Yet One More Doomed Education Reform

That education reform is back in the national news once more sadly illustrates our fascination with trying to square circles while wasting hundreds of millions, if not billions.  The latest incarnation is President Obama's altering of President Bush's failed 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.  In a nutshell, the Department of Education will now grant states greater autonomy (plus up to $1 billion) if they agree to overhaul low-performing schools and impose more rigorous teacher evaluations.  Gone will be the unfeasible mandates to make all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.  Moreover, unlike the dumbing-down-friendly NCLB, the latest rhetoric speaks of promoting academic excellence, especially prodding schools to have "college and career ready" standards.

Escaping the dysfunctional NCLB is certainly good news for many professional educators and parents, but like every other recent alleged panacea, Obama's fix will fail it since it ignores the one feature of American education that dares not speak its name in public: the intellectual quality of students.  If reformers insisted on transforming all ordinary kids into world-class athletes, this would be a joke, since everybody would know the truth.  But when it comes to upping academic performance, nothing is said about individual ability or motivation; the culprit is always something else, and this avoidance of reality applies across the entire ideological spectrum.  Better to waste billions and fail than speak frankly.

To be sure, improvement across all racial and ethnic groups, the rich and the poor, is possible, but it is unrealistic to expect a large upward movement in tens of thousands of students, and this is what Obama is demanding.  Schools like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) among several others do have remarkable successes with disadvantaged African-Americans, but not even KIPP's most fervent supporters claim that this expensive, labor-intensive approach can be scaled up to make a dent in our national tribulations.  In fact, the Department of Education barely acknowledges these success stories since it knows full well that no reform can be built around heroic teachers, deeply involved parents, and uncompromising discipline.   

Fleeing an awkward reality is clearly evident in this latest 17-page missive.  Like the unsuccessful NCLB and every other reform of the last few decades, it speaks of transforming the "lowest performing schools" as if schools, not the occupants, were the culprit.  It assumes that schools are filled with kids who hate being there, are prone to violence and mayhem, and otherwise have long resisted the best efforts of teachers, but these strugglers can become decent, hardworking students if the school itself, totally apart from students, is fixed (the fix itself is left to the imagination).

So, for example, hook it up to the internet, hand out free computers, reduce class size, refurbish old buildings, make textbooks more multicultural, abolish teacher tenure, provide free nutritious meals, hire only culturally competent teachers, financially reward both students and teachers for improvement, toughen standards for teachers, hold administrators accountable for results, lengthen the school day, offer free after-school tutoring, and on and on, and voilà: the old "bad school" will now be a "good school."  That every single one of these "improvements" (and dozens more) has failed dismally goes unsaid.

Why should a kid who hates school improve if moved to a new building?  Have we forgotten the decades-long experiment in forced racial integration, where black students were bused to "good" white schools?  Not only did this experiment not improve academic performance, but many of these "good schools" became "bad schools" as whites fled.  Yes, a few bad students might become good students, but simply changing the setting seldom does the trick when we are talking about hundreds of thousands of students.   

More to the point, one study of 2,025 "bad schools" showed that they were highly resistant to efforts to improve them.  Moreover, despite all the demands for the death penalty for "bad schools," few were actually shuttered -- undoubtedly a reflection of harsh political reality regarding what to do with these refugees.  After all, who would welcome all the newcomers from a school with a reputation for violence and chaos?  Nor are school boards anxious to abandon buildings, many of which are relatively new, that still must be physically maintained though empty.

Perhaps the kindest explanation for believing in miracles is that school reformers are watching too many feel-good fantasy movies where a heroic teacher singled-handedly converts a class of rambunctious, illiterate delinquents into serious students (e.g., Lean on Me).  Perhaps for the sake of honesty, today's education reforms should have names like "The Hollywood Ending Reform of 2012."  A more hardheaded explanation is that this doomed "investing in our future" just shovels yet more money to Democratic Party benefactors. 

The root of this problem is an unwillingness to confront the ethnic/racial make-up of these "under-performing" schools, at least in public.  It's a safe strategy since buildings don't sue for libel or hold demonstrations if labeled "bad."  Regardless of geography, everybody, white, black, and brown, knows what a bad school is -- a school dominated by poor black and Hispanic students.  But can you imagine any candidate for elective office saying that our educational woes just reflect demography?  Imagine the outrage if a candidate said that our educational shortcomings are really immigration problems, since today's schools are filled with recent Hispanic immigrants lacking decent English skills who drift in and out of school as parents relocate to find work.  The term "bad school" is a euphemism, a way of avoiding political trouble with grievance group leaders just waiting to exploit alleged "insults" to rally the troops to extract material benefits.

Make no mistake -- anti-intellectualism is not just a poor black and Hispanic problem.  Politicians may talk of "academic excellence," but this is a gourmet item in America's school.  Skeptics are invited to see what occurs when academics collide with sports.  Repeatedly, when schools require athletes to have a "C" average to be eligible for play, school administrators (with public support) often undercut the rules so football players lose eligibility in the spring semester when there is no football.  The anti-intellectual culture of these schools is deeply ingrained, and pressuring administrators to perform miracles promotes cheating.    

Honesty opens the door to a slippery slope of issues almost always kept hidden.  Who can predict where the discussion of student characteristics will go?  But rest assured that it will go where nobody in public wants to go ("dangerous stereotypes" in PC lingo).  Try to imagine Rick Perry explaining why Hispanics but not poor Asians score so low on standardized tests.  To avoid any possible career-ending "misinterpretation," better to just keep quiet about what makes a school a "bad school."  All candidates will fervently insist that education reform requires making "bad schools" "good schools" via guaranteed-to-fail panaceas (for a sampling of what Republican presidential aspirants offer, see here).   

It is not that euphemisms and polite silences are bad -- civil society depends on them.  Rather, euphemisms and avoidances become dangerous when they blind the user to serious problems, and today's wasteful education policies are a dangerous mess.  Recall how deadly sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis were once covered up with the more polite "social disease."  Such civility hindered treatment, and the case for uncomfortable honesty certainly applies to confronting the reality of bad schools -- namely, the abilities and motivation of the students.  Nothing -- save sustaining the usual education pork -- is gained by refusing to identify the problem's true character.