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The right's education fantasy

Ohanian Comment: Ohmygod. . . and this is the "liberal" view: A small number of educators have figured out how to drill their students into appropriate behavior and learning.

Now these liberals wouldn't put their kids into a school that used this technique. But it's great for the Others.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic, where he has worked since 1995. He has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Time, American Prospect and other publications. And he provides a capsule view of why we must stop labeling education plans as "liberal" and "conservative" and instead label corporate plans when we see them. Drilling students into appropriateness is definitely the Corporate Way.

Willingness to pump more money into bad ideas should not be what distinguishes genuine conservatives from genuine liberals.

Take a look at what other "liberals" are saying about public schools:

Task Force Forming to Seek New Vision for Schools

A Study Guide For Fixing American Schools

Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century Economy (Barack Obama delivered this prepared text.)

One Mystery Solved

The Case for National Standards, Accountability, and Fiscal Equity

The Progressive Lurking in the Bushes

Here's the subhead for today's LA Times article: Conservatives' model for improving schools relies too much on high expectations, and not enough on money.

Jonathan Chait says "you can't build a national education strategy around relying on the kindness of strangers." That may well be true, but I'd rather rely on the kindness of the teachers he calls "strangers" than on the agendas of corporate raiders.

Jonathan Chait

MY WIFE spent a few years teaching in a mostly low-income elementary school. The main thing I remember her telling me was that parental involvement was a near-perfect predictor of her students' performance. The kids with active parents did well, and the kids with disengaged parents did poorly.

The great bugaboo of education reform has always been the role of parents. But if a child's family determines his educational future, then there's not much point in trying to perfect the school environment. Or so it would seem.

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine featured a fascinating article by Paul Tough on the conundrum of the education gap between rich and poor (and white and black). The bad news is that this gap is indeed deeply rooted in parenting styles from a very young age. There is a stark difference between the way middle-class or professional parents raise their children and the way poor parents do. The former talk with their children far more, expose them to a broader range of vocabulary and give them far more positive reinforcement. "The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke," Tough wrote, "and the advantage just kept building up."

The good news is that some schools have shown that they can compress this gap with an intensive and properly focused program. A small number of educators have figured out how to drill their students into appropriate behavior and learning. One of the biggest factors in their success seems to be quantity. The students arrive earlier in the day, stay later and enjoy radically shorter summer vacations.

Now, here is where things get political. Conservatives see these success stories and draw from it the (essentially correct) lesson that it is possible to dramatically improve education for poor children. But, much like the neoconservative belief that people everywhere crave democracy, they take this basic truth as a point of departure into wild utopian flights of fancy.

Conservatives citing these success stories have made their motto "No Excuses" as if it is only the pathetic failure of the education bureaucracy that is keeping every school from matching these achievements. President Bush's No Child Left Behind law set as its official goal the elimination of the achievement gap between rich and poor and white and black within a dozen years.

What the conservatives don't grasp is that the inner-city success stories are hard to replicate on a mass scale. These schools attract a small cadre of extremely bright and dedicated teachers, often willing to work 16-hour days.

You can find some teachers like that, but you can't find enough to staff every school in the nation, or even just the poorest ones.

There are two main problems with our pool of teaching talent. The first is that it's badly distributed. Schools are mostly funded locally, which means rich districts can easily afford to pay teachers more than poor ones. Tough cites a study of schools in Illinois that found the highest-quality teachers concentrated in the richest schools and the lowest-quality teachers concentrated in the poorest schools.

This is the unavoidable result of making schools raise most of their funding locally. The only way to change this insane system would be to fund schools at the national level.

The second problem is that teachers in general are massively underpaid. Two generations ago, teaching was able to attract a lot of highly skilled women because they were excluded from most professions on the basis of their gender. But as workplaces have opened up to women, schools have lost this vast pool of artificially underpaid talent.

If you want highly skilled teachers who work investment banker hours, we have to pay them like well, if not quite like investment bankers, then a lot more generously than we pay them now. This is the point most conservatives refuse to accept. They think you can supply the schools with dynamic, extremely hardworking teachers while paying them a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere. They believe that market incentives apply to everything in the world except the market for teachers.

Of course, you do have some teachers willing to make that enormous financial sacrifice. My wife is one of them. But you can't build a national education strategy around relying on the kindness of strangers.

— Jonathan Chait
Los Angeles Times




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