TCS Daily

Leaving the Educrats Behind

By Arnold Kling - May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

"All great teachers are outlaws"
-- William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education

William Bennett, speaking at the 2004 Milken Institute Global Conference, expressed pessimism about working within the system to reform public education. He argued that the bureaucracy is too robust. Ultimately, the bureaucracy will respond to any attempt at top-down reform by sticking to business-as-usual. My personal experience with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - the most significant federal education reform in years -- would only reinforce Bennett's view that the bureaucracy will smother any attempt at reform.

Bedrock Racism

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, the political and educational establishment has two bedrock beliefs about education.

  • The test scores at any given school are determined almost entirely by the racial makeup of that school.
  • The last place that a teacher belongs is in a classroom.

The test scores in the eastern half of the County, where I live, are much lower than those in the western half. The average difference on the SAT's is more than 200 points. Whenever the disparity between the test scores in the west and in the east is mentioned, the political and educational establishment is quick to point out that there are many more black and hispanic students in the east. Implicitly, they are saying that you cannot expect to educate the black and hispanic populations.

Consistent with its bedrock belief in racial determinism, the school system has attempted to reduce the disparity in test scores across schools over the last three decades by trying to reshuffle the ethnic mix of students. Students from the wealthy, mostly-white western part of the county are lured to the eastern part with magnet programs. When parents request transfers for students to different schools in the county, such transfers are approved or disapproved based in part on race.

The other bedrock belief is that teachers should not have to suffer the indignity of working in an actual classroom. Instead, rewards and prestige go to those who escape teaching. For example, a number of "academies" have been set up within the high schools, in order to give students what sound like interesting and valuable curricula for their elective subjects. Each of these academies requires non-teaching staff positions. Over the past few years, many of the best teachers in our local high school have been given positions with titles like "co-ordinator" that pay more but involve no direct contact with students.

This is part of a national trend. Ronald Nash points out, "As public school budgets have gone up, the number of people on the payroll actually involved in classroom teaching has plunged. During the 1949-50 school year, 70% of government school employees were teachers. Twenty years later (1969-70), only 60% of public school employees were teachers. By 1991, the percentage of teachers had dropped to close to 50%."

More of the Same

Proponents of NCLB say that it will force failing schools to change. If so, then I should be in a position to observe it. Unlike perhaps anyone else who attended the Milken conference or who voted on the NCLB legislation, I have children who attended a public elementary school that has been found to be a "needs improvement school" (aka a "failing school") under the terms of the act.

In fact, Montgomery County's response to the legislation has been to increase doing what it has always been doing: ethnic re-shuffling and adding to its non-teaching staff. If anything, the need to comply with NCLB provides still another excuse to pad the bureaucracy. Now, in addition to all the other educrats it employs, the school system has staff dedicated to NCLB testing issues.

Bureaucratic Football

NCLB is best viewed as setting up a battle between the Federal government and the local educational establishment. Rather than give the local schools money without regard to results, NCLB makes local schools more "accountable" to Federal standards. It gives the Federal educrats tools to monitor school performance and force failing schools to change or to lose Federal funding.

Because the educational establishment is overwhelmingly Democratic but the Federal government currently is in the hands of Republicans, knee-jerk partisans choose sides in predictable ways. Republicans root for the "accountability" provisions of NCLB, while Democrats root for more money to be given to local educators with fewer strings attached.

Those of us who are customers of the education system have no one to root for in this game of bureaucratic football. As parents or as citizens interested in seeing America have a better education system, we are on the sidelines.

What to Root For

We should not waste any energy trying to "save" or "defend" or "implement" NCLB. Instead, here are the things that I think we ought to root for.

1) We should focus on vouchers, choice, and competition. Our goal should be to transfer power from educrats to parents. Many parents already put considerable thought and effort into finding the right schools for their children. Every parent should have the means to do so.

2) We should test educational processes, not schools. Testing an educational process, such as a new textbook or new teaching method, means running a controlled experiment, along the lines of the way that the Food and Drug Administration requires testing of medications. In a scientific experiment, some students will receive the "treatment" while others will receive a "placebo." The results of these experiments can be made available to parents and to educators to help them make wise choices of educational methods.

If we did medical testing as mindlessly as we did school testing, then we would declare a doctor a success or a failure on the basis of the death rate of his or her patients. A good doctor who sees a lot of cancer patients could be labeled a failure, while a lousy doctor who does elective plastic surgery could be labeled a success.

3) We should test non-school factors as well as teaching methods. For example, I believe that "educational television" is an oxymoron. I suspect that "Sesame Street" and its descendents ultimately teach children only one thing -- how to watch television. But to my knowledge, no one has ever done a controlled experiment to demonstrate the value (or harm) of educational television.

4) We should give less deference to formal education. Learning is not limited to the school day, school grounds, and classroom teaching. All of us are home schoolers, to a greater or lesser degree. In my experience, children who learn best learn on their own. Children also learn a great deal from their parents and siblings. Judith Rich Harris argues that learning from peers is especially important. Even teachers who make a difference only do so for a portion of their students. Not everyone responds to the same teaching method in the same way.

Rather than focus, as NCLB does, on "qualified teachers," we should challenge the professionalization of education. Instead, we ought to encourage students and parents to participate in choosing and implementing educational strategies.

5) We should root for government funding of education to go down, rather than up. Ultimately, the teachers' unions control this spending. As Roy Romer said at the Milken conference, "I am a Democrat, and I am pro-labor, but you cannot have a union sitting on both sides of the table, negotiating with themselves." But that is exactly what you have today, because teachers have so much influence in school board elections. So instead of praising politicians who increase spending for education, we should remind them that government is the high-cost producer.

The Capacity to Educate Ourselves

It is a cliché that education is necessary for a well-functioning democracy. However, it does not follow that public education as we know it today is conducive to democracy.

Historian Christopher Lasch, in The Revolt of the Elites argued that the professionalization of education has harmed democratic values. He said that the blame goes back to 19th-century education reformer Horace Mann.

"By giving the school system exclusive control over education, Mann's reforms encouraged a division of cultural labor that would weaken the people's capacity to educate themselves. The teaching function would be concentrated in a class of professional specialists, whereas it ought to be diffused throughout the community."

In the 21st century, diffusing the education function throughout the community will be come a necessity. That is because learning cannot stop at the schoolhouse door. As Gary Becker pointed out at the Milken conference, the depreciation rate of human capital is very high, meaning that old skills quickly lose their value and people need to learn new ones. Given this rapid depreciation rate, hardly anyone is going to be able to get by with the education that they received during their formal years of schooling. It becomes imperative for everyone to develop educational skills.

The No Child Left Behind Act reflects outmoded, paternalistic, industrial-age thinking on education. Its real name should be No Educrat Left Behind. What we need instead is bottom-up, consumer-driven reform that is aimed at reviving our capacity to educate ourselves.

Arnold Kling is a frequent contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about The Innovationist.


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