U.S. Schools under Attack as Secretary of Education's Brain Hacked

Years ago when I began researching American education I suspected that at least some of our woes were the machinations of foreign enemies. My reasoning resembles what some Muslims said after 9-11: the Mossad must have organized the attack since Arabs lacked the competence to pull off such a spectacular success.  In other words, the ongoing destruction of America's educational system is too well conceived, too devious to be the work of our own barely competent education "experts." There must be some higher intelligence guiding this subversion.

This paranoia was confirmed by a recent Washington Post story about how the Department of Education uncovered racial disparities in school discipline, particularly police arrests and out-of-school suspensions. According to one recounted study of 50,000 students, blacks comprised 24% of enrollments but were 35% of arrests (disparities were smaller for Hispanics). This pattern is of course ancient news and closely mirrors adult crime data. The only "news" here was the prodigious amount of data collected to demonstrate a rather un-newsworthy point.  

What fueled my paranoia, however, was how these data were interpreted and it is here that I smelled a vast cyber-attack conceivably originating in Shanghai or Moscow. The first tip-off was a "shocked" reaction off Education Secretary Arne Duncan who then called for educators and community leaders to join forces to eliminate this gap.  I can only imagine the newly enlightened Mr. Duncan who, despite eight years heading up the violence-plagued, largely minority Chicago public schools, saying to his advisors, "Why didn't you tell me this before!"

More important, however, is that Duncan's newly embraced crusade will further undermine an educational system struggling just to stay even. Has the Secretary ever encountered the term "opportunity cost" -- spending time on one task precludes giving attention elsewhere?  So, assembling all the task forces, concocting mission statements, commissioning research, defining bureaucratic responsibilities, negotiating agendas among political rivals, turning grandiose plans into specifics, hiring and training the necessary implementation staff and then getting it all funded will now join the nation's educational "to do" list, and will necessarily compete with traditional responsibilities of imparting literacy and numeracy.

Picture this "make-the-discipline-numbers" missive coming down to some inner-city school already struggling to stay afloat all the while facing mass firings for not boosting reading and  math scores. The most rational reaction, at least in my estimation, would be for the already harried principal to throw Duncan's missive in the trash or to give to an assistant who then "misplaces" it.

But, what if pressured principal takes the poisoned bait? To skip the details, the only way to make these "fairness" numbers is to mete out discipline by quotas. Anything else would require thousands of hours of investigation and record keeping which means countless new employees, and since Arne forgot to enclose a check, so much for that.  So, if African Americans comprise 30% of the students, they will receive proportionate punishment, regardless of actual behavior. And, if errant behavior continues to be unequally distributed, many blacks will, most likely, be given "get out of jail free" cards and rest assured, many white, Asian and black parents will soon find a safer school. Thousands of otherwise functioning schools will become violent educational wastelands. Struggling schools will become totally unmanageable and, in a sad twist of fate, poor blacks will be hurt the most since they often lack private school options.  

It gets worse. As in some cheap science fiction movie, our enemies have now hacked into bureaucratic brains. In fact, the Secretary may be the first victim when he explains that punishment inequality may not be a result of overt discrimination but still the same, we should still try to eliminate it. Think about it: the head of a huge powerful federal bureaucracy is saying that there may not be a problem, all may be fine but we should try to cure the appearance of a possible problem, even if this consumes colossal resources better allocated elsewhere. Another education expert (Professor Russell Skiba of Indiana University) concurs "Where there are clear discrepancies, that should be of concern for us a nation." Our Chinese competitors must be jumping with joy-America will be wasting millions to eliminate differences in disciplinary outcomes simply because, well, they are discrepancies.  What's next-a Manhattan Project-like effort to make every student above average by legally mandating a "B" the lowest permissible grade?

Proof that the brains of today's education experts have been seized by some off-shore enemy is also evident by how the offenses that brought expulsion or suspension are now characterized. Fighting, insubordination and class disruption are now "adolescent misjudgments" not reprehensible or criminal behavior. Beating somebody up is now morally equivalent to choosing the wrong elective course. So, replace school security with lessons to improve decision-making.  

This softening of language to obscure despicable behavior is hardly new. I recall college athletes who, according to news reports, had "personal problems" that included convictions for felonious assault and robbery.  When was the last time you heard the phrase "juvenile delinquent" let alone "thug"?  The only linguistic survivor of an earlier moralistic plain-spoken era seems to be "bully" and I suspect that term survives because the objects of bullying are often officially protected gay students.     

In effect, in our rush to help youngsters we dilute the moral opprobrium surrounding anti-social behavior while eliminating the last vestiges of personal responsibility. Yesterday's juvenile delinquent is today's "student at risk" since he is "at risk" from being pushed into law-breaking by his bad environment (his likely targets are not, of course "at risk"). At least for some do-gooders, calling a young criminal a "young criminal" needlessly stigmatizes him and thereby only exacerbates criminality; perhaps better to see him as a "high need" student or "under-privileged" youngster who is "reaching out for help"     

Further keep in mind that race-related discrepancies are ubiquitous; unequal punishment is just the beginning. According to one recent study, differences also exist for promotion to the next grade and one might guess a similar pattern for the experiences of one's teacher, available social services, access to technology and tutoring, college counseling and just about every other feature of education. In principle, every nickel of today's education budged could be allocated to eliminating these budget "discrepancies."

If the brains of leading educators had not been hacked, this venture into school discipline would proceed quite differently. The aim now would not be to eliminate "discrepancies" but to ensure that American schools performed well and a key step in this direction would be ridding schools of those students who disrupt learning. Unequal punishment is only a "civil rights" issue for those who mindlessly conflate perfect equality with educational progress. More plausible is that an inability of black and Hispanic students to receive a decent education due to rampant school violence is the real "civil rights" issue.

Yes, a single suspended or incarcerated student will not benefit from school, but his or her removal may help the education of dozens of students previously deprived of teacher attention or those just too terrified to even show up. Safe learning environments should be a more pressing "civil right" than "discrepancies that may or may not be a result of discrimination."  

"Improving" American education by dispensing punishment by racial quota is a scheme so nefarious though simultaneously so alluring (at least to some) that it is beyond the reach of our "challenged" home-grown experts. I can only imagine the technical ingenuity necessary to penetrate and capture Arne Duncan's brain. Arne, for the sake of America's future, change your password!