Leave it to the educators

See also: The Futility of American Educational Reform

Public education today is a mess.  It has been ruined by parents whose legitimate concern for their kids has been translated into illegitimate interference with the educational process. Aiding and abetting the parents are legislators who have passed laws that empower parents and students at the expense of professional educators, and a judiciary that imposes its will on the educational process without regard for the realities of education.

About thirty years ago, it became fashionable to think that everyone who had an opinion about education should weigh in on the appropriate way to teach children. A thriving cottage industry grew up in our colleges and universities, an industry that ever since has been churning out doctors of education whose graduate theses elaborate experimental ideas about the best way to give children a proper education. Armed with their freshly minted credentials, this class of modern day education wizards has been stunningly successful at infiltrating its ideas into the educational fabric of our society.

Capitalizing on our country's almost compulsive preoccupation with things quantitative, these wizards have infused their experimental ideas with methodologies derived from the so-called science of statistics. Waving the banner of statistical analysis, they elaborated theories of education that fly in the face of common sense, theories that have now been widely adopted in school districts throughout the country at the expense of proven methods of educating children employed for over a century.

Ever ready to please parent-voters by trying out the newest and most politically correct solution to the age-old problem of producing an educated citizenry, and with a grateful glance in the direction of the education wizards just in case someone might need to be blamed for future failures, our legislators have mandated or approved such miracles of modern education as:
  1. Learning how to read without phonics (ironically labeled "whole language" learning);
  2. Learning mathematics without addition and subtraction (laughably labeled "new math");
  3. Learning mainstream history through the fisheye of the historically disaffected or politically disenfranchised;
  4. Learning literature by abandoning luminaries like Shakespeare in favor of "more modern" authors;
  5. Dumping students into classrooms in which multiple teachers simultaneously try to teach multiple curriculums to multiple grades of children;[1]
  6. Grouping non-English speaking students with students whose knowledge of English is essential to mastering the subject being taught; and,
  7. Deserting the historically successful practice of grouping children according to their intellectual abilities so that appropriate teaching strategies and instructional tempos can be used to maximize the student learning experience.

The result of this brave-new-world approach to education has been to produce two or three generations of disgracefully under-educated and woefully under-performing citizens. If statistics tell a tale, it is here that they speak most persuasively. In the last thirty years, the statistics show a decline in literacy and intellectual achievement in our country that is nothing less than shocking. It is no coincidence that, during this same period of time, professional educators in this country have been under continuous assault from parents, politicians and even public school administrators.[2]

By now, everyone has heard of the "law of unintended consequences." One of its corollaries may be that "no good deed goes unpunished."  However cynical that sounds, it highlights an unfortunate fact about human beings: no matter how good our motives, we are capable of doing great evil when we act without giving due regard to the context in which we are acting. To paraphrase Henry James, there is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood.

In the context of education, this means that policies and procedures have for thirty years been adopted in order to remedy real or perceived deficiencies without regard to the realities of education, and in derogation of the educational methodologies that have proven successful for many generations. A notorious example will help illustrate this point.

Three decades ago, a few parents with a very specific and rather narrow agenda hired some like-minded lawyers to challenge the way public education was funded in California. In the 1971 case of Serrano v. Priest, they complained that insufficient money was allocated to schools in poor districts because school funding was partially tied to the property tax base of the school district's local community.[3] This resulted, they said, in a funding scheme that violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. In consequence of their lawsuit, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling that resulted in California changing its entire scheme for funding public education.[4]  The basis of funding was transformed into what is now known as ADA (average daily attendance). ADA, coupled with some other legislative enactments, puts administrators and teachers in the position of having to please parents in order to keep students in their schools. The removal of a student from a school by a parent represents a financial hardship for a school, and in extreme cases may actually threaten financial catastrophe.

Parents understand that if their children are to get good jobs they will need to get good grades, get a diploma, and move on to get credentialed or certificated at some post-secondary level. Because, as a rule, parents are more interested in their own children's future than they are in the future of the Republic as a whole, they will, if they are allowed, exert direct pressure on a school if their children don't receive high marks, no matter how educationally inappropriate that pressure might be.

ADA funding of public education is one of the things that allows parents to exert such pressure. Moreover, notwithstanding the good intentions surrounding the school voucher movement, if and when parents can go school shopping by way of vouchers, they will have even more power to blackmail educators into debasing the quality of education by giving good grades to students that haven't earned them, and by giving a free pass to misbehaving students who are in dire need of sound discipline.

The ADA debacle thus illustrates how a few parents with apparently benign motives can, by their ill-informed actions, produce exactly the opposite result from the one they actually seek. The parents in Serrano complained that, due to lack of funding, their children were receiving an inferior education. Aided and abetted by a well-meaning but ill-considered judicial opinion, those parents have now produced an educational system in California that provides an inferior education to everyone, not just to their children. No doubt that meets the Constitutional criterion for equal protection, but it clearly does not constitute sound educational policy.

If our nation is to have any chance to reinvigorate its historical commitment to producing a civilized society, it must re-empower educators to educate. This means that education policy must be structured to support the educators who labor day in and day out to do the educating. It means that educators must be protected in the educational decisions they make, not made subject to the interference of parochial-minded parents, vote-seeking politicians, frightened administrators, high-minded jurists who lack educational experience, or intermeddling theorists masquerading as education wizards. Protecting our teachers from the decisions of educationally ill-informed people won't solve all of the problems of public education, but it will reverse the direction of the last thirty years and set us back on the high road of civilization.

[1]  Perhaps the most notorious failure in this regard was the Disney sponsored school in Florida, which lasted for a whole three years before the parents yanked their kids out of such an unworkable environment.

[2]  I don't wish to imply that all administrators are complicit in this evil. But even administrators who understand and personally oppose what is going on in public education often feel compelled to yield to the evil by forces that threaten their personal economic survival. For example, some high school administrators are actually interviewed for their positions by hiring committees that include students; and student complaints about administrators are often accorded a degree of solicitude by parents and boards of education (which are composed of parents) that any reasonable person would expect to be accorded to the administrator, instead. 

[3] Wealthier communities had higher property tax bases -- especially in the days before California voters passed Proposition 13 that put the brakes on property tax increases.

[4]  The Serrano case was reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court in 1976 and, along with subsequent legislative enactments, has resulted in school funding decisions being taken out of the hands of local communities whose children benefit or suffer from those decisions and put into the hands of the state legislature.