Mitt Flunks Education 101

The Romney campaign has been remarkably focused -- it's the economy, the economy, and then the economy.  At least until Wednesday, May 23, when Mitt veered off-mission to address America's educational woes.  The result is, at least in my expert opinion, a disaster, and in ways that exceed the usual campaign banalities.  Romney has offered up a dog's breakfast of doomed-to-fail, often airhead nostrums, and if the brainy Romney cannot get it right, perhaps no candidate can.  Worse, Romney's ill-fated foray suggests that since any frank discussion of education is impossible, the U.S. will just continue to waste billions, or even exacerbate an already bad situation.

Let me catalogue Romney's seven "cures" and, briefly, why each will fail.  He begins by calling the gap between whites and minorities (assumed to be blacks and Hispanics) "the civil rights issue of our era."  This gap may, in fact, be a civil rights issue, but nobody, regardless of ideology, has any solid idea on how to close it.  Since the mid-1960s, billions -- perhaps trillions -- have targeted this gap, and nothing works.  Nothing.  (See my Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, Ch. 4, for an exhaustive tour.)  Perhaps some future miracle measure will succeed, but for now, Romney just offers phony hope.  If taken seriously, the quest invites only the squandering of billions more.  So much for Romney's reputation as a hard-headed, bottom line-driven businessman.

Second, like other free-market Republicans, he favors more charters schools and vouchers, and even online learning.  Yes, these occasionally succeed, but not generally (for example, see here).  Consumer choice may mesmerize students and parents, but it is hardly a magic bullet to cure academic inadequacy, particularly for struggling minorities.  In some instances, choice may emphasize sports or entertainment, not academics -- no small allure in our anti-intellectual society.  Moreover, endorsing school choice inevitably brings union opposition, so Romney is calling for an uncertain solution that, nevertheless, guarantees widespread resistance (see here).  Where are all the Bain Capital accountants to calculate gains versus losses?

Proposals three and four repeat the standard "business"-oriented Republican solutions -- teacher accountability and individual school report cards.  Again, like charters, both measures are old hat and, on balance, fail to improve academic performance. New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly fiddled with teacher accountability, and while it sounds great in theory, it is a nightmare in practice.  Predictably, these measures engender never-ending squabbles over how to measure classroom performance, how under-performers are to be punished and stars rewarded.  Similar problems plague "report cards."  Again, New York City is a great laboratory -- endless well-hidden "adjustments" to reflect political machinations and "closed" schools that quickly reopen with many of the same teachers and identical curricula.  In many instances, "success" has been exposed as cooking the books.  I doubt that Romney's education advisors have even looked at the copious research detailing these shortcomings.  Nor do they seem to be aware of widespread cheating that comes with teacher accountability.  No business would be guilty of such sloppy due diligence.

Nostrum five is boilerplate anti-unionism.  Mitt labels teacher unions "the clearest example of a group that has lost its way."  Surely some grains of truth here, but unions are not the problem.  Has any staff member noticed that heavily unionized Massachusetts has some of the best-performing schools in America, while the South lags behind despite very few teachers' unions?  Or that 100% unionized Finland achieves stellar academic outcomes?  And where in the Constitution is the president authorized to de-certify local or state unions?  For the umpteenth time, a call for an unwinnable war that is not worth waging.    

Proposal six is the worst of the worst -- permitting poor minority and disabled freedom to transfer to any school in the state so they reap the benefits of "good schools."  The staggering administrative and financial costs of these educational schemes are the least of the liabilities, but still no small matter for already financially pressed schools.  More important, again, past failure is crystal-clear.  Troubled students bring their troubled habits with them, and, more important, they typically undermine their new "good schools."  Many will require extensive and intensive remediation, and this brings ideologically unsavory tracking.  Imagine the political fallout when 1,000 struggling Detroit youngsters request admission to an already packed top suburban school.  Are suburban kids to be forcefully relocated to the horrific schools vacated by these applicants?  Must these good schools now build additions and hire new teachers for these refugees?  Recall the tragedy of forced racial integration -- when poor inner-city kids were bused to nice suburban schools, affluent white parents fled, and these once-stellar schools declined.  This is all a game of musical chairs that will, guaranteed, make matters worse. 

Lastly, Romney offers something doable but, alas, which is unrelated to academics -- cut federal spending and eliminate the Department of Education by transferring its reduced responsibility elsewhere.  Leaving aside the Herculean problem any president faces when abolishing any federal department, how will all the schools now pay for mandatory report cards, the costs of creating new charter schools, the burdens of musical chairs and of implementing teacher accountability?  Has Mitt ever encountered the term "un-funded federal mandate"?  In a nutshell, more federal debt for less than nothing. 

This is unambiguous "F" work.  There are two ways of looking at Mitt's unsound proposals.  The kindest interpretation is that he is genuinely ill-informed about K-12 education (despite being a governor) and that his advisors know even less.  Everything is a rough first draft concocted late at night, by delirious speech-writers winging it.  Hopefully, the Mitt campaign will get it right next time around, and these early proposals will, just like Joe Biden's gaffs, vanish down the memory hole.

A second interpretation is more troubling -- based upon all the expensive failures, pessimism and despair are so deeply rooted that nobody really listens.  Education reform fatigue, so to speak.  Americans have heard all the fine-sounding, catchy slogans before and grown accustomed to flushing the money down the toilet.  Sanity requires going comatose when a candidate starts babbling about "fixing our schools."  No different, perhaps, from those who snooze during long-winded sermons.  Going one step farther, mindless pandering has become the norm when discussing "education reform," and Mitt is just making political hay -- gap-closing for African-Americans and egalitarian lefties, eliminating the Department of Education for Tea Party conservatives, and access to better schools for the parents of the disabled.  That his maiden speech on education was presented to the Latino Coalition is unlikely to be an accident. 

But there is even a more troubling interpretation of Mitt's "F" grade: we have lost the ability to talk -- perhaps even think-- sensibly about education, at least in public.  We just incoherently babble as if nothing mattered, and indeed, judged by past failures, nothing does matter.  Not even squandered billions matters.  Candidates are obligated only to say something, no matter how stupid.  The parallel might be Victorian-era public discussions of sex, when everything of importance apparently hardly existed, facts were obscured with euphemisms (sexual intercourse was just called "being intimate"), and even killer venereal diseases were unspeakable.  But we really can do better.  Honest.  Stay tuned.

The Romney campaign has been remarkably focused -- it's the economy, the economy, and then the economy.  At least until Wednesday, May 23, when Mitt veered off-mission to address America's educational woes.  The result is, at least in my expert opinion, a disaster, and in ways that exceed the usual campaign banalities.  Romney has offered up a dog's breakfast of doomed-to-fail, often airhead nostrums, and if the brainy Romney cannot get it right, perhaps no candidate can.  Worse, Romney's ill-fated foray suggests that since any frank discussion of education is impossible, the U.S. will just continue to waste billions, or even exacerbate an already bad situation.

Let me catalogue Romney's seven "cures" and, briefly, why each will fail.  He begins by calling the gap between whites and minorities (assumed to be blacks and Hispanics) "the civil rights issue of our era."  This gap may, in fact, be a civil rights issue, but nobody, regardless of ideology, has any solid idea on how to close it.  Since the mid-1960s, billions -- perhaps trillions -- have targeted this gap, and nothing works.  Nothing.  (See my Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, Ch. 4, for an exhaustive tour.)  Perhaps some future miracle measure will succeed, but for now, Romney just offers phony hope.  If taken seriously, the quest invites only the squandering of billions more.  So much for Romney's reputation as a hard-headed, bottom line-driven businessman.

Second, like other free-market Republicans, he favors more charters schools and vouchers, and even online learning.  Yes, these occasionally succeed, but not generally (for example, see here).  Consumer choice may mesmerize students and parents, but it is hardly a magic bullet to cure academic inadequacy, particularly for struggling minorities.  In some instances, choice may emphasize sports or entertainment, not academics -- no small allure in our anti-intellectual society.  Moreover, endorsing school choice inevitably brings union opposition, so Romney is calling for an uncertain solution that, nevertheless, guarantees widespread resistance (see here).  Where are all the Bain Capital accountants to calculate gains versus losses?

Proposals three and four repeat the standard "business"-oriented Republican solutions -- teacher accountability and individual school report cards.  Again, like charters, both measures are old hat and, on balance, fail to improve academic performance. New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly fiddled with teacher accountability, and while it sounds great in theory, it is a nightmare in practice.  Predictably, these measures engender never-ending squabbles over how to measure classroom performance, how under-performers are to be punished and stars rewarded.  Similar problems plague "report cards."  Again, New York City is a great laboratory -- endless well-hidden "adjustments" to reflect political machinations and "closed" schools that quickly reopen with many of the same teachers and identical curricula.  In many instances, "success" has been exposed as cooking the books.  I doubt that Romney's education advisors have even looked at the copious research detailing these shortcomings.  Nor do they seem to be aware of widespread cheating that comes with teacher accountability.  No business would be guilty of such sloppy due diligence.

Nostrum five is boilerplate anti-unionism.  Mitt labels teacher unions "the clearest example of a group that has lost its way."  Surely some grains of truth here, but unions are not the problem.  Has any staff member noticed that heavily unionized Massachusetts has some of the best-performing schools in America, while the South lags behind despite very few teachers' unions?  Or that 100% unionized Finland achieves stellar academic outcomes?  And where in the Constitution is the president authorized to de-certify local or state unions?  For the umpteenth time, a call for an unwinnable war that is not worth waging.    

Proposal six is the worst of the worst -- permitting poor minority and disabled freedom to transfer to any school in the state so they reap the benefits of "good schools."  The staggering administrative and financial costs of these educational schemes are the least of the liabilities, but still no small matter for already financially pressed schools.  More important, again, past failure is crystal-clear.  Troubled students bring their troubled habits with them, and, more important, they typically undermine their new "good schools."  Many will require extensive and intensive remediation, and this brings ideologically unsavory tracking.  Imagine the political fallout when 1,000 struggling Detroit youngsters request admission to an already packed top suburban school.  Are suburban kids to be forcefully relocated to the horrific schools vacated by these applicants?  Must these good schools now build additions and hire new teachers for these refugees?  Recall the tragedy of forced racial integration -- when poor inner-city kids were bused to nice suburban schools, affluent white parents fled, and these once-stellar schools declined.  This is all a game of musical chairs that will, guaranteed, make matters worse. 

Lastly, Romney offers something doable but, alas, which is unrelated to academics -- cut federal spending and eliminate the Department of Education by transferring its reduced responsibility elsewhere.  Leaving aside the Herculean problem any president faces when abolishing any federal department, how will all the schools now pay for mandatory report cards, the costs of creating new charter schools, the burdens of musical chairs and of implementing teacher accountability?  Has Mitt ever encountered the term "un-funded federal mandate"?  In a nutshell, more federal debt for less than nothing. 

This is unambiguous "F" work.  There are two ways of looking at Mitt's unsound proposals.  The kindest interpretation is that he is genuinely ill-informed about K-12 education (despite being a governor) and that his advisors know even less.  Everything is a rough first draft concocted late at night, by delirious speech-writers winging it.  Hopefully, the Mitt campaign will get it right next time around, and these early proposals will, just like Joe Biden's gaffs, vanish down the memory hole.

A second interpretation is more troubling -- based upon all the expensive failures, pessimism and despair are so deeply rooted that nobody really listens.  Education reform fatigue, so to speak.  Americans have heard all the fine-sounding, catchy slogans before and grown accustomed to flushing the money down the toilet.  Sanity requires going comatose when a candidate starts babbling about "fixing our schools."  No different, perhaps, from those who snooze during long-winded sermons.  Going one step farther, mindless pandering has become the norm when discussing "education reform," and Mitt is just making political hay -- gap-closing for African-Americans and egalitarian lefties, eliminating the Department of Education for Tea Party conservatives, and access to better schools for the parents of the disabled.  That his maiden speech on education was presented to the Latino Coalition is unlikely to be an accident. 

But there is even a more troubling interpretation of Mitt's "F" grade: we have lost the ability to talk -- perhaps even think-- sensibly about education, at least in public.  We just incoherently babble as if nothing mattered, and indeed, judged by past failures, nothing does matter.  Not even squandered billions matters.  Candidates are obligated only to say something, no matter how stupid.  The parallel might be Victorian-era public discussions of sex, when everything of importance apparently hardly existed, facts were obscured with euphemisms (sexual intercourse was just called "being intimate"), and even killer venereal diseases were unspeakable.  But we really can do better.  Honest.  Stay tuned.