What Mitt Should Do about Education
You may recall that I awarded an "F" to Mitt Romney's proposals to fix America's schools. But better to light a candle than curse the darkness, so let me propose an "A" alternative. I'll begin with what I call "The Four Don'ts."
First, don't promise the impossible. Recall George Bush's ill-fated No Child Left Behind (NCLB)'s plan to make every American child proficient in math and reading. Education reform already suffers from a deserved terrible reputation from overreach; no need to pile it on. Keep it modest.
Second, don't excite powerful enemies in order to pursue inside straights. Conserve political capital. America has more pressing problems than Washington fixing K-12 education. Rather than abolish the Department of Education (hopeless), just ship top bureaucrats on an all-expenses-paid Las Vegas junket for the duration. Far cheaper, too. Nor should Mr. Romney cut the fat from ineffective programs like Head Start. Doomed battles -- so just accept the waste as business as usual.
Third, don't venture into identity politics. The track record here is dismal, and pandering will not win votes. When NCLB sought to level group-related outcomes, it just brought acrimony with near zero benefits. Talk only about "American education."
Fourth, don't assume that "good ideas" will work. Every decent idea is already in place, and adding more funding only increases our debt without commensurate benefits. Ignore siren songs of "good ideas" like more early childhood intervention or reducing class size (neither works). The research should be 80% in your favor before proposing anything.
Counsel understood, what should Romney do? He should begin by reducing Washington-imposed regulatory burden. No more bureaucratic millstones. Abolish Department of Justice edicts about racial disciplinary quotas, end the anti-bullying task forces, and forget about national standards (these are always avoided anyhow). Then dismantle all the Department of Education one-size-fits-all mandates on testing and proficiency. And on and on. In an instant, teachers could teach, not battle Mickey Mouse rules, and students will benefit.
Then, turn the national education agenda away from uplifting the bottom (massively expensive and ineffective, anyhow) to energizing science and engineering education. A few strokes of the pen could reverse Washington's decade-long war on gifted programs (see here). Not all that difficult, either. Local constituencies for genuine gifted education already exist, but these have been stifled by the Bush NCLB requirements to uplift the bottom. If, as usual, the ACLU attacks a local gifted program as "discriminatory," Washington should now defend the program. Within a year, thousands of school districts will have authentic gifted programs.
Further, add nationally certified "super schools" drawing on the top 1% or 2% as established by tough, no-nonsense tests. Some will have college-like campuses, and tuition will be zero (Silicon Valley will gladly pay the bills). Forget about admitting students whose only qualification was organizing a protest to save gay whales victimized by bullying Orcas. New York City's elite Bronx High School of Science is the model (strict state-mandated admissions standards). Critically, exclude professional educators from everything. They will only insist that science requires a multicultural foundation so students must study Aztec physics. Let academics from MIT and Cal Tech figure it out.
President Romney can also begin, ever so slightly, to interject intellectual accomplishment into our culture. Not as formidable as it might initially appear. Recall how the Communist Chinese mobilized to win Olympic medals. We can follow the same "national champion" strategy for school math contests, international youth chess tournaments, and science competitions (the only notable example of this approach is the national spelling bee). Then celebrate these "Heroes of American education" and award full-tuition scholarships for top performers and $100,000 prizes for teachers and coaches. Cost will be minimal, and technology firms like Intel will gladly pay for sponsorship.
The president might even help glamorize nerdiness. With sufficient presidential publicity, it may even be possible to revive once-popular "intellectual" TV programs like the Whizz Kids and the College Bowl, where smart kids bedazzled adults. The Post Office should immediately issues commemorative stamps to honor Nobel Prize-winners, but only in the sciences.
This is, admittedly, a minuscule agenda compared to past Washington efforts, while the cost would be a rounding error for such "innovative" (but failed) initiatives as President Obama's Race to the Top. There are few moving parts, and it will work as designed. But it is also plainly, unequivocally, unabashedly elitist, and as such, it will bring the usual howls of racism, classism, and what do you expect from the rich one-percenter Romney.
Here, however, is where Romney can shine as the education president. To wit, given that the left loathes academic excellence, Mitt must assume the "protector of merit" mantle. This nicely parallels his unleash-the-entrepreneur economic program: America overflows with intellectually talented kids whose education has for too long been undermined by the levelers. Just let smart kids be smart, and for good measure he should let private enterprise develop and market solutions. Unleash Stanley Kaplan versus suing it for using "discriminatory credit histories" when hiring (see here).
And how can Romney market this modest agenda? Can he attract voters? Two themes. The first is practical -- America must cultivate every ounce of brain power to beat foreign rivals. As president, he should regularly make reference to the 1958 National Defense Education Act, passed when the Russians humiliated us with Sputnik 1 and the threat of nuclear annihilation suddenly materialized. Explain how we have been living off past intellectual capital and how, as these smart innovators exit into hyperspace, they have to be replaced. Where's the next Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison? Dumbing down education to uplift the bottom solves nothing.
The second theme is fairness. Invoke Thomas Jefferson's "Natural Aristocracy" -- that is, an aristocracy not of birth or social status, but of talent. In plain English, everybody, regardless of background, gets a shot, and just as in sports, some win and most lose. This is true fairness, as opposed to government giving some a leg up to make life "truly fair." Imagine if government demanded that since having "tall" genes was unfair to those under 6', the NBA should stop measuring height. Nearly all Americans understand this old-fashioned notion of fairness.
All in all, as per the Constitution, with its federalism and limited national authority, this agenda is sensible and costs little. It is ideologically conservative but leaves untouched all the pork so vital to liberals. It combines "less is more" with "do no harm." After decades of grand ill-conceived schemes that cost billions and accomplished nothing, it's time for something different.