Thursday, February 02, 2012

School Choice: Turkey or Beef-ish?

I went to a forum last week, American for Prosperity’s School Choice Conference which was held at Loyola Academy in St. Louis, and what I barely restrained myself from shouting out during it was:
What Choice?! What does it matter which building you choose, or how well it is run, if what they are teaching is all the same?!
The forum was ably moderated by Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit, and included as panellists, Dick Morris (former Clinton political strategist and commentator), Dana Loesch (Tea Party activist, 97.1 FM radio host, CNN commentator, Editor of Big Journalism.Com and a homeschooling mom herself), Mike Podgursky (Professor of Economics University of Missouri) and Robbyn Wahby (Executive Assistant to STL Mayor Francis Slay), and as I sat there listening with Gretchen of Missouri Education Watchdog (who has a good report on it here), I couldn't help noticing that we both fidgeted, sighed and grumbled at many of the same parts.

What was frustrating to me was that, with a couple brief exceptions from the host of the event, Loyola's President, H. Eric Clark (who achieves what are probably the most impressive results possible within the current system, though it does require a 7:30a.m.-5:40 school day to accomplish it), Dana Loesch's comments on homeschooling, and some asides from Podgursky regarding how there were only two examples of educational success in Missouri, the two Catholic Diocese schools (his related paper, here), the real issue - what the education is that we are attempting to educate with - was not raised. Instead, we heard about 'human capital' (which produced synchronized sighing from Gretchen & I ), letting parents choose between public schools and Charter Schools (which amounts to private management of government policies), and the all consuming need to improve Math & Science skills and improve Test Scores.

That's choice? Oh, and breaking the Teachers Unions... by allowing the state, or Fed govt, to choose replacements for 'under performing' teachers.

That would be an improvement?

As Gretchen noted,
"As he was talking, I thought, "How is sending students to charter schools (schools supported by taxpayers dollars and under the same government mandates) freeing them from the regulations, lack of innovation, teaching to a student's need vs the system, and reducing the testing?" THAT question was NEVER answered. This is the problem with the School Choice movement in general and in Missouri with the funding of charter schools. It never addresses the underlying fact that the government is still providing the blueprint and the rules and regulations for what the children are learning. The money is being transferred to "free markets" (which conservatives love) but the system is still controlled by the government. That's not really free market, is it? That's not really an authentic choice for parents, is it?"
Which I agree with, but the most important issue goes even deeper than that, and I'm not talking about the Free Market issue of privately run vs. publicly run schools.

What course is being charted with the proposed Charter Schools?
Regarding the issue of a Free Market solution, I think that that requires something more than... a CSINO (Charter School In Name Only) to qualify as one. Do I think Charter Schools are a better idea than Public Schools? Well... it depends... who is it that is in control of the Charter School?

Do I believe in privately run schools over govt run schools? Yes... assuming that the words are allowed to retain their meaning. If it is under the administration and/or control of the parents of the students going to the school, then yes, I am full on behind the idea of Charter Schools.

If, on the other hand, what you mean by Charter Schools, are schools which are administered by a private corporation that is running the schools for profit, while their educational decisions are made under the direction of state education bureaucrats, then, no, I don't see them as a worthwhile improvement, not at all. In fact I see them as potentially even more harmful than the public administration, because under these circumstances the words 'private' and 'charter' have lost their meaning - the only thing you can be sure of here is that they are private schools no longer, and without even the feeble electoral controls of a public operation.

At best, such an arrangement could be called a managerial improvement over that of being administered by strictly govt employees. At worst, the ability of a business to earn a profit without the critical components of pricing, having to provide satisfactory service to the parent customer, and lacking any true competition with other businesses, this is almost certainly a recipe for unforeseen evils and unanticipated disasters.

But in either case, best or worst, they would not provide a meaningful solution to the problems facing our educational system, which is now truly, in the Twilight Zone.

A nutritional parable
Picture this if you will. Imagine with me that somewhere there was once a land, where the children were well fed, healthy and satisfied with their meals and amazingly productive and happy as a result. But as times changed and more scientific ways of cooking were introduced, people thought they could do better than they had with their old stoves and pots & pans, and so they began to modernize, and they modernized not only their kitchens, and their stoves and their pots and pans and how they went about taking orders and serving their meals, but they also began changing their old tasty recipes - too much salt! Too much spice! Unhealthy meats! Kids today need a scientifically balanced diet!... or so the thinking went.

As these improvements took root, and eating the state approved meals became compulsory, people began to demand that more meals be served, more treats, faster service, and, not long afterwards, the need for better quality.

Changes swept the land, spurred on by fears that people would no longer be fed well enough to be able to compete with the (select your decade and insert: Rebels, English, French, Germans, Japanese, Germans, Russians, Chinese...) and so flush with disturbing fears and 'new ideas!' the govt set out to see to it that everyone was well fed. The cooking methods were continually changed, made more efficient, as quaint local restaurants gave way to expertly designed cafeteria styles and long table seating, and the delivery of the meals was made more uniform and scientifically balanced, the menus were streamlined, and soon even more children were being fed, fed faster, and fed more, than ever before in history.

What a success!

But... grumblings about quality remained an issue... kids complained about the food and so did parents, their kids were dragging and didn't want to finish their meals, the food being served just wasn't helping them stay energetic and engaged... how would they compete?! The meals MUST be improved!

Experts said startling improvements in costs and efficiency were possible if only the managerial know-how of corp. America were followed, and though the Food Servers Union objected, experts insisted that servers and staff should have to improve their efficiencies and meet their metrics, or adios! What could be more sensible?

Time passed, cookbooks were written, updated, replaced, movies were made, 'Waiting for Superfood!' Politicians found new angles and ways to politicize the food, parents called for more Choice! and the politicians ran with that as well, 'Get Parents involved! Let them choose their preferred eateries!' Wow!
More and more corporations saw potential profits in these eateries, in providing their materials, supplying ingredients, plates, utensils, napkins, cha-ching! Efficiencies and profits also lay in standardizing on materials and serving practices across the land, economies of scale could be realized in menus, food and delivery... what could be more American than that! And the National No Meal Left Behind Act was passed... yippee!

And yet, to the amazement of all... though more and more money was thrown at the problem, study after study showed that health and satisfaction continued to decline. More parents across the land began pulling their children out of these public dining halls and gave them home cooked meals instead, and as remarkable results became more plain to see... they were attacked for it. Religious eateries also showed higher rates of success as well, but the unions charged that they simply picked and chose who they served, so they didn't ever have to deal with the picky eaters, these comparisons were unfair!

Whatever could the matter be?

So now let me finally get to my point by asking you something. If this was the actual situation we faced, and after all the attempts at improving the quality of the foods, the menus, preparation & service; if after all the attempts to bring costs down or even to use all quality ingredients in the foods, they all still failed, you'd be baffled too, wouldn't you?

Well, what if, when looking back over the history of such dining, you found out that, despite all the differing methods that had been tried for preparing and serving the foods, and the different ingredients of the foods, what if you realized that in the end, all of the meals served in the public eateries, and most of the private eateries as well (after all, they got their servers and staff from the same places) served only variations of the very same menu items, all across our fabled land - and what it turned out that that item was, was:

Hot dogs.

Yep, that's it, hot dogs.

Why hot dogs? Well... because some expert dietitians early on, those who first began to streamline and improve the dining experience, determined that hot dogs were THE most compact, efficient meal possible - hot dogs could be pre-packaged, frozen, cooked boiled or micro-waved - in order to produce meals that could be offered to all children. Scientifically designed hot dogs also meant that servers didn't need to know anything about food or cooking, all they had to do was heat and serve.

And their ingredients... they could be varied - even sold by those variations "All Beef Served Here!" - without having to change much of anything at all. Sometimes they were made with mystery meat, sometimes turkey franks, some times beef franks or even Kosher franks. Sometimes they were served with potato chips, or potato salad... milk or a soda, sometimes served on a plain white bun, others on a sourdough bun or even a roll, but all the same, the meals being served to one and all, with the exception of some of the homeschoolers who didn't just serve the public menu at home, were normal hot dogs, day in and day out.
Garnishes were easy too. ketchup, mustard or relish; simple, easy to pack into plastic packages in bite sized amounts.

Now, looking at this situation with that new understanding of the menu, what would you say then? Wouldn't you begin to suggest that rather than tinkering with the ingredients of the hot dogs, or how they were served, that maybe, just maybe, putting other, more substantial foods on the menu... miiight be a decent idea?
And what if when you asked for their reasons for not serving up an actual full course, balanced, meal, they said things like:

  • But it costs too much!
  • Kids can't digest higher quality meals anymore!
  • No one eats such archaic meals anymore, and no one has in... decades!
What would you think of those excuses?

Do you realize how close and fitting an analogy this is to our schools today? This is the situation we are in. We have allowed ourselves to become so focused upon the textbook preparation, the administrator and teaching staff, operational costs, etc, so focused upon improving the delivery of our children's intellectual nourishment... but no one, NO ONE, has been asking about anything more than the form and style of textual hot dogs that we've been serving up!

You know that you'd want to grab all of those politicians, parents and experts and... slap some sense into them and tell them to "Put something other than hot dogs on your menus!", wouldn't you? If so, then please, slap yourself as well, because that is as near to an exact comparison to our world of education, as you are going to find.

Choice is important, but what you choose, and what you're willing to accept as a choice, is even more important.

Early on, our educational 'x-spurts' began recommending a prefabricated educational food be served to all, replacing the tried and true classics of Western Civilization, with the textual equivalent of a hot dog, and the modern textbook, was born. The progressive literary nutritionists were adamant that the 'elitist' tone of earlier times, the regard for 'so called' great authors, should be removed, too spicy, the quality writing and insights of authors of history, was too difficult to digest, and needed to be replaced with unbiased facts of social studies books. Anything smacking of ethical judgments or religion needed to be replaced with something more widely acceptable. The result was that what may have begun as Brauts, soon degenerated into a bland turkey frank of thought, which can't be made unpalatable without loads of condiments being heaped upon them, as well as the pictorial equivalent of ketchup and mustard and relish - color pictures, graphs and colorful call-outs - were crammed into the textbooks, quickly becoming more numerous than the text itself.

Those we've left in charge of the education of our people, have been cranking out these intellectual hot dogs, and they have made the means of turning the crank, and how they are served up to our kids into issues of more political interest, than the far more valuable food which is actually being stuffed down your children's throats and into their minds. Here's a prime example of just that:
"According to Robert Pandiscio in a blog post for Core Knowledge “Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not.” He also writes about his encounter with Michelle Rhee after she had just finished giving a speech at the Manhattan Institute. Pandiscio asked Rhee if she would consider working on curriculum reform, to which she replied,
“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”
Instead of curriculum battles, Rhee has geared all of her energy towards influencing politicians, governors, mayors and state elected officials to accept her policies of tying teachers’ pay to student testing, removing tenure and offering big bonuses to “highly effective” teachers. She also advocates for vouchers and charter schools. By concentrating on restructuring education policy near and dear to conservatives, in at least 14 states so far, Rhee has lobbied, schmoozed and bought conservative Republicans to her advantage."
Nope, don't want to get into any of that messy 'curriculum' stuff, we'll just stick with the mush stuffed into skins, heat and serve... good enough for government work, right?

This is the material you want to base an education upon? Really? I submit to you, that at the very least, until you see students taking their textbooks to the beach with them because of their own interest in them and/or for their own pleasure, then you will not see any significant return on your educational dollar, and you will never see such a thing until after the materials your students are given in their 'curriculum' is of a high enough quality to make them worth reading.

And trust me, that doesn't mean tighter quality controls on how the sausage is made, that means returning to well balanced, high quality, solid content, intellectual feasts.

It was just such a diet which our Founding Father's were raised upon, and was great deal to do why we had the Founder's era. You can see the truth of that in John Adams describing how James Otis' speech against the 'Writs of Assistance' resulted in "Then and there the child Independence was born", in 1761:
"But Otis was a flame of fire!—with a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glance of his eye into futurity, and a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away every thing before him. American independence was then and there born; the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown, to defend the vigorous youth, the non sine Diis animosus infans. Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years, namely in 1776, he grew up to manhood, and declared himself free."
It wasn't how well Otis delivered his speech that lit the world on fire; if Otis had a teleprompter to read it off of it wouldn't have made any difference at all, the American Revolution would have been stillborn, if his audience wasn't thoroughly familiar with what it was he was speaking about.

In our hot-dogged world today, we tend to think of "classical allusions" as being pretentious, even useless - too spicy and filling! - but in our Founders times, those allusions were understood to refer to consequential ideas, historical events, philosophical concepts and heroes who strove in their name... those 'pretentious allusions' were able to capture the imagination of his audience because they were alluding to things which were commonly known to them and understood by them.

Fortunately for the previous 251 years of the world, our Founder's times were not plagued with anything resembling a Dept. of Education, or a Common Core Curriculum of intellectual pablum, and because the stuff of every child's education was that of gourmet intellectual cuisine, those ideas and histories were able to become transformed by informed minds into the fuel which enabled Otis's 'Flame of fire!' to take hold and change the world.

The more we learn today of what they knew then, the more brightly our flame will be able to blaze tomorrow. The more those 'pretentious allusions' fade away... so will our liberties and rights.

An Aperitif
Can you really and truly call an education as being worth it's name, if all it does is teach its students various skills and techniques? Is making someone more skilled at getting what they want, without teaching them to understand what is wise or unwise to want and why... can that really be called a good thing? An education was once understood to consist of conveying the significant issues of history and thought, forming a moral manner and enabling a self governing nature.

Where do you see that occurring today? Teaching anything less than that, such as useful skills only, was once thought of as instruction fit only for slaves. Is that what you want for your kids? Are you really so sure that those who understood those issues which we've mostly forgotten today, didn't know what they were talking about?

Does it ease your mind any to know that one time President of Princeton College, Woodrow Wilson, prior to becoming one of the most harmful proregressive presidents of our nation, had said in a speech to a group of high school teachers:
"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
, who found his comments completely unremarkable. Does it make you wonder at all about having such a mania for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) standards in our Common Core Curriculum... and little or no emphasis on seeing that they also get an education in those fields such as history (not 'social studies', history), literature, philosophy, which are so central to the 'privilege of a liberal education'? Not that such 'STEM' skills aren't highly useful, but... are your children being taught to lead their own lives well, or to get a 'good job' working for someone else?

In that forum last week, only two people suggested the possibility of serving something other than hot dogs. Mr. Clark, of Loyola who represented a variation on the Catholic School option (which Mr. Podgursky advocated as well), and Dana Loesch who supported homeschooling and direct parent involvement. Everyone else, Dick Morris especially, spoke of nothing other than altering the methods of delivering and paying for an 'education', not one of them spoke about, or even mentioned, WHAT the content of an education should be. It was simply assumed that good administration would produce good grades and test scores were the final word in whether a school was successful or not at providing an education, rather than simply processing the sausages.

Well I'm here to tell you, if you feed kids nothing but hot dogs, you wind up with fat, unenergetic kids. If you feed their minds with the intellectual equivalent, you get nothing but more of the same.

Schools today, with increasingly rare exceptions of fine teachers who still manage Teaching in spite of the materials they are saddled with, schools today are centered around meaningless, hack written, often factually incorrect and politically skewed materials.

It is awful. It is boring. It is profoundly uninteresting. It is failing and it will continue to do so until it is entirely replaced - not reformed - replaced.


stlgretchen said...

Excellent post, Van. Never thought of education as a hot dog. But very appropriate. And I didn't realize we were sighing so much!

I do remember saying..out loud.."am I in an alternative universe?"

Van Harvey said...

Thanks Gretchen.

Actually your comment caught me a bit by surprise... I didn't realize I'd published the post yet! I guess that new publish timer thingy in blogger works!

I just finished touching up a few spots and adding the Wilson quote, which I think adds some spicy Dijon to the dog!

3rseduc / handsinthesoil said...

Many things to say, but I'll be brief. One, I agree with you. Secondly, I support charter schools and choice, but not corporate control- same with you. I was thinking though, charters are indeed similar to public schools. I think of it like this- your local fast food place that is franchised, let's call it Food X, the Food X on 8th and main I swear tastes just a teeny bit better than the one on River and Washington. I think they use a bit more pepper. That's charters vs "regular" public....nearly inperceptible, but if parents have the choice of schools and want a little more pepper, then right on. (tres edu)

Third- Human capital makes the hairs on my neck stand.

mushroom said...

I was watching a little bit of the local news last night, and they were talking about some new method of serving hot dogs. 3Cs or something.

You are right. It does not matter how well kids are being taught if what they are being taught is foam and fluff.