The Major’s favorite writer, Jonah Goldberg, riffs a bit on education today at the Corner, calling the appalling performance of many of our public schools “Liberalism’s greatest failure.” I don’t entirely agree, but only because I think there’s enough blame to go around. Goldberg points out the following:
Which party do the teachers’ unions support overwhelmingly? What is the ideological outlook of the bureaucrats at the Department of Education? Which party claims it “cares” more about education and demagogues any attempt by the other party to reform it? Who has controlled the large inner city school systems for generations? What is the ideological orientation of the ed school racket? Whose preferred teaching methods have been funded and whose have been ridiculed?You know the answer to all of these questions. And yet to listen to the debate this week, you would think this is all a bipartisan problem because Republicans share the blame for refusing to fund schools enough.
There are two problems with this canard. 1) Bush and the GOP congress massively increased education spending and 2) the problems with our education system have almost nothing to do with how much money we spend.
While I think there’s truth to all this, it’s Goldberg’s second point there that scores with me. I’m brought back to a book I’ve talked about before — Robert Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. His argument is that for all our complaints, Americans — liberal or conservative — aren’t terribly interested in good schools, a problem we’ve been able to ignore in part by importing brains from other nations (e.g., China and India).
But how can we say we don’t care when we pour so much money into education? Weissberg suggests that, while education is the ostensible raison d’etre for the public schools, their actual functions seem to be more as social welfare programs (soup kitchen, public health facility, employer of a unionized workforce, free daycare, athletic training facility/source of entertainment) than as educational facilities. All of this is done under the umbrella of education (“A hungry child can’t learn”), but it’s worth noting that American students are regularly outperformed by students from countries that don’t offer these welfare-state bells and whistles.
He goes on to argue that in order to maintain demand for these programs (and for the workforce that provides them, and that workforce’s administration and support, and…), we force a number of “students” into the system who lack the ability to learn at high levels, the inclination, or both. This guarantees a clientele for the social welfare functions, but actually works against education, as the faux-students waste resources and disrupt the education of the children who actually are capable and motivated. Efforts to “reform education” tend to founder on the rocks of egalitarianism (“All children can learn.”), but one of the winds that pushes us toward those rocks is our vested interest in the educational establishment as it stands. That’s not something the Right’s favorite nostrum of school choice can fix, either. Bad students can ruin a good school more easily than a good school can raise bad students. It brings me back to my dad’s maxim, that “You can get a good education anywhere — but you have to want it.” Our current public education system is an example both of mission creep and of the fact that we place more emphasis on social welfare programs than we do on actual educational accomplishment.
Goldberg mentions that the President is calling attention to the difference between the nightmare that is the DC school system and Sidwell Friends, where his daughters go to school. But I would argue that Sidwell isn’t Sidwell because of the price (except where that price serves to keep out those elements who aren’t sufficiently motivated to perform at Sidwell levels, although it also excludes poor families who actually are motivated) — it’s because of the students who go there. The problem is that public school students who might be Sidwell quality are dragged down by their dull or unmotivated classmates, who are winnowed out at private schools.
I agree with Goldberg that the liberal approach of throwing money at education won’t help (although it in fact provides a stealth opportunity to relieve people of responsibility for parts of their own lives), but neither would a hypothetical conservative move to take funds away from the schools. The fact is that until we abandon the egalitarian pretense that everyone is both capable of and interested in high educational achievement, we’re wasting our time and our money.