Tell Them about the Whales

(Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

It is possible to meet the requirements of the much-maligned, perennially debated, and frequently mau-maued federal No Child Left Behind Act. No really, it is—in fact, last spring third and fourth grade students at Ocean City Elementary School in Ocean City, Maryland accomplished this feat. Here, let me help you pick your chin up off the floor. 

The Washington Post reports this school is the first in the state apart from some special education centers to have every student proficient in reading and math. This news is cause for celebration, of course; however, if you read the Post‘s article to the very end, you are given an almost backhanded reminder in the last full paragraph that Ocean City Elementary has to keep this up until 2014, according to the law. Ouch–six more years. 

Back to celebrating, though. Two questions come to mind whenever I read about a school’s remarkable success: First, how did they do it, and, second, how could their approach be replicated elsewhere? The Post helps us answer the first question, as reporter Daniel de Vise says the school has an “unusually structured, relentless, and consistent” approach and a skilled and motivated principal, Irene Kordick. De Vise provides the principal’s inspiring story of how she immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and was passed along in the public education system until the fifth grade before she learned to read and write in English. Kordick was determined not to let that happen to anyone else, and the rest is history. 

As to my second question, if I had the answer or if I could put Ocean City Elementary’s method in a bottle and sell it, I would have a better haircut and wear more expensive shoes. Things being what they are, though, I have to refer to larger issues regarding the federal government’s involvement in public schools.

For starters, we taxpayers spend nearly $2 million educating whales. Specifically, for years our representatives in Washington have funded the “Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners” to the tune of $2 million or more (so I guess we fund “whalers,” not whales, or “exchanges with whalers,” whatever that is—for details check out this page on OMB’s web site; why this doesn’t have Greenpeace protesting on the Capitol steps I don’t know). In addition, OMB’s handy earmarks database shows, in nine pages of small type, mind you, that in committee deliberations in January everything from the Brooklyn Public Library to the Houston Zoo to the School Board of Broward County, Florida was on the dole. 

In searching this document, I didn’t find “Ocean City,” or better yet, “doing what Ocean City does” anywhere. I did find nearly $400,000 for jazz instruction in New York City and a similar amount for a parent training program in San Diego, though. Most of the programs listed on these nine pages of small type sound wholesome and like great ideas (“homework assistance,” “mentoring programs,” “after-school programs,” etc.), but I’ll ask the same question free market, small-government types have been asking for decades: why should Ocean City care about New York City’s jazz program? 

Now, I realize it is routine for right-of-center observers to bang the drum for fiscal responsibility in government—and I realize this drum is old and worn and some are tired of it. But considering the success of folks like me who dwell on this stuff, it makes me wonder if I shouldn’t be talking about it more (because it hasn’t worked so far) or if I should just pick another issue. 

The danger in suggesting that our government is spending money on pet projects instead of on spreading successful programs is that it is another way of saying, “Gee, if we’d only spend money on the right things maybe we could get something done around here….” So I won’t suggest this. Instead, I recommend we all move to Ocean City. Or New York City, if you like jazz. Because either one seems to be about as effective at getting government spending to produce more Ocean City Elementaries as my drum. 

Take every opportunity to praise exemplary students, schools, and school leadership. Spread the word about them. Celebrate them. But when somebody says, “Let’s take this same approach here! And here!” be ready for the question of “Why isn’t Washington doing more to help spread programs like this?” And then tell them about the whales. 


One Response to Tell Them about the Whales

  1. […] Yet with all the tax money funding K-12 education, Jonathan Butcher at Jay Greene’s blog points out wasteful examples of federal education spending, and the absence of focus on replicating school models, like Ocean City, that […]

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