The Dam Continues to Crack

March 15, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, Pajamas Media carried my column on the Rhode Island teacher firing flap:

That leads us to the second question: why does Obama think he can advance himself by gratuitously hacking off the teachers’ unions? Answer: because the unions are on the way down, and he wants to ingratiate himself with the people who are taking them down.

On the left, the dam continues to crack. How long before it breaks?

And what happens when it does?

In the long term, I’m as optimistic as I ever have been about the prospects for real reform — especially for vouchers, the only reform that will make any of the other reforms sustainable. In the Cold War, the Russians had more men, more missiles, more tanks, and (let’s be honest) more guts. The only things we had that they didn’t were the entrepreneurial spirit and a just cause. And guess what? It turns out that in the long run, that’s what you really need.


Radical Customization – One Size Fits None

March 12, 2010

Nationally mandated standard pants – because it’s horribly inefficient to have everyone wear a different size

Building on the debate Jay started the other day, Neal’s got a nice column on Pajamas Media today about subject-based ability grouping. The idea that all children progress at the same rate is nonsense, but the idea that they all progress at the same rate across all subjects at the same time is nonsense on stilts.

I see this in my own daughter’s education. She’s behind in speech and fine motor skills and needs extra help, which she’s not getting in her current school, where everyone does the same thing, on the assumption that kids the same age are all at the same place in their education and have the same needs. But she’s way ahead in anything dealing with symbol recognition – letters, numbers, colors – so she has to sit there bored out of her mind while her classmates slowly and laboriously learn how to count to ten when she can count to thirty.

So starting next year we’re putting her in a private school that uses exactly the approach Neal recommends on the basis of other countries’ experience – each child gets the challenge he or she needs, at the level he or she needs it, determined separately in each subject.

The squishy-wishies will object that “ability grouping” makes the kids who are ahead vain while demoralizing the kids who are behind. The first answer is that this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if public schools were allowed to teach good moral character in addition to academics. And the second answer is that it’s not smart in the long term to deal with people’s emotional and psychological problems by encouraging them to live a lie.

But I think the third answer is that ability grouping wouldn’t have this effect if you did it by subject. You’re not singling out the person as such as superior, you’re tracking particular abilities in each subject.


Greg in PJM Keeps ‘Em Honest With Choice

February 14, 2010

Greg has a great post today on Pajama’s Media about how school choice is the secret sauce that keeps all other reforms honest.  Think of it as a love letter to education reform. : )

Here’s a highlight:

… the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

… The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.


PJM on Racial Excuses

February 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, Pajamas Media carried my column on the latest developments in educational racial excusemaking:

The [Berkeley high] school’s governance council thinks that science labs benefit white and Asian students to the detriment of blacks and Hispanics, whom the council apparently views as not capable of learning science…

“When broken down in racial terms,” says the local superintendent, “African American and Latino students are not scoring as well as their peers.” Well, I guess that’s that, then! If some student groups are scoring poorly in science, obviously the only possible way to deal with that problem is to shut down the science labs! Then they won’t score poorly in science anymore!

“The majority of students of color don’t really go” because the labs take place outside normal school hours, says one student by way of defending the decision. Well then, obviously the most equitable and fair solution is to close the labs — then everybody won’t go!…

The best comment comes from Berkeley junior Kacey Holt. He has a message for those students who “are not scoring as well as their peers” in science and “don’t really go” to the science labs: “I think they need to talk with their teachers and get more tutoring, afterschool programs, and basically show up for class,” says Kacey.

Kacey Holt for Berkley Unified superintendent! Campaign slogan: “Basically, Show Up for Class.”

The column puts this in the context of the larger fight over racial excusemaking in education, and also of the behind-the-scenes power struggles that often drive these outwardly ideological battles.


Destruction of a Profession in PJM

November 12, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Pajamas Media carries my column on Public Agenda’s study documenting the destruction of a profession:

As D-Day for health care “reform” approaches, we’re hearing a lot of contradictory claims about how things are going in countries where they have socialized medicine. One side says Canadian, British, German, and even (in the more extreme cases) Cuban health care is wonderful. The other side says it’s a catastrophe. All these directly conflicting claims aren’t very helpful to those who might be in doubt about the truth.

Instead of seeking our evidence in far-flung corners of the world, why don’t we look at what’s happened to the one profession we’ve already socialized right here at home? The government school monopoly gives us a great opportunity to examine what happens to a profession when you dragoon it into government service.

A commenter offers a point that I think is valid – it’s hard to disentangle the effects of “socializing” a profession from the effects of “unionizing” it. But how different are those? The head of the health-care worker union SEIU, under a cloud for apparently having approached Rod Blagojevich about a bribe, is nonetheless the top visitor to the White House.


LAUSD “Reform” Not What It Seems

September 17, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning Pajamas Media carries my column on the much-ballyhooed plan to put the management of up to 250 LAUSD schools up for bid. Back when the city school board was voting on the policy, it was sold as though it were a school choice plan – but the devil was in the details:

Earlier that day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, stood outside the school district’s offices and told 2,000 charter school parents and other supporters that “we’re here today to stand up for our children.” Standing under a banner reading “Parent Revolution,” the name of an organization backed by charter organizers, he said: “I am pro-union but I am pro-parent as well. If workers have rights, then parents ought to have rights too.”

For good measure, he added: “This school board understands that parents are going to have a voice.”

So somehow, people got the crazy idea from all this that the reform in question involved school choice and empowering parents. “We are here to support parents’ ability to make choices,” said one parent attending the rally.

That parent got the wrong idea. The policy before the school board that day had nothing to do with school choice. It only said that contracts to manage schools could be bid out to non-profits. And bidding out the management of public schools without changing the underlying dynamic of the system has always proven to be a recipe for failure in the past.

Sure enough, when the first draft of the bidding rules came out recently, it contained a provision designed to ensure that the schools in question will not become schools of choice.

Improving public schools by bidding out the management contract is like trying to improve a baseball team with an incompetent owner by changing the team manager. As long as you have the wrong guy in the head office, you won’t get real change because no matter how good the management is, it always has to answer to the dunce at the top. To turn the team around, you need a change of ownership, not a change of management.

The same goes for schools. Right now, the government monopoly owns all public schools. Nothing major will change until we get new owners — namely parents, via school choice.

Matt was right to tout this as a slap in the face to the unions and an admission that the union-dominated status quo is catastrophic. It’s also further confirmation (if further confirmation were needed) that much of the left is turning against the unions. But that’s about where the good news ends.


Greg on Voucher PR Gains in PJM

August 4, 2009

Greg has long been arguing that rhetoric matters.  In a column in Pajamas Media today he notes the shift in the political rhetoric and tactics from voucher opponents.  Here’s a highlight:

Because the unions have lost the fight for public opinion, both at large and within the Democratic Party. And they know they’ve lost it. And they’ve apparently decided that they’re OK with that. So they’re just not even bothering to pretend to care about kids anymore.

Let’s not indulge in naïve optimism. Having lost the public relations battle may in some ways makes the teachers’ unions more dangerous, not less. America’s last education labor reporter, Mike Antonucci, offers a sobering observation:

The public perception battle is over, and the teachers’ unions have lost. But will it have any effect on Congress and state legislatures? The NRA, tobacco companies, PETA, the ACLU and Big Oil all have negative public images they can’t shed, yet they are still effective in getting their way. What if NEA and AFT stop caring what other people think?

On the other hand, there is a key difference between the teachers’ unions and the other groups Antonucci mentions here, and that gives us considerable grounds for hope. All of those groups have retained power in spite of their bad public images either because (for the NRA, tobacco, and oil) what they really represent is the desires of consumers who want their products and mostly just want to be left alone and aren’t trying to mess around with other people’s lives; or else because (for PETA and the ACLU) they care very intensely about a narrow set of issues that most Americans just don’t care much about.

The teachers’ unions, by contrast, are fattening themselves by destroying the lives of America’s children. That’s just not in the same ballpark.

Update: Link corrected.