared to just 44 percent of those in the bottom quarter.

Post-secondary education is not, in fact, functioning to dissolve long-standing class hierarchies. There are various ways of examining these trends, which I’ve outlined below. However you look at it, the cultural and political implications of the deepening of the income achievement gap are profound.

Beginning in the early 1980s, according to the Census, the college “premium” – the difference in annual earnings of a high school graduate and a college graduate – rose from 50 percent to approximately 80 percent. In 2007, workers with a high school degree made an average of $31,286 compared to $57,181, 82.8 percent more, for those with a bachelor’s degree. A college degree does not guarantee affluence, but it puts the recipient in a far better position to achieve or maintain upper-middle-class status than those without degrees.

Higher education itself has polarized: Competitive four-year colleges, as defined by Barron’s, have seen enrollments rise from 41 percent of all post-secondary students to 46 percent from 1994 to 2006; 2-year community colleges at the bottom have seen their share of enrollment grow from 46 to 49 percent. In the middle ground, the percent enrolled at the less competitive four-year colleges has been cut in half, from 13 to 6 percent, according to the Carnevale study mentioned above.

Student bodies in competitive colleges and in community colleges reflect two very different economic worlds. At the 1,044 competitive colleges, 76 percent of the freshman came from families in the upper half of the income distribution. In the nation’s 1,000-plus community colleges, almost 80 percent of the students came from low-income families.

March 12, 2012 6:23 PM

We had a family friend (friend of our children that came over often) that won a scholarship to Scripps college for women a highly competitive college. She was a very gifted and intelligent girl in our public school system. She won her scholarship because they wanted "diversity" in their school, and the one thing they didn't have was poor people. Her family was upper poor living in a small 1200 square foot house.

Short story, she dropped out after the first semester, and joined the Navy. Seems her public school education had not prepared her for the intensive work required at Scripps. I remember in my college days that one hour of class required 2 hours of outside study to prepare for. At Scripts it was more like 4 hours of outside study. At high school she had little or no homework that could be completed during class half listening to her teacher.

Private schools attended by the rich have no such qualms about giving lots of homework. Their students are prepared for life. Same with home-schooled kids. The public sector education alone feels that we shouldn't interfere with the kids play time at home, and so the poor and working class remain the poor and working class from generation to generation.

March 13, 2012 9:06 AM
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