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Education that Works 3

American public education used to be hugely effective.

By Will Offensicht  |  February 27, 2012

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.