The Upside Down World

Monday, September 25, 2006

Education and conservatives

If you are a conservative interested in education, you need to read this excellent column by Neal McClusky on conservatives embrace of big government education muddling on National Review Online. Mr McClusky starts of with this:
For decades, conservatives stood against big-government intrusions into American education. They defended local control of schooling, championed parental choice, and pushed to abolish the federal Department of Education. But then, tragedy struck: Republicans took power in Washington, and conservatives suddenly learned to love big government. Indeed, some are now so enamored of it that they are proposing what was once unthinkable: having the federal government set curricular standards for every public school in America.
As you may be aware, over the weekend former secretaries of education Bill Bennet and Rod Paige had a column in the Washington Post advocating for the creation of a national test for education. Because the solution to something government meddling has already badly screwed up is . . . even more government meddling.
This flies in the face of what we have learned from the few government programs which have had some success in reform; states, when given the freedom are excellent incubators and laboratories for innovative approaches to entrenched problems. Welfare reform and Medicare reform are two excellent examples. I am also willing to bet that in 20 years we will be looking at state experiments like what is going on in Minnesota and Massachusetts as the beginning of healthcare reform.
The idea that education can be improved by giving more power and influence to Washington politicians is laughable. In fact, I would argue that the growing influence and involvement of national politics in the education issue have served to thwart any meaningful movement in improving education. There are, in my opinion, 3 things which need to happen in order for meaningful education reform to happen: teachers must be treated as professionals and have control over the conduct and content of their teaching, parents must be free to make educational choices for their children including enrolling their children in their schools of choice and the influence of large national teacher's unions must be diminished. The nationalization of education works against all 3 of these changes. More and more teachers are being treated like trained monkeys who are expected to jump and hop according to what bureaucrats demand rather than using their brains, experience and skills to meet their student's needs. A national agenda for education makes it very easy for powerful, out of touch national education unions to influence any education reforms which are enacted (one big target is much easier to handle than tens of thousands of smaller, local targets which are less likely to be influenced by lobbying efforts). In contrast, parents find it very difficult to get the attention of national politicians as opposed to local school board members and administrators who might be willing to respond to their concerns (if their hands weren't actively being tied by national politicians and teacher's unions). Not to mention that as long as the national teachers union has a strong influence in the political arena, parent's are unlikely to be given much leeway in determining where their children will attend school.
Although nationalized testing and curriculum are taking on an air of inevitability, we must resist the temptation to short-cut our way into further disaster by giving the federal government even more say over what goes on in the classroom. As Mr. McClusky points out in his NRO piece:
no matter how much conservatives wish it weren't so, decades of monopolistic public schooling have proven that government will never provide desirable standards. Indeed, the numerous inherent problems of government are among the many reasons that the framers of the Constitution gave Washington no authority over education. . . As Congress moves inexorably closer to next year's scheduled reauthorization of NCLB, conservatives must reject calls for federal standards and tests, and remember the principles that they once held dear. Politically compromised, big-government policies will simply never provide the education our children need and deserve. Only pulling government out of education, and empowering parents and families with school choice, will do that.

4 Comments:

  • I agree with you that the federal govt. needs to get out of education, but you fall into the typical trap of blaming teachers' unions.

    Here in Texas there are basically no such thing as a teachers' union, as by law we cannot collective bargain or strike. We are also home to the high stakes testing program that became NCLB, the massive intrusion into state control.

    But yet, Texas ranks near the bottom on many measures of education achievement, especially SAT and ACT scores, number of dropouts and number of college graduates.

    The problem has existed for years and years; politicians have too much control over what's being taught in America's classrooms. The Dems pushed feel good fuzzy curriculum, now the Republicans are pushing whatever makes their friends money.

    By Blogger Mike in Texas, at 6:07 AM  

  • Oh, I can see it now. Federal licenses for teaching. National academies run by the same folks who gave you the professionalism and unbelievably high standards currently exhibited by those nice federally trained folks at airport security terminals shaking down 90 year old caucasian grandmothers, confiscating nail clippers from boy scouts and trying to seize the Congressional Medal of Honor from around the neck of Joe Foss, a genuine American hero who looks, at last check, not at all like a 20-something middle eastern jihadist.

    Can't you imagine the gargantuan increase in size of the Department of Education if this abomination is imposed? Imagine yet again the process of passing education bills in the congress with bills hung up by individual, anonymous holds, congressmen deciding which books can be read, which texts will be approved, pork riders stuck onto bills like gum on the bottoms of desks. And of course, you'd have to establish state and local branch DOE offices to give the congress sufficient oversight.

    All this, and imagine how much more when the pendulm inevitably swings the other way and Democrats take over again. Oh. But by that time, how would we tell the difference between them and Republicans? Virtually every educational wish they've ever dreamed would have been established by Republicans, and the NEA would become the most powerful political force in America.

    I agree with much of what has been said in opposition to this ill-considered pipe dream, but I urge every conservative to think carefully about "school choice" as it is currently understood and proposed. Vouchers (opportunity scholarships, bingo cash, or whatever else they're being called these days) would destroy public education as surely as an imperial DOE and would ultimately help no one. If schools are failing, the mechanisms are in place to fix them. More in a second...

    Conservatives should never do what they accuse liberals of doing--going hog wild for the latest unhinged change-the-face-of-education-in-one-fell-swoop scheme. Whatever problems exist in education in a given school district--and by the way, let's call people on it when they issue a blanket "American education is failing" rant--can be repaired by the time tested system already in place. The only problem is that doing it that way will take time and will require hard work on the local level. Oh yes. It will also require trusting the people. I thought conservatives used to do that. Don't conservatives still think that the most horrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help?"

    By Anonymous Mike, at 10:15 PM  

  • My old boss, Bill Bennett, said that?

    Figures, I suppose.

    This is a business style problem with non-business, government intrustion-style solutions already in place, and hampering real solutions. One example:

    NCLB demands that classroom stuff be based on research that shows it works. But where is there any mechanism to find such research and deploy the results to training teachers and getting it into curricula? There is nothing like that.

    Instead, we get demands that kids perform better. There is no measuring to compare one curriculum against another. There is no methodical comparison of one form of pedagogy over another. There is instead just the demand to "do it better," the demand to "get better results next time."

    Teachers are frustrated that there is no real support to find solutions. Instead, each teacher, each fall, is pummeled with new demands from administrators, unaccompanied by any resources to meet the demands.

    Here in Texas, in the Dallas area many administrators now demand that lesson plans be on file, and often, they must be on file in the principal's office. Does this improve performance? Does it improve lesson plans? Does it do anything at all? A few honest principals confess they don't read them all . . .

    That's "accountability": Lesson plans on file. Who reviews the plans to see whether they were ever based in any good idea? Who reviews the processes to see whether the lessons were delivered as planned? Who checks to compare results from one lesson plan to another?

    Teachers are the soldiers on the front line in this war, and increasingly, they are being shot at by their commanders in the rear, especially the state and federal legislatures. Any business manager, or Girl Scout leader, could see this is not the way to get things done well, but instead a prescription for much wasting of money.

    By Blogger Ed Darrell, at 6:12 AM  

  • Rebecca, believe it or not there's already a guy running for the GOP presidential nomination and one of his main concerns is education, especially in government schools.

    John Cox has been airing some TV spots which look interesting, although I could only view them on the Internet since he's airing them in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.

    Check it out: www.cox2008.com/video

    By Anonymous Nathan Tabor, at 4:03 PM  

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