Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

March 10, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Good write up in the WaPo wonkblog on Robert Putnam’s new book.  Obvious resonance with Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. In fact Murray had some “scissor graphs” of his own:

This bit from the WaPo article was especially poignant:

Lola and Sofia, as Putnam names them (all of the ethnography subjects in the book are anonymous), have navigated life without coaches, pastors, tutors, friends’ parents, counselors, neighbors, community groups, parents’ co-workers and family friends. They feel abandoned even by the one group of adults we like to think poor kids can always count on — their teachers.

“In junior high,” Lola, the older sister, explains to Putnam’s team, “the teachers actually cared.”

“In high school, teachers don’t care,” Sofia says.

“The teachers would even say out loud that they get paid to be there,” Lola says.

“Just to be there,” Sofia says. “Just to babysit.”

“Yeah,” Lola adds, “that they’re there just to babysit, that they don’t care if we learn or not.”

They believe the honors classes at their high school got all the good teachers, but they don’t understand how students were chosen for those classes. Only the smart kids, they say, were told about the SATs. They tried to join after-school activities — the very venue where they might find structure and mentors — but Lola was told her reading wasn’t good enough for a reading club, and Sofia that her grades weren’t high enough to play volleyball.

Through their eyes, coaches and teachers were gatekeepers who extended opportunity only to chosen students.

Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern — and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.

The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.

Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”

Before you rush off to use poverty as a blanket excuse for the failings of the public school system, let me note the following: many of today’s poor children had multiple generations of ancestors who had the opportunity to attend public schools that were funded generously compared to schools around the world. Ideally public education serves as an agent of class mobility, but obviously we have been getting far less of this than desired. The costs of the failures of our social institutions-including but certainly not limited to our educational institutions-seem to be compounding over time.



Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right

June 29, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m bowled over by the new Claremont Review – Bill McClay’s cover story on the underlying cultural and educational sources of the nation’s current crisis is a real show-stopper. In the shorter items, Charles Murray has a great piece on the ups and downs of Ayn Rand, and my dissertation advisor Steven Smith has a fantastic (not that I’m biased) overview of the issues surrounding Heidegger’s Nazism.

In the education hopper, there’s Terry Moe’s Moore’s [oops!] review of E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans. I haven’t seen the book yet; Moe Moore writes that Hirsch, always a man of the Left, makes the lefty case for curriculum reform centered on cultural literacy. To wit, schools paternalistically imposing upon children a homogeneous American culture strongly rooted in a matrix of moral values is the best way to help the poor rise, which is what lefties want.

Moe Moore also casually inserts that in this book Hirsch renews his flat-footed argument against school choice – that empowering parents with choice won’t improve schools because what schools need is better currucula. We’ve been around this merry-go-round with Hirsch before; his argument is like saying that empowering computer users to choose what computers they buy has no impact on the quality of computers; what makes computers better is that the computer companies invest in making them better. Of course, the reason computer companies work so hard to make their computers better, faster and cheaper every year is because they have to serve their customers in a highly competative market.

Moe Moore doesn’t draw the connection between Hirsch’s lefty argument for cultural literacy and his harebrained opposition to school choice, but the connection is there. It’s equally visible in Little Ramona, who – like Hirsch – has been wrongly considered a “conservative” for many years solely because she opposes multiculturalism and supports . . . well, the lefty argument for curriculum reform based on cultural literacy.

This matters because everybody’s all topsy-turvy about what is “progressive” or “conservative” in education, and it will take some effort to get our thinking straight.

Moe Moore picks up Hirsch’s statement that the movement for “progressive curricula,” i.e. the whole Dewey-inspired attack on traditional academic curricula, is really not a movement for a progressive curriculum but a movement against having any sort of “curriculum” properly so called. The point is not to change what’s in the curriculum but to have no substantive curriculum at all when it comes to inculcating a national character or a shared national culture. This is true, and it’s relevant to the question of why lefties who love cultural literacy hate school choice.


Since the late 1960s, the “progressive curriculm” (that is, the “anti-curricular”) movement has dominated the political left by making common cause with the teachers’ unions, who were not congenitally anti-curricular but whose interests were served by promoting the anti-curricular cause. As Moe Moore insightfully points out, the anti-curricular movement is really also an anti-teaching movement; it is therefore a perfect fit for the union agenda of more pay for less work. Thus, anyone who is “pro-curricular” is pigeonholed as being on the political right.

But that is a temporary phenomenon brought about by a unique confluence of political circumstances. In its historical orgins and in the logic of the position, the drive to use schools as engines of cultural homogeneity is a phenomenon of the authoritarian political left.

This goes all the way back to the roots of the system. It’s widely known that one of the major reasons America adopted the government monopoly school system in the first place was hysteria over the cultural foreignness of Catholics. However, there’s another tidbit worth knowing. As Charles Glenn documents in The Myth of the Common School, one of Horace Mann’s motivations for pushing the “common” school system was his vitriolic contempt for evangelical Protestant Christianity. The hicks in the rural Massachusetts countryside with their backward and barbaric adherence to traditional Calvinist theology – which had survived down through the centuries from the Puritan settlers – was repugnant to civilized and enlightened Boston-Brahmin Unitarians like himself.

Someone had to do something to rescue these culturally deprived children from their unenlightened parents! That’s why Mann’s schools had such a heavy emphasis on teaching the Bible – teaching it in a very particular way. Part of the school system’s purpose was cultural genocide against evangelicals, to use the power of the state to indoctrinate their children with unitarianism. And it worked beautifully; how many traditional Calvinists are left in Massachusetts?

[Update: It has been brought to my attention that the Presbyterian Church in America, a traditional Calvinist denomination, has lately been experiencing dramatic growth in New England. So perhaps I should have said “It worked beautifully; after a century of Mann’s schools, how many traditional Calvinists were left in Massachusetts?”]

What we have to get clear is that both the anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical hysteria – then as now – were on the political left.

The great crusade in the early 20th century to use the government monopoly school system to forcibly “assimilate” immigrants with “Americanism” was likewise a movement on the political left. On this subject, please do yourself the biggest favor you’ll do yourself all year and read (if you haven’t already) Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Fanatical patriotism was, until the convulsions of the 1960s, the special hallmark of the left, not the right.

The issues got scrambled after the 1960s by two factors. First and most important was the rise of an aggressive cultural ideology (what we now call “multiculturalism”) seeking to use the government school monopoly to impose its amoral and anti-American value system on the nation’s children. This movement was not only born on the left, but, as noted above, it formed a fruitful partnership with the unions who were also on the left. So naturally, the backlash formed on the right, and the identification of being “anti-multiculturalist” applied to conservatives. However, this was never really the same kind of animal as the left-wing authoritarian drive to use government schools to enlighten the benighted and make them into good Americans. Conservative anti-multiculturalism is negative and defensive in character; it’s not seeking to use government to impose a culture, but to stop the multiculturalists from doing so.

Second, as Goldberg documents, the authoritarianism of 20th century progressivism began to migrate over and infect the right; hence we get absurd specatcles such as a “conservative” president saying such things as “when people are hurting, government has to move.” And, similarly, some conservatives try to use the power of the state to impose right-wing cultural values. But this is really the result of conservatives having drunk from the polluted cultural water of left-wing authoritarianism.

Now let me be perfectly clear. Anxiety about whether young people are picking up 1) moral values and 2) cultural identity as Americans is of course widespread on both sides of the political isle. Believe me, I’m as worried as anyone about whether the nation is successfully passing on its civilization to its children, and whether today’s immigrants will assimilate and self-identify as Americans – not only for the sake of the nation, but for their own sake, since the chief victims of amoralism and multiculturalism are the people who believe in them.

The difference is not in being worried about this problem, but in how we want to solve it. Using the brute power of a government monopoly school system to paternalistically impose a homogenous culture has never been a conservative idea. Go back and look at the great conservative debates over this in the 1990s; whether you’re talking about William Bennett, James Q. Wilson or Charles Murray, you just never find conservative thought leaders talking that way. It’s the lefties like E.D. Hirsch and Little Ramona who dream that their cultural anxieties can be salved with the soothing balm of state power.

And really, it should be obvious why. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the brute force of state power can change culture, well then, you’re probably also a political lefty. If you’re the kind of person who thinks our culture will get along just fine if the state will just stop tinkering with it through social engineering, then you’re probably also a political righty.

It all comes down to how you concieve of the relationship between the government and the nation – which is to say, between power and culture. As Reagan famously asked, are we a nation that has a state, or a state that has a nation? To put the same question another way, does culture drive politics or does politics drive culture? Or, to put it even more bluntly, is the use of power shaped by the conscience of the nation, or do we use power to shape the conscience of the nation?

The conservative approach to schools and American culture is to use school choice to smash state power, thus depriving the multiculturalists of their only serious weapon. Get the state out of the way and let Americans worry about how to pass on American civilization to the next generation.

Oh, and here’s one other way you can tell that this is the conservative approach: the evidence shows it works.

[HT Ben Boychuk for pointing out I misread “Terry Moore” as “Terry Moe” – and apologies to both Terrys!]

Murray Misses the Mark

May 5, 2010

The New York Times features a piece by Charles Murray arguing that choice has failed to improve test scores.  In general, Murray doesn’t think schools can do much to improve test scores.  He says:

This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

Murray wants to be clear that he still favors choice, but not to improve test scores.  Instead, he favors choice because it satisfies the diversity of preferences about how schools teach and what they teach.  Standardized test scores impose a uniform concept of higher achievement on students, and so cannot capture the improved satisfaction of the diversity of tastes that choice can more efficiently satisfy.

There is a kernel of truth in Murray’s argument.  We should support school choice simply because it allows us the liberty of providing our children with the kind of education that we prefer.

But Murray is completely mistaken in asserting that choice cannot (and has not) produced improved outcomes on standardized measures.  The only research he references is the recently released, non-random assignment evaluation of the effect of Milwaukee’s voucher program on students receiving vouchers.  This ignores the 10 superior, random research designed studies summarized here.  Importantly, it also ignores the effects of expanding choice and competition on achievement in entire school systems.

Especially with regard to a large and mature voucher program, like the one in Milwaukee, the relevant thing to focus on is systemic effects, not participant effects.  Almost everyone in Milwaukee has access to expanded choice, so everyone is receiving the treatment — school choice.  The difference between voucher participants and non-participants is where they chose to go to school, not the difference between having access to choice or not. And if you look at the systemic effects study in Milwaukee it shows significant gains in student achievement as choice and competition are expanded.

It is irritating to have to repeat this discussion of the evidence each time Charles Murray, Sol Stern, or Diane Ravitch selectively cite (or ignore) the research literature and claim that choice has no effect.  It’s also puzzling why “conservative” activists feel the need to denounce choice and competition in order to promote their pet reform idea.

Murray may well be right that schools face serious constraints in improving student achievement, but you don’t have to trash the gains that have been realized to make that point.  (And I think the constraints are less severe than he suggests).

Stern may well be right that even schools in more competitive markets have to make good decisions with regard to curriculum and pedagogy to produce significant improvement.  But choice and competition facilitate schools making good decisions about curriculum and pedagogy by providing negative consequences for those who choose foolishly (as well as giving schools the freedom to try more effective instructional techniques).  And Ravitch may be right about … well, maybe she isn’t right about very much.

Are conservative activists so starved for attention that they are willing to feed the New York Time’s preferred strategy of promoting conservative in-fighting, just so they can get into the pages of the Grey Lady?

(Edited to add link)

Winters v. Murray Deathmatch on College

October 22, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today on NRO Marcus Winters throws down the gauntlet before Charles Murray and others who have made the increasingly common argument that too many kids go to college these days. As the economy requires workers to have more and more knowledge for good jobs, more kids should go to college, not fewer, Marcus argues; the research on teacher quality and school choice shows that improvements in K-12 education can increase the number of high school graduates who are genuinely able to handle college work; and the wage premium of a college degree is not going down, but up – because the K-12 system hasn’t kept pace with the increasing demands of technological development, and college does make students more productive workers (contrary to Murray’s claim that it serves mainly as a sorting mechanism).

Over on AEI’s blog, Murray responds, calling Marcus a “romantic,” going over a lot of research that doesn’t really address the point at issue, and then falsely claiming that Marcus presents only anecdotes about “a miracle school in the inner city” but offers no “interpretable data.” Anyone who reads Marcus’s piece will see that Marcus points to the eminently interpretable data of the broad research on teacher quality, school choice, and economic outcomes.

Charles Murray responds to Greg

April 22, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Charles Murray responds to Greg’s critique of his Kristol lecture on NRO. Murray writes:

Good Public Discourse   [Charles Murray]


Here’s a novel experience. Kathryn Lopez called my attention to Greg Forster’s critique of my Kristol lecture here, wondering if I might want to respond. So I read it. And then read it again. And then thought about it some more. And here’s the novel part: I have nothing to say except, “Well, okay, I take your point.” What he pointed out as weaknesses were weaknesses. On his most important objection, that I failed to mention that activities don’t provide deep satisfactions if they’re morally wrong, he even correctly anticipates my response: I took it for granted. But I shouldn’t have. 

Why am I even bothering to post about it? Because we really, really need a change in tone when we’re discussing difficult issues (and need it every bit as much on the Right as on the Left). Forster’s essay is a model: Based on a minutely close reading of the thing-being-critiqued, refusing to personalize the argument in any way, and, dammit, acute. 

The Larger Case Against Socialism

April 21, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Readers of JPGB who have followed our occasional coverage of the resurgence of socialism in America may be interested in this column of mine that just went up on The Public Discourse. It addresses Charles Murray’s lecture last month that makes what might be called the “larger” case against socialism – beyond its economic and demographic unsustainability, socialism also undermines all the social structures that provide higher meaning in human life, and would thus be undesirable even if it were sustainable. The lecture got a lot of attention among conservatives. I argue that Murray’s analysis is correct and very valuable as far as it goes, but that it’s missing a crucial element that’s needed to make the case complete.

Why Aren’t We Already Doing It?

August 19, 2008

Last week Charles Murray made an innovative and provocative proposal in the Wall Street Journal:  Let’s not make the college B.A. the standard training for all professions and higher-skill occupations.  Instead, let’s increasingly use certification tests, like the CPA for accountants, to indicate whether people are qualified for certain jobs.  People could prepare for those tests by taking classes from traditional colleges, by taking courses on-line, by studying on their own in the neighborhood library, or in any other way they want.  Expanding the paths by which people could enter high-paying occupations expands equality of opportunity by reducing the financial and logistical barriers that requiring a college B.A. imposes.  And focusing career-oriented training on the skills required for that career and removing other requirements improves the efficiency of that training. 

In this scenario we would have to rely on the K-12 system to provide the basic liberal arts training and civic education we think all people need to be productive citizens.  Post-secondary education would be more focused on career training except for the relatively few people who really want further liberal arts training or additional preparation in a traditional academic field.

Expanding equality of opportunity and improving the efficiency of post-secondary education make Murray’s proposal very appealing.  So appealing that one has to ask why we aren’t already doing it.  The government does not mandate that employers of professionals and high-skilled occupations require a college B.A. — at least not directly.  Why do employers require something that limits the pool of qualified labor from which they could hire and consumes considerably more time and resources than the certification test approach Murray suggests?  If Murray’s proposal is on target, shouldn’t employers already be developing and using certification tests in lieu of the B.A., at least for certain occupations?

There are several reasons why Murray’s vision is not the current reality.  First, developing appropriate certification tests for a number of high-skill occupations may not be as easy as Murray suggests.  Perhaps many employers have not switched from the B.A. model because they don’t think they can meaningfully improve upon it. 

Second, employers and private associations that develop and use certification tests would likely face a flood of employment discrimination lawsuits that challenged the validity of the test.  I am no lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), but I suspect that fear of litigation plays a large role in deterring employers from relying on private certification tests for hiring. 

Third, much of what employers want from their employees (at least in some occupations) is the self-discipline and obedience to authority necessary for completing assigned tasks.  Perhaps employers don’t care too much about what prospective employees do in college as long as they have to complete a long list of assigned tasks demonstrating self-discipline and compliance.  College selects and cultivates these desired traits.

Fourth, even if employers just want to use college as a liability-free way to screen for self-discipline and compliance, it is clear that this is a very inefficient arrangement from a societal perspective.  It would be much more efficient to have employers hire crowds of interns/apprentices at low wages and only keep the most skilled, self-disciplined, and compliant as long-term employees.  While this may be more efficient from a societal perspective, it is far less efficient from the perspective of individual employers.  If they had to sort and train a crowd of prospective employees as interns/apprentices, employers would have to bear the costs that students and taxpayers currently bear in paying colleges to perform these roles.  And having to dump a large number of interns/apprentices who didn’t make the cut would invite another flood of employment discrimination lawsuits.

Murray’s vision has much appeal, but there are also significant barriers to its implementation.  Unless we address those barriers, especially liability issues related to employment, we are unlikely to realize the benefits of expanding equality of opportunity and reducing costs from Murray’s proposal.  There are also practical barriers, like the difficulty of testing for certain skills and traits, that limit the benefits that could be realized.  But we could still take steps toward what Murray has suggested and think about how those ideas could shape reform within the post-secondary education world.

Charles Murray vs. Michael Oher

May 10, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side tells a fascinating story about poverty and education through the lens of football. Lewis focuses on two main stories. First, on the legendary coach Bill Walsh’s struggles in the 1980s to overcome the most fearsome defensive force of the era. Second, on an incredibly disadvantaged young man who beat the odds.

As head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Bill Walsh had one big problem: New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (LT). Attacking from the left–the blind side of a right-handed quarterback–LT humiliated linemen and punished quarterbacks with bone-crushing sacks.

Lewis’ tale becomes truly fascinating when he goes inside the world of the NFL’s talent search for born left tackles–a rare combination of size, speed and agility. These rare men would rise to become the second highest paid positions in professional football for their ability to protect the quarterback from men like LT. This is where the story intersects with education.

Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis. In and out of foster care, Michael’s lucky break came when his dying grandmother extracted a promise from a family friend to get Michael into a private school.

Michael was enrolled in a private Christian school called Briarcrest. On a cold day, a parent of another Briarcrest student found Michael breaking into the school to stay warm. The parent, Leah Anne Tuohy, a successful interior designer and wife of a Memphis businessman, took Michael in. Despite the fact that Michael scarcely spoke, a bond developed between the Tuohys and Michael and they eventually adopted him.

Although he had never played sports Michael was a natural athlete and was identified immediately by college scouts as a potential NFL left tackle. If Michael could get to college and play football, he was very likely to win a multimillion dollar contract to protect a quarterback’s blind side.

The Tuohys and the faculty at Briarcrest engaged in a Herculean effort to make Michael eligible for college. When Michael came to Briarcrest he had only erratically attended school, could scarcely read and knew little about anything.

Lewis skillfully explains the role of poverty in education, writing, “Michael wasn’t stupid. He was ignorant, but a lot of people mistook ignorance for stupidity, and knowingness for intelligence. He’d been denied the life experience that led to knowingness, which every other kid at Briarcrest took for granted.”

Michael was not unintelligent, but he was profoundly uneducated. Leah Anne would, for example, take Michael to an Italian restaurant and order multiple meals in order teach him the difference between different types of pasta dishes.

The implications of Michael’s story for public policy are profound as well. Lewis writes, “Michael Oher was in possession of what had to be among the more conspicuous athletic gifts…and yet, without outside intervention even his talent would likely have been thrown away…If Michael Oher’s talent could be missed, whose couldn’t? Those poor black kids [in the inner-city] were like left tackles: people whose values were hidden in plain sight.”

With a committed family, school, and private tutors, Michael was accepted to college.

Today he is approaching his senior year at the University of Mississippi, made all-conference as a sophomore and junior, and carries a 3.7 grade point average.

Michael made it. But he is very much the exception. For every six inner-city Memphis public school kids with the athletic ability to play college sports, only one qualifies academically to attend college. This says something about the state of inner-city public education.

“Pity the kid inside Hurt Village [in Memphis] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds,” Lewis wrote. The success of Briarcrest in helping Michael exemplifies the hope that school choice can give to troubled youngsters.

The hole Michael dug himself out of might not have been so deep if not for the dysfunctional Memphis public school system. One cannot help but wonder if Memphis public schools would be so completely indifferent if every student had the opportunity to attend private schools.

Our current education system limits school choice to parents who can afford to buy homes in good neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. Our best teachers often flee the classroom in frustration, or cluster in suburbs far from the students who need them most.

Kids should not require Michael Oher’s incredible luck to make it. Neither should they be stuck in inner-city schools run for the benefit of the adults rather than the kids in the system.

So how does Charles Murray fit into this?

Murray knows far more about IQ testing than I do. I know next to nothing. From what I’ve read of Murray’s works, it does seem obvious that everyone has an upper threshold for academic achievement, a ceiling if you will, and that those ceiling vary from person to person.

It also seems obvious to me, however, that these ceilings are of little practical importance for many inner city children who have never attended a decent school, and who often have parents and grandparents who have never attended a decent school.

In other words, children like Michael Oher have been operating so far below their ceilings that we have every reason to radically improve our education system, especially in the inner cities. I’d even be willing to bet, despite Murray’s characterization of the academic literature on the subject, that if we had before and after adoption IQ tests on Oher, that there would have been substantial growth. I could be wrong about this, and I’d welcome correction, but Michael Oher’s experience begs the question in my mind exactly what it is that IQ tests are actually measuring.

Regardless of such concerns, however, it seems clear to me that efforts to make much more effective use of the huge and tragically mismanaged resources put into inner city schooling should be accelerated.

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