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Posted by on Jan 29, 2007 in At TMV | 9 comments

Public Education: Is It Broken Enough Yet?

Last month, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce proposed massive, comprehensive reformation of our public educational system. Response to their report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, was tepid from a number of quarters.

From the NEA:

“Tough Choices or Tough Times has shed light on some very real issues. However, we urge caution in calling for drastic changes that could potentially disenfranchise poorer communities and eliminate community voices in the reform conversation.


“In the end, we all must get down to the work of reforming our public schools, one step at a time.

From WaPo’s education columnist Jay Mathews:

Almost all the ideas in the report are worthy of support. Teachers salaries should be raised substantially to attract better recruits. Standardized tests should be rewritten to encourage creative thought. Independently operated public schools should be encouraged. Spending on low-income students should be increased.

The problem is the report’s fanciful notion that it would be possible — indeed, they say it is absolutely necessary — to do all these things at once.

Too much at one time. Take baby steps. Or worse:

If the report’s authors’ fears prove true, and American living standards begin to decline because of competition abroad and poor schooling, the U.S. education system will change very quickly. But we education reporters learned long ago that most national commissions are wrong. It is better to wait and let actual events, rather than well-staffed guesses, determine our next move.

So — we should wait until standards begin to decline, because then, the system will change quickly.

Great. Let’s just kick this ball down the field some more, eh?

So how will we know when standards have declined so much that it’s finally time to do something? Would dropout rates exceeding 50% in urban areas be a warning sign, do you think? Or are state-wide rates of 1/3 worrisome, as is being reported today from Texas? (My post this morning on this here.) From the Houston Chronicle:

“If you live in a city like Dallas or Houston, and half of your kids are not finishing high school, it’s a social crisis, because we know that those kids will likely live in poverty, be much more likely to go to jail, and they will have more health problems,” Coppola said.


Sanborn from Children At Risk said, “There’s no defense — period — in terms of how we are allowing these many kids to drop out of school.”

If the current trend line is not altered, average household incomes in Texas will decline, according to State Demographer Steve Murdock.

How far are we, as a nation, willing to travel down this road? In Texas, it seems they’re willing to go a bit farther yet:

That’s why he and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, insisted last year on giving all school districts $275 per high school student for dropout-prevention and college-readiness programs.

College-readiness programs are — or should be — completely unrelated to drop-out prevention, but Shapiro’s solution sums up our entire problem in a nutshell: Everybody should go to college, because… well… just because.

No. Everybody should not go to college (There. I said it. Still breathing?), and if we continue to pursue this narrow path, our nation will fail… not because our intentions are bad, but because we’ve built our educational system on what I see as a skewed interpretation of “all men are created equal”.

Yes, we are all equal under the Constitution, and in the eyes of the law; we all enjoy the same rights and privileges as citizens; we should all be educated to the best of our abilities… but that does not mean we are “equal”. Within even the best-performing school districts, there’s a bell curve.

We’ve trapped ourselves with educational egalitarianism.

Trades and vocations are seen as somehow “less”, and even though we desperately need all skills (at all proficiency levels) in a complex society, we don’t necessarily respect them… and this ridiculous view of ourselves is the stone that will drag us down.

The system will have to break altogether before we’ll be able to confront ourselves, I’m afraid, and when that happens, we’ll be forced into some some very hard choices. We could make them today, but we won’t. We evidently can’t.

What a shame — because the problems of today will be vastly worse in that not-so-distant tomorrow.