Progressive is the New Conservative

If the public education system has been waiting for a cheerleader to assert some stern hard truths – the job is hard, the money’s well-spent, there are problems, fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, teachers gotta have their national convention in the fall instead of the summer – then their wait is over. Nicholas Lemann takes to the New Yorker to say, at great length, that the public school crisis is overblown. It is not one of those pieces overburdened by statistics. You get this:
Yet for a system that—according to Taylor, especially—is deeply in crisis, American higher education is not doing badly. The lines of people wanting to get into institutions that the authors say are just waiting to cheat them by overcharging and underteaching grow ever longer and more international, and the people waiting in those lines don’t seem deterred by price increases, even in a terrible recession.
First of all, he’s lumping college in with the discussion of public schools for kids, as if the higher-ed bubble, as Instapundit calls it, is organically connected to the problems of inner-city schools. This is like discussing the War in Afghanistan in a piece about the high cost of paying for overtime to Fargo policemen. Second, his thoughts on college demand seem rather . . . shallow. They lines for college are longer because people still believe that college is either required for success, or a necessary accomplishment for anyone who aspires to enter the overclass. The latter point I’ve never understood: if I had to hire someone, and one applicant worked for four years in a corn-canning factory while spending his or her evenings chewing through the great works of Western literature and philosophy, and the other spent $100K to get a bachelor’s degree in proto-Renaissance art history, there wouldn’t be any question. (I say that as an Art History minor, by the way.) (High Renaissance, though. That’s where the action was.) If they’re not deterred by price increases today, it’s because they’re not paying for it now, and still bet that a degree will open doors and allow them to pay off the crushing debt. Which it might, if it’s a useful degree. Anyway, Lemann’s column warns us not to do away with public education. Mend it, don’t end it! Spend it, don’t rend it! Amend it, don’t unfriend it!
The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.
In other words, progressivism is the new conservatism. It may be a large and vast issue viewed from an Olympian perspective, if you’re sitting in the ivory tower looking out over the great land below, helpfully labelled “EDUCATION MESS” in enormous letters. Most people see the problems of their schools as something much smaller, and they care less about Federal reform than the freedom to do something down the block. But we shouldn’t see education in local terms, because it’s, well, er, a system:
We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.
Which ideas he doesn’t want us to try, he doesn’t say. So I’ll supply a fave: vouchers. Keep the public system intact, let parents opt out if they like, and see if non-union schools unburdened by mandates do better. Bold, persistent experimentation – isn’t that what FDR advised? Don’t think that’s what he has in mind. I have no idea what he does have in mind, except to spend more money on subpar schools. But the President himself says that’s not the answer – not because he believes it, but because this is the season in which such things have to be said. So what are we supposed to do, then? That doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. For the moment, it’s important we not do what the reformers want. When that threat has passed, we can go back to talking about the students. By then they will have graduated with diplomas they can barely read. But there’s always a fresh crop coming up. There are some people who are Waiting for Superman for different reasons, and they have a briefcase full of Kryptonite. Just in case he tries something.


  1. John Davey says

    Generally speaking, people who send their children to a public school that has issues, know what the issues are. And while the public school we send our young children to has very high test scores, and consistently places well in California rankings, we do note that Administration seems to be the source of most problems. At the School level, at the District Level, and at the County Board of Education Level.

    Our 9 year old has a clinical diagnosis of ADHD (pretty mild), and has difficulty taking timed tests, and also has spacial issues (she fidgets because she has trouble balancing herself – constantly needs to be touching things to gauge where they are in relation to where she is, cannot hold a pencil in the correct manner, which leads to physical fatigue, and sloppy work). We’ve had SST, evaluations, the whole work up. We’ve had her evaluated under our HMO, as well as spent thousands on independant evaluations with phycologists outside our HMO. The school cannot find anything that they can address because overall her grades are good. But her grades are good because of the work we put in with her at home. She stresses about completing assignments, and her workload seems overwhelming to her, which further exacerbates her outlook. We’ve had her evaluated by an HMO phycologist to get the ADHD diagnosis, and furthermore, since our health insurance (which of course is a Cadillac plan!) will only cover one mental health clinician at a time, we have had her seeing an Occupational Therapist at our own cost, because the diagnosis suggested this would benefit her. And it has, it is especially evident in the improvement in her writing and her spacial issues. The phycologist advised us that we need to get a “504” plan in place with the school, because as she moves forward in grades, the workload will increase, and the she will find herself struggling more and more.

    So the goal of the 504 plan is simply to make accommodations for timed tests and class assignments, and to document the evolution of her learning plan. The 504 is a California Department Of Education Law – but the school principal, whom we met with on this issue last week, says that our daughter doesn’t meet the requirements to have a 504 plan. Her grades are good (not just passing, but excelling). And the school district’s position is that she has to be failing before they can consider a 504. California Law says that if we ask for it, with a physician’s referral (not even a clinical diagnosis) we get it. The principal pulled out some documentation on district letterhead that points out the “MUST BE FAILING” criteria. Which is in direct conflict with state law. So now we are compelled to fight with the principal, and in turn, the district, and then the county department of Education, before we end up taking it to the State of California. By which time, our daughter will be out of the fourth grade and into the fifth. And to wage these battles, we’ve been instructed by the phycologist, the occupational therapist, and others, that we will be required to hire an educational advocate (Lawyer & Educational Phd) to escort us through the process, since you have to “know the ins and the outs, the language to use in specific instances, and when and how to ask for specific things” in order to prevail. “That’s just how El Dorado County is“. However, in the adjoining counties, you just ask, and you get it.

    To say nothing of the specious methods that are used to award education funding in California: if you really want to see corruption, inequities, and criminality, google “California Educational categoricals” to see what a true boondoogle looks like. It is schemes like these that are championed by the Unions, and lobbyists.

    Here’s a novel idea – give each student the exact same funding (with exceptions for special needs) and let the parents place the students in schools that excel. If parents want more than the voucher will provide, let them add to those funds, because if the desire is there, parents will find a way to make it happen.

    We don’t have enough craftsmen or trades trained workers in our society. The fallacy that a college education is the only way to succeed is promoted by elitists that have succeeded at the highest level, and have absolutely no respect for skilled craftsmen and tradesmen that keep our society working. Should someone go to college? Yes, if that option is available and the student has the desire to go. It can be a fulfilling and wondrous thing. But,we shouldn’t be so quick to deride the young plumber who learns their craft and ends up sending his children on to college,because he found a calling, and improved himself and created a living for his family, and, often, others. So by all means, separate K-12 education and higher education. Perhaps if we focus on each independently, instead of collectively, we can improve both.