The Futility of American Educational Reform

As anticipated, President Obama recently unveiled his proposed solution to America's educational tribulations, namely greater early childhood intervention, merit pay for teachers, more charters and national standards. Though this smorgasbord differs in details from his predecessor's No Child Left Behind, it is actually a quite similar restaurant-like order from the identical menu. And just as eateries typically have a common theme, e.g., Italian, so does this education carte du jour:  Regardless of what is selected, learning is never the student's responsibility.

Like a patient undergoing brain surgery, today's student lies passively while experts labor to insert knowledge, and to continue this metaphor, surgeons only disagree on how to put it in. For some, knowledge is best inserted by hiring superior teachers; or the route might be holding school administrators accountable; or curriculum experts should concocting exciting new ways to stimulate appetites; or social service professions must be commanded to assist youngsters overcome their personal and home-life crises impeding learning, to mention only a few possibilities to fix the patient's brain.

Regardless of ideology, every contemporary putative solution has this "somebody else will do it" element. While this is predictable for liberals with their "don't blame the victim" flavored solutions, so-called conservatives differ not one iota. "Personal responsibility," the supposed touchstone of conservative thinking is nowhere to be found in these vouchers, charters or accountability mantra; someone, anyone, other than the student is to be responsible for learning.

So, for example, a charter school will be shuttered if it fails to boost achievement but the students themselves, regardless of culpability in their failure, will just painlessly enroll elsewhere where the profit motive will, hopefully, push knowledge into brains a bit harder.

Recall how New York City's Mayor Bloomberg was cheered when he said the he would take personal responsibility for New York public school performance (or how President Bush was personally castigated when his much heralded Reading First program showed lackluster results). Education parents now give way to Education Mayors and Education Presidents. If one needed an example of how liberal don't-blame-the-victim thinking currently dominates education, today's educational tinkering is the perfect illustration.

Why do we refuse to hold students responsible if they fail tests? Why has no one stood up and said, "Test scores will improve when students become diligent, pay attention to teachers, and put as much effort into learning as they put into sports and socializing?"  What politician will propose requiring tough high-school exit tests with no second chances as the first step to push today's lazy student off their butts?"

Note well, this personal responsibility message hardly excludes anything on today's menu. You can order it and also ask for a side order of vouchers or multi-culturalism, so its embrace need not anger, let alone economically hurt, any of today's educators. One might even guess that expressing these Apple Pie and Motherhood thoughts would bring cheers from teachers tired of being bashed for not working miracles. Similar applause would come from all those employers exasperated by their hires who think that work is just like a boring class in American history where merely showing up earned a "B."

Multiple explanations exist for this unspeakable truth, but three stand out. First, contemporary American pedagogues are clueless about being a hard ass, and those gray beards who do remember yesterday's sure-fire recipe of humiliation, ridicule, dunce caps and other self-esteem undermining tactics, recognize that they are totally impermissible in today's help-students feel-good-about-themselves environment. Cracking the whip on Mr. Lazybones (in the classroom though not in sports) invites trouble from parents, even litigation. Today's expert-certified motivation approach can best be depicted as "Spare the Rod, Help the Child."

In America's perverse education world, punishing sloth supposedly destroys the inner passion to learn. Yet one more time, the passion to promote unearned self-esteem subverts genuine accomplishment.

Second, little concrete is to be gained politically by pointing the finger at students themselves. Finger-pointing may elicit cheers and hundreds of congratulatory e-mails, but it lacks a ready-made political constituency, and politics is about votes, not scoring rhetorical points. By contrast, criticizing chronic laggards will almost certainly energize quick-to-anger grievance groups whose leaders profit from alleged insults to group members.

Keep in mind that President Obama's educational reform was part of an economic stimulus package, and far, far less a proven recipe for higher academic achievement. Even if it fails, many will gain economically, and this was undoubtedly understood by those who crafted it. Ditto for President Bush's ill-fated NCLB -- hardly surprising, since it brought massive federal spending increases, so even doubters quickly lined up at the public trough for a piece of the action.

President Lyndon Johnson aptly noted that political success requires first identifying a ready-made political constituency, and this is especially true in education, and while kicking butt will win some kudos, mobilizing and organizing fans of butt kicking is impossible, at least in the short run, i.e., the interlude until the next election. Money talks, cost-free solutions sans voters walk.   

Lastly, a re-invigorated focus on personal culpability entails a painful look in the mirror. Pogo's wisdom sadly applies to contemporary education: We have met the enemy and he is us. Every item on the reform menu, regardless of ideology, facilitates massive denial, and educators labor to keep it that way. Bush and Obama are enablers on a grand scale. A parent who refuses to prod junior or even discipline him for disrupting classes enjoys a professionally supplied carte d'excuses that surely outshines even the most extensive Greek diner menu: the school is rotten, teachers don't care, textbooks are dull, school boards are skinflints, more schooling options are needed, principals impose too much (or too little) discipline, the curriculum is irrelevant, there is no Internet, and on and on.

When educational reformers cater to our irresponsibility, this insisting that somebody else will fix junior's refusal to buckle down, dependency becomes a drug-like addiction. Within a few years these deus ex machina solutions become the very definition of "educational reform." Policy-making now lurches from one repackaged failed nostrum (e.g., merit pay, Head Start) to more creative panaceas, e.g., close bad schools as if schools themselves fail tests. If there is a glimmer of hope in this, it is the burgeoning popularity of homeschooling. After all, it is embarrassing to round up the usual educational disaster culprits when Mom and Pop run the school.
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