Education Week

October 14-18, 2013 . . . only on NRO

Restoring Our K–12 Schools


‘One must never underestimate,” the great contemporary sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “the human capacity for forgetfulness and imbecility.” In his most recent book, Berger ruefully notes that “relativism has massively invaded everyday life, especially in Western societies,” for complex reasons, not least of them the fact that “increasing numbers of people [are] going through an educational system in which teachers propagate relativistic ideas.”

#ad#We live in an age ignorant and resentful of theology and metaphysics, whose elites and academic establishment also hate the very idea of “classic” or “canonical” literature, from Dante to T. S. Eliot and Solzhenitsyn (both of whom unflatteringly document different kinds of modern inferno). As Lionel Trilling noted in 1961 in his fine essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (helpfully reprinted in Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent), “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” As a distinguished “neo-conservative” adherent of Matthew Arnold’s view of the civilizing power of education and great literature to produce “ethical nobility,” Trilling also argued, regretfully and ominously, in the same essay, that “Nothing is more characteristic of modern literature,” especially since Nietzsche, “than its discovery and canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies.” The audio-visual power of New York and Hollywood has made this increasingly true and habituates us (and everyone else reached by airwaves and images) to violence and sensuality.

Thus history may be the last durable matrix, measure, and mirror in which the human person can dependably seek ethical self-knowledge. As autobiographical reflection is the means of individual self-knowledge, history is the means of collective human self-knowledge: Instead of looking vainly at the screen (Milton Shulman’s “ravenous eye”) or drunkenly (to paraphrase Housman) into the pewter pot and seeing the world as the world is not, we look into the mirror of personal and collective history to see the world as it really is. It is often an unflattering sight, as the great Kierkegaard knew. “Memory says, ‘I did that,’” he wrote; “vanity says, I wouldn’t do that!’ Vanity wins.” As Eliot put it, “This is a sentence not taught in the schools.”

Of the many regrettable anomalies unleashed and then institutionalized by John Dewey and his now-vast legion of followers in American K–12 schools and teachers’ colleges (and their worldwide disciples), two have been particularly damaging to the American Republic: first, the emptying out of specific, graduated, cumulative academic content in elementary schools and its replacement by helter-skelter play, experimentation, and uncoordinated, ephemeral “units,” and, second, the related replacement of high-school history with present-minded “social studies” and classic literature with contemporary fads (e.g., the International Baccalaureate’s recent elimination of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in favor of works such as the comic book/“graphic novel” Persepolis). “The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. “Progressive education” has proved to be the great enemy of real educational progress, bringing about an extraordinary “dumbing down” of the hapless and helpless students subjected to it. The profitable success and low quality of the commercial audio-visual and literary culture that preys on them is a sad commentary on the result.

In a brilliant 1961 book, the renegade conservative Protestant thinker R. J. Rushdoony carefully analyzed “the messianic character of American education,” the translation of residual religious longings by increasingly heterodox liberal Protestants and liberal Jews into what T. E. Hulme had called, before the First World War, the “spilt religion” of secular “Progressivism.” Another voice crying in the wilderness was Russell Kirk, who, in the pages of National Review and in a series of careful, detailed pamphlets written on K–12 school curricula, critiqued the ahistorical, offbeat, eccentric, and sheerly disorganized character of the modern K–12 American school, once the envy of the world but now transformed by Dewey and his followers.

More recently, in what is perhaps the most promising development of the last half-century at any level of American education, the enormously distinguished, courageous, and productive scholar and dogged publicist E. D. Hirsch Jr., of the University of Virginia, has not only critiqued “progressivism” but worked with other teachers, parents, and scholars to create a sensible, coherent scope and sequence of studies for K–8 students, the Core Knowledge curriculum. It is now in use in over a thousand American elementary schools and is attracting intense attention in Italy, Spain, France, and Britain, where Education Secretary Michael Gove is a great admirer of Hirsch and promotes his ideas to improve British education, to the consternation of his own “progressive” educational establishment.

Starting out as a garden-variety left-liberal while teaching at Yale, and a scholar and admirer of Romanticism, Hirsch has gradually but radically changed many of his views since moving to the University of Virginia (English Department, not education school) nearly 50 years ago. Despite great, international eminence as a literary theorist, in the Seventies he voluntarily took over the usually thankless task of running the undergraduate English Composition program at the increasingly competitive and eminent flagship of the Virginia university system, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, one of the nation’s best public universities. To his shock and distress, the promise of the Sixties civil-rights movement, with the admission of blacks (and poor whites) to the formerly elitist Virginia, had turned into disappointment. Many of the African-American students had been so badly educated in the K–12 schools of Virginia that they could not do university-level work and were in need of remediation, leading to an ironic and defensive re-segregation in Black Studies courses. Most of them (and many lower-class white students) did not have the common coin of the literate realm, the “cultural literacy,” as Hirsch called it, to take effective advantage of the newly available opportunities of access to elite institutions.

#ad#In Hirsch’s 1996 book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them  just now translated into Spanish in Spain with an introduction by the eminent American educational-policy specialist Charles L. Glenn Jr.  he launched a full-scale critique of educational Romanticism of “messianism” and “spilt religion” worthy of Tocqueville and Hulme (both of whom he has quoted), as well as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and Russell Kirk (whom he has not). As against the self-indulgent, sentimental, pantheistic longings, seductive illusions, and quicksilver bromides of Rousseau, subsequent German Romantics, Emerson, Horace Mann, Whitman, Dewey, and Dewey’s teachers’-college parishes all over the country, the intellectual historian Hirsch carefully critiqued the foolishness and ineffectuality of Romantic-Progressive educational thought and practice since 1900, a record of fecklessness and incompetence noted by Hofstadter in 1964 and devastatingly documented recently in Diane Ravitch’s indispensable Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).

Hirsch’s critique drew for its authority not only on his careful anatomy of Romantic-Progressive incoherence and incompetence in K–12 education, but also on the great, positive, historical sources of prudent, civilizing ideals in Western education, among them Plato, St. Augustine, and the American Founding Fathers. He also remembered gratefully, and praised, earlier opponents of the Dewey juggernaut, including thoughtful Columbia Teachers College minority voices William C. Bagley (d. 1946) and Isaac L. Kandel (d. 1965), author of the prescient, anti-skeptical The Cult of Uncertainty in 1943, both of whom were buried under the Dewey landslide from the 1920s to the 1960s and ended in oblivion. Hirsch was apparently unaware of anti-Dewey critiques by Kirk, other conservative writers, and another Columbia Teachers College rebel, Philip H. Phenix (d. 2002).

Now 85, Hirsch is himself possessed of a historical sense, making him aware of what he has called “the perils of romanticism” and agnostic about claims for radical pluralism and multicultural “diversity” (Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty”), eventuating in “e pluribus plures,” from many, many, instead of the decent, sensible, republican-democratic “e pluribus unum.” He knows that reflection on history implicitly teaches ethics and a degree of prudent rationality, despite fashionable scholarly skepticism, esoteric specialization, and the militant, reductionist “gender-race-class” grid of so much contemporary university teaching and writing in the fields of history and literature. He saw the radical, post-modern, left-Nietzschean relativism of the Mandarin academy close up in his own Department of English and Comparative Literature at Virginia, especially in the person and work of his ironic, radically skeptical, “anti-foundationalist” colleague Richard Rorty. In the dishonorable but revealing career of the immigrant Belgian deconstructionist and chameleon Paul De Man – brilliantly exposed and anatomized by David Lehman in Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul De Man (1991) – post-modern relativism had massively penetrated Yale after Hirsch’s departure: fashionable Francophone decadence and radical relativism corrupting and disgracing a once-great and beneficent Literature Department.

But is it true that history implicitly teaches ethics? Not, of course, if the historian is an anarchist or a Marxist, or some other form of determinist or fanatic. But the premises of rational generalizability – “What if everybody did that?”  and moral evaluation — this event, person, or idea is deficient, evil, or destructive (e.g., slavery, anti-Semitism, prostitution), that one good – are implicit in the conceiving, writing, and teaching of history. George Orwell’s eloquent, hard-won understanding of common “decency” as a standard is the effect and product of the long-term, residual momentum of the Natural Law tradition. It is incarnated in the history of Western law, classic writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, and Dickens, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, and the speeches of Lincoln, not to come nearer in time to the writings of C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, or Solzhenitsyn.

As well as teaching children to read through phonics, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum systematically exposes young students to this humanizing patrimony of history and literature, remote as it may be from Allen Ginsberg and Mick Jagger. In the century since 1914, the consequences of the various substitutes for classical-Christian Natural Law/Natural Rights common sense the matrix of most great English literature and the American founding documents and institutions have been and continue to be catastrophic, an argument brilliantly articulated and documented by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al-Qaeda (2006).

Another partisan of Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty,” the agile liberal relativist Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), has been given far too much credit for invoking toward the end of his life the wisdom of Kant’s famous assertion that “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” True enough, but it is simply a secular paraphrase of the Christian doctrine of original sin, endlessly illustrated throughout human history: G. K. Chesterton called it “the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian religion.” Human proneness to egotism, to force and fraud, to the abuse of power in all its forms, is what led wise men such as Madison and Hamilton, and most of the other American Founders, to craft their documents and institutions as they did. The durability, serviceability, and importance of these documents and institutions are unique and incalculably valuable, but – like all historical phenomena – vulnerable to forgetfulness and erosion. The theoretical and practical work of the educational pioneer E. D. Hirsch – blessed and graced with historical sense, literary skill, and civic commitment – serve the American (and human) “res publica,” justify the prudence and chaste hopes of the American Founders, and help redeem the time from anarchy and oblivion.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and professor emeritus of education at Boston University. He recently edited a new edition of Charles Dickens’s great historical novel on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).

The Choice for School Choice


New Orleans  Harold Clay sat on the cafeteria floor, fighting tears. A classmate had stolen the ice cream off his red lunch tray and then pushed him down when he tried to get it back. But, as his uncles and older cousins had taught him, boys don’t cry. So instead, “I start taking the food off the tray, took the tray in my right hand, walked over, tapped him on the shoulder, and cracked him on the head with that tray,” Clay says. “I was one of those bad kids. ‘Put him out, put him out’ — that was the answer.”

Clay was kicked out of school — not the first time he’d been sent home for bad behavior — for this fight. Nobody took the time to understand why he had reacted so forcefully. Though his family received food stamps and aid through the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental-nutrition program, he still didn’t eat some nights, so that ice cream his classmate had swiped had real value. He lived on Dubreuil, the run-down street on the outermost edge of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, and “across from me wasn’t flowers,” he says. “It was burnt-up cars, trash, and rats the size of cats.” He attended bad schools with leaky tin roofs and no heat in the winter. He had an absent father. He was sometimes hungry, he was mad, and he lashed out.

#ad#Clay almost fell through the cracks. But at the end of his sophomore year, an assistant principal named Philmon Edwards saw potential in him and decided to be the father figure Clay lacked. “Without that man at that time,” he says, choking up, “I could have become a statistic.”

Instead, Clay eventually followed in his mentor’s footsteps. Today, he’s the assistant principal of Edna Karr High School, a charter that’s recognized nationally for excellence in education. An outspoken advocate for school choice, Clay relies on his own experience to fight for the future of his students. He and educators like him are contributing to a post-Katrina education revolution in New Orleans.

They’ve got their work cut out for them. Katrina was shocking not only for the destruction it wrought but also for the longstanding social disaster it exposed. In New Orleans pre-Katrina, nearly one in four residents fell below the poverty level. Twenty-nine percent of households were headed by single parents, and over 15 percent of New Orleans teens reported that they had lost their virginity before turning 13. For the past two decades, at least 158 people have been murdered every year in New Orleans. Louisiana today has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and around one in 14 black men in the Big Easy is serving time.

New Orleans’s failing schools have been both a cause and an effect of these social ills. In 2004, around 40 percent of the city’s residents were functionally illiterate. In 2006, about 40 percent of the adult residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had never graduated from high school. Before Katrina, 90 percent of public schools in New Orleans were performing below the state average. A whopping 74 percent of eighth-graders lacked reading proficiency. On the 2004 high-school exit exam, only 4 percent of students exhibited basic proficiency in English and only 6 percent showed basic math capability. The school district, corrupt and dominated by union influence, was heavily indebted and barely staving off bankruptcy. In the three years before the hurricane, the FBI indicted 29 school employees for fraud and corruption.

Change came fast. Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005, damaging all but 16 of the public-school buildings and displacing tens of thousands of students. Within two months, the Louisiana legislature had voted to take over New Orleans’s failing school district, establishing the Recovery School District and effectively firing 7,500 teachers and school workers. In place of most of these public schools, charter schools were established.

Edna Karr High School reopened in December 2005, changing as radically as the rest of the city in those days. Before, it had been a blue-ribbon magnet school, with 40 percent of its student body in the “gifted” category. These students performed well above the norm, and every one of them graduated. After Katrina, the school dropped its selective admission standards, allowing children from anywhere in New Orleans to attend.

“I had a job before Katrina,” says longtime principal John Hiser. “Since Katrina, I’ve had a mission.”

Today, most freshmen enter the high school with fifth-grade math and sixth-grade English skills. Ninety-five percent of the students are black, and 87 percent receive free or reduced-fee lunch. “We take these kids in,” Hiser says. “We don’t tell them they’re stupid. We tell them they’ve got potential.”

Educational obstacles are one thing; emotional ones are another. “Life’s vicissitudes don’t take a day off,” Clay says, rattling through the depressing litany of challenges his students face. Some have a father in prison. Others never knew their father, and “I have a group of kids who feel like, ‘How do you want me to believe in a higher power when the physical man hasn’t shown up?’” More than a dozen students have attempted suicide during Clay’s tenure at Karr. Others have post-traumatic stress from Katrina, which intensifies whenever there’s a storm warning. There are kids whose teeth are rotting in their mouths because they’ve never been to the dentist.

The charter model has given Karr’s administrators flexibility to address these issues creatively, establishing what they call a “wrap-around service environment.”

“I think the charter model — and that’s what I’m going to stress — allows you to do this,” Clay says. “You have a lot of charter schools in New Orleans that have [the freedom] to get what they need for the children instead of, ‘Let’s place an order, let’s make this come from a top-down approach.’”

Because administrators have more control over budgeting and spending, they’ve been able to prioritize their particular needs. In addition to providing robust academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, Karr employs three regular counselors, one college counselor, a full-time nurse, and two full-time social workers. The nurse persuades local doctors to visit for in-house checkups; on one occasion, a student had a root canal on a table in an administrator’s office.

Clay says that because he knows so many of his students have an absent father, he has employed “a lot of different men around here, and I want to stress that — men.” Clay gives out his cell-phone number freely so students can call him anytime they need, and he encourages his teachers to be there for their students, too. “I want them to have a person to call,” he says. “That’s the benefit of not being a traditional educator.”

Teachers are required to stay late some days, offering remedial help and tutoring — an uncompensated extra effort that a teachers’ union would probably oppose, although it makes a huge difference to students’ progress. Karr offers ACT preparation and college visits, encouraging students to apply for scholarships and make connections for their future careers. Administrators recruit community groups and businesses to volunteer or donate. The school has invested in infrastructure, giving the students a sense of worth they lacked in their old, broken, dirty learning environment.

Sonya Sylve, a parent and Edna Karr alum, says that as a charter, Edna Karr is “versatile in every way . . . the way they handle the students, the material that’s brought into the school for the students, parental involvement.” The students learn from example, coming away with “the willingness to want to learn, to be a part of something new,” she says. “They’re not afraid to be introduced to something that’s different, challenging.”

Though the charter receives the same $8,500 per student as does any other Louisiana school, Karr has made staggering progress with its students. In the last school year, it was one of three schools in the nation to win the Gaston Caperton Inspiration Award, which honors institutions that help low-income students achieve academic success.

Karr’s teachers manage to cram in four years’ worth of English and math by the time students enter their junior year. In May 2013, all but two students in a senior class of 220 graduated, and 80 percent immediately went to college. That’s in an environment where many students are first-generation high-school graduates, let alone college students.

“It’s rewarding when you have an A and B student and they succeed,” says Cheryl Flotte, president of the parent-teacher association. “[But] when you have a D student who succeeds . . . I think, ‘That’s what we’ve got here. We offer everybody, from the smartest to the ones that are struggling, the opportunity to succeed.’”

Not all New Orleans charters have made such dramatic progress, but there’s been a noticeable uptick in the quality of education since the city embraced school choice. Today, almost 80 percent of public-school students in the city attend charters, and on average they receive 86 more days of math instruction and 58 more days of reading than their public-school counterparts do, according to a new report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Minority students especially benefit. While New Orleans still has a long way to go, “I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Clay says. “That is, we’re putting out better citizens, in my opinion, because of the charter movement.”

That includes many of his own graduates. One alumus went to West Point. Another, a football player whom Clay fondly describes as “my knucklehead,” attended Columbia on a scholarship. The school’s 2012 valedictorian, Rosario Gardenia, is a native Spanish-speaker who spoke little English when she first came to Karr. She studied hard, applied herself, and graduated with not only English fluency but also $141,000 in scholarship money. Last year’s valedictorian, Brianna Despenza, recevied scholarship offers totaling $1.3 million. “She got to sit back at the table, looking at all of the money and all of the schools, and choose,” Clay says.

The commitment to school choice is pervasive in New Orleans’s alternative schools, and it’s a refreshing shift in a city where parents had long felt trapped and deprived of options. Not that the teachers’ unions have much cared; in 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, Michael Walker Jones of the Louisiana Association of Educators dismissed choice on the ground that “parents may not have the time or information to make a decision about their child’s education.” The paper quoted him as saying, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”

Though the public-school model failed New Orleans historically, it still has its vocal adherents; school choice is by no means a fait accompli. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block 34 school districts across the state of Louisiana from giving private-school vouchers to the approximately 400,000 eligible poor children who attend failing schools. Most of these students seeking to escape academic doom are black — but the DOJ is claiming, without irony, that it’s acting in their interest, because when these minority kids leave, it makes the bad schools less diverse.

Specifically, the DOJ wants to require parents to get pre-clearance from a federal court before they may transfer their children to a better school. Moms and dads would basically have to take on the federal government and all of its complicated rules and bureaucracy. (That’s a significant burden for anyone, and all the more so for New Orleans’s poor though responsible parents.) Less controversially, the DOJ wants Louisiana to provide data on how the existing voucher program has changed the racial composition of its classrooms. (And here’s the kicker — a recent study from the University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Project found that Louisiana voucher students actually decreased segregation when they switched schools.)

The DOJ’s warped rationale has met predictable scorn, so in late September, the Obama administration tried to spin the story, filing an additional motion that trivially amended its suit. The additional motion praises Louisiana for agreeing to submit the statistics — which it had intended to do all along. Meanwhile, this maneuver does nothing to address the DOJ’s most fundamental and objectionable claim: that the federal government is better equipped than individual parents to make decisions about where children should attend school.

If the DOJ and its union allies succeed, they will do so against the will of New Orleans parents, who strongly want to have educational options. More than half of New Orleans parents want to send their child to a school of their choice, according to an April report by Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. Karr has a long wait list, and staffers have often seen parents crying in their front office — out of concern that their children won’t get in, and out of relief if they do.

“What we’re doing here, in my opinion, is the true model of charter, the true model of right to choose, parents having the opportunity to do their own homework,” Clay says. “Whenever you give stakeholders the opportunity to investigate, do research for a quality education, then we’re doing a great service to all folk.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This article is adapted from the October 28, 2013, issue of National Review.



Journalism 101


National Review’s John J. Miller is a mentor. He sees talent and helps young people see it in themselves. He knows how to foster their development and how to get hard work out of them. And so he is the perfect person to direct the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan. We talk about his classes, journalism, and more.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s unique about Hillsdale’s American Journalism program?

JOHN J. MILLER: A few things make us distinctive: an excellent campus newspaper, small classes with teachers who are professional writers, and courses that teach the best that has been thought and said in journalism. Here’s something unique: For the last several years, we’ve offered a one-credit course on “How to Write a Column” — taught on campus by Mark Steyn. Good luck finding that on another campus.

LOPEZ: Can you really teach journalism?

MILLER: The best teacher of journalism is journalism itself. What I mean by that is you learn journalism by doing journalism. It’s kind of like shop class in high school. You learn to use tools not by reading about tools in books, but by using tools to make things. Journalism is the same way. Students need to write bad articles before they write good ones. With time and practice, they get the hang of it. That’s why our campus paper is central to what we do. We teach a bit in the classroom, but even there writing is the focus.

LOPEZ: Isn’t it important to know your history, and to know literature and science to be a journalist?

MILLER: Yes. That’s why journalism at Hillsdale College is a minor and not a major. Students concentrate in a traditional academic discipline, such as biology, English, or history. We don’t lard up the curriculum with nonsense courses on “communication theory” or “media and society.”

LOPEZ: What’s the essential element you want students to walk away from the classroom with?

MILLER: After a journalism course, students should be better writers, knowing how to discover good stories and tell them by putting words in their proper order. I want so-so writers to become good writers and good writers to become great writers.

LOPEZ: What’s the goal of the program? To staff up a next generation of conservative media?

MILLER: We hope to prepare students for careers in the media. Some will want to work in the right-of-center media, but many have other ideas. We can help them all.

LOPEZ: What do you tell students about the future of journalism?

MILLER: I’m optimistic, despite all the worrying. Alumni of Hillsdale College are getting good jobs in journalism. We have two at National Review, Jillian Melchior and Betsy Woodruff. This summer, the Wall Street Journal hired Kate Bachelder, one of my top students, shortly after her graduation. Other recent graduates are working at papers in Nashville, Tenn., Marietta, Ga., and Santa Barbara, Calif. Even the new sports editor of the Hillsdale Daily News is one of ours. Having said all that, the media is always evolving. We don’t know if there will be newspapers a decade from now — but we can be pretty sure that the world will want content providers, whether they’re writing for websites, shooting videos for tablet users, or doing something we can’t yet imagine.

LOPEZ: Have you learned more from teaching or doing journalism?

MILLER: Doing it. Just this year, I’ve immersed myself in the ideas of Harry Jaffa, the recent politics of Kansas, and the historiography of the Haymarket riot — all for the sake of writing stories for National Review. For the Wall Street Journal, I’ve written on poetry, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. One of the joys of journalism is the chance to follow your curiosity.

LOPEZ: What’s wrong with American journalism?

MILLER: Partisanship that masquerades as objectivity. This isn’t the same thing as liberal media bias, which, when properly acknowledged and labeled, isn’t really a problem at all. Yet it’s a close cousin, and it infects reporting at every level. It’s two parts ignorance, one part legerdemain.

LOPEZ: What’s right with American journalism?

MILLER: It’s very good at producing information. We don’t always know how to make sense of it all, but journalism generates a glut of it.

LOPEZ: Who are your favorite journalists? Give us one living and one dead.

MILLER: My favorite journalist among the living is probably Andy Ferguson, who writes with both wit and depth — a rare combination. I always learn something from him, and often come away from his articles wishing that I had written them. So I’m both admiring and jealous. Among the dead, it has to be William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the magazine I love the most.

LOPEZ: How’s life in Michigan compared with D.C.?

MILLER: I enjoyed living in the D.C. area for nearly 20 years and wasn’t looking to leave when Hillsdale came calling. But now that I’m back in Michigan, which is where I’m from, I don’t miss D.C. at all. It’s better here. Sometimes I go entire days without thinking about the federal government. Also, I now get to watch the Tigers on Fox Sports Detroit.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


Rain of Errors


Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice or testing, or her condescending tone toward leaders trying to improve educational outcomes, or her clever but disingenuous rhetorical arguments. No, what’s most frustrating is that we education reformers have left ourselves exposed and vulnerable to her attacks by overselling, and underthinking, our own ideas.

Truth be told, there are parts of the school-reform agenda today that are easy pickings for our opponents. Chief among these is the move to create prescriptive, top-down, statewide teacher-evaluation systems based largely on classroom-level test-score gains. Akin to Obamacare, it’s an idea that seems appealing at first blush (let’s recognize our best teachers and fire our worst!) but quickly devolves into a Rube Goldberg nightmare, with state officials trying (for example) to figure out how to link gym teachers’ performance to reading scores.

Fixing schools, especially from afar, is difficult, treacherous work, yet those of us in the reform community have tried to turn it into a morality play between good and evil. “We know what works, we just need the political will to do it,” goes the common refrain. Balderdash. We know that some things work better than others, and we also know that powerful interest groups (especially the unions) are wedded to the status quo. But anyone with half a brain or more than five minutes of experience also knows that people are complicated, schools are even more complicated, and education is a people-and-schools business. There are no easy answers.

Into these waters wades Ravitch, the repentant reformer, the double agent. She knows the weaknesses in our arguments because she was once one of us. And she exploits them piece by piece.

Which is not to say that she’s fair-minded or even-handed. She’s neither. For instance, she turns the overwhelming evidence that school vouchers generally benefit a great many recipients (while harming none) into a statement that students failed to experience “dramatic” gains. Guess what: No interventions in education (or the rest of social policy) would meet that daunting standard.

But her book is not a complete disaster for reformers. Far from it, in fact, for Ravitch walks into a trap of her own devising. She acknowledges in the introduction that her last effort, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, failed to offer a positive plan for improving student outcomes. So she sets about to offer one in Reign of Error. In describing it, however, Ravitch commits the exact same errors for which she lambastes reformers. She oversells the evidence; she fails to consider likely unintended consequences; she doesn’t think through implementation challenges. The skeptical, hard-nosed (if biased and data-slanting) Ravitch of the first half of her book turns into a pie-in-the-sky dreamer in the second half.

Consider her “solutions”:

1. Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.

2. Make high-quality early-childhood education available to all children.

3. Make sure every school has a “full, balanced, and rich curriculum.”

4. Reduce class sizes.

5. Provide medical and social services to the poor.

6. Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

(She lists five other “solutions” that simply amount to rolling back reforms: Ban for-profit charters and charter chains; eliminate high-stakes standardized testing; don’t allow “non-educators” to be teachers, principals, or superintendents; don’t allow mayoral control of the schools; don’t view education as a “consumer good.”)

So what would a hard-nosed, data-honest Ravitch say about these six ideas?

Claim: Reducing pre-term births (via better prenatal care) would improve the life chances of half a million children in the United States every year.

Reality: The government already provides prenatal care to poor women through Medicaid and other programs. One reason the United States has an unusually high number of pre-term births is that it has an unusually high proportion of babies born to young, unwed, uneducated mothers who are less likely to take advantage of quality prenatal care. Solving that problem requires changing a culture that shrugs at 14- or 16- or 18-year-olds’ getting pregnant (often not for the first time). Ravitch says not a word about those complexities (or anything else about family-structure woes).

Claim: Early-childhood programs have abundant research to support them.

Reality: Most of the evidence for pre-school comes from a few boutique programs that were unusually effective and expensive. They served a handful of exceptionally needy young children. High-quality evaluations of Head Start show few gains, or gains that fade out after a few years. Evaluations of newer large-scale programs (like those in New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas) suffer from “selection bias” problems — we don’t know whether the children enrolled in them might be different in important ways from their peers who didn’t enroll. In other words, the research on pre-school is a lot like the research on charter schools: We can find examples of high-quality programs that get great results, and we can find plenty of the other kind, and we don’t yet know how to take the great ones to scale.

Claim: Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, many schools have cut back on every subject that was not tested.

Reality: NCLB led to some modest declines in the time allocated to history and science in elementary schools (surely not a good thing). But the well-rounded, content-rich schools that Ravitch desires (as do I) haven’t existed en masse for decades. Ravitch wrote a whole book (Left Back) explaining why this is so — and it had to do with the education profession’s commitment to progressivism and romanticism, not because of more recent testing and accountability regimes. She wrote another whole book (The Language Police) that vividly explains why so much that passes for history and literature in our schools is banal and not worth learning, and yet another book (What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know?) showing how little of it they were learning long before NCLB was even a gleam in George W. Bush’s eye, indeed long before he became governor of Texas.

Claim: The benefits of class-size reduction are so large that the cost is well worth it, in terms of higher achievement levels, higher graduation rates, and lower special-education referrals.

Reality: The evidence indicates that class sizes must be reduced dramatically — to 15 students or fewer — in order to get an impact, and even then it matters only for the very youngest students in the very earliest grades. Yet class-size reduction is costly in more than just dollars: By expanding the teacher work force, it makes it that much harder to maintain high standards for entry into the profession (another goal Ravitch asserts), meaning it could actually reduce achievement. (That was California’s experience in the 1990s.) In other words, there are trade-offs at work.

Claim: Wrap-around services, like after-school programs, will close the achievement gap.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim. For instance, a Brookings Institution study of the Harlem Children’s Zone — one of the few reforms that Ravitch likes — found its students performing on par with peers from charter schools that did not provide wrap-around services.

Claim: We need a new push for school desegregation in order to narrow racial achievement gaps.

Reality: There’s some evidence indicating that integrated schools have a positive impact on the achievement of minority students, especially blacks. But does Ravitch forget her book The Troubled Crusade, which described the disastrous history of forced desegregation? There is no political support to refight the busing wars of an earlier generation. The recent trend toward gentrification in some cities creates some new opportunities for integrated schools, but these will be limited. Yes, it would be nice if all schools were integrated; it would also be nice if all children had two parents at home. It’s not going to happen. Many low-income and minority students will continue to attend racially and socioeconomically isolated schools for the foreseeable future; the challenge is to make those schools as effective as possible.

Improving schools and helping disadvantaged children escape poverty are heroic challenges. They are complex undertakings with loads of uncertainty and potential for missteps. Some proposed solutions will actually make things worse. If Ravitch’s bromides push education reformers toward greater realism, that would be healthy indeed. But who will push Ravitch and her new friends toward greater realism on the anti-poverty agenda? America’s kids are waiting.

— Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he writes for the award-winning Flypaper blog. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and executive editor at Education Next.

A College Plan for the People


After reading thousands of words of insightful commentary about the ideological and academic decline of American college education, its bloated, bubble-like economics, and the corresponding crushing debt burden, what’s a parent to do? How can a kid decide?

Do you go to college? If so, where? How do you choose from the competing, extraordinarily expensive options?

What follows is a college plan for people who can’t pay for college out of petty cash, who can’t painlessly attend a $50,000-per-year niche private school featuring, say, the top lesbian anarchist scholars in the Northeast. In other words, this is a college plan (forgive me for borrowing #Occupy language on NRO) for the 99 percent.

Step 1: Decide if college is right for you. A college degree isn’t necessary for financial success. Of course one can point to tech superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs (Time has a nice roundup of top ten college dropouts), but those individuals are outliers. Better examples might include your local carpenters, plumbers, and other skilled workers — or perhaps a veteran noncommissioned officer. Our economy is full of hard workers who do well without that English or marketing degree.

Step 2: Understand that college is generally about credentialing, not prestige. The economic purpose of a college education is relatively simple: It grants you access to jobs that are closed off to those without a degree. Increasingly, that includes jobs that don’t actually require college-level skills, but because a degree requirement is one of the few lawful ways to screen out the vast majority of unsuitable applicants, degree requirements flourish.

Step 3: Don’t overpay for a credential. There are only two circumstances where you should be willing to go into debt for an undergraduate education — to attend one of the vanishingly small number (fewer than ten) of “shock and awe” schools that grant a substantial and measurable advantage beyond the degree itself, or to obtain an education (like a quality theological education) that truly can’t be obtained at a less expensive school.

That’s it. No other exceptions. Dad, Granddad, and Great-Grandma went to Expensive Private University? Well, some traditions must come to an end. You just got admitted to the eighth-ranked “liberal-arts program amongst small colleges in the Southeast?” Please. No one cares.

Don’t be swayed by the marketing brochures, the bucolic campuses, and the gushing praise from slightly buzzed students. For the vast majority of private schools, ask yourself if spending $200,000 to go to Disneyland is worth the money — because that’s what they offer: academic Disneyland, with no lasting benefits greater than those offered by your typical state-supported school.

Step 4: Do as well as you can in the college you can afford. When it comes to undergraduate education, how well you do matters more than where you do it (the dynamic flips a bit in graduate school; more on that later). And, to be very clear, it’s not hard to do well. Your classmates will be busy in college — busy sleeping and partying, that is. If you dial back on the booze and buckle down just a tiny bit on the books, then you will stand out.

And standing out matters. That’s how you get the good recommendations. That’s a key way to make connections. That’s how you get the second looks from graduate-school admissions committees. When I was on the admissions committee of an Ivy League law school (Cornell), we cared much more about how well applicants did than where they obtained their degrees. We turned down quite a few prestige-private-school undergrads in favor of outstanding public-school students. GPA and test scores mattered much, much more than the name on the diploma.

Step 5: Save your money and prestige focus for graduate school. If you go to graduate school, the identity of your college gets irrelevant fast. Who has more job options: The person who went to the University of Illinois for college and Harvard for law school, or the person who went to Harvard for undergrad and the University of Illinois for law school?

When I was a hiring partner at a big law firm, we cared not one bit about a student’s undergraduate education — except, perhaps, as a conversation starter (that’s an expensive icebreaker!). We looked instead at law school, then law-school performance, with a sliding scale based on the quality of the law school. We might interview the top third of the graduating class of a top school while interviewing only the top two or three from a second-tier school. Sounds unfair, but that’s how life works when hiring professional-school graduates.

There, prestige matters as much as standing out.

Of course, for conservatives there are many side benefits to adhering to this plan. If just a few more families shift their kids out of extravagantly expensive, marginally prestigious private schools, there will be real downward pressure on tuition, frivolous expenditures and disciplines will fall by the wayside, and we’ll have some actual academic reform without having to fight fractious ideological battles.

In other words, the market can work — if only we behave rationally. And college debt is almost never rational.

— David French is a lawyer, writer, and veteran of the Iraq War.


Meet the ‘Blue Collar Ivies’


Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions.

While the price of tuition has been skyrocketing, jobs for new college graduates have become ever scarcer, with most starting annual salaries less than the amount each graduate owes (and many new graduates unable to land full-time work at all). I won’t barrage you with facts and figures, but here’s a sobering one: According to the Project on Student Debt, students from the class of 2011 who borrowed to gain their bachelor’s degrees — that’s two-thirds of graduates — emerged with an average of $26,600 in student-loan debt.

The good news is that there are more affordable options where, with the right guidance and a little initiative, a student can get a true education. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute scoured the country to find the best low-cost educational options in America. In the latest edition of our Choosing the Right College, we provide detailed guidance on how to get a good education at each of them.

Some Blue Collar Ivies we profile offer full-tuition scholarships to students, sometimes in return for full-time work on campus. They are worth a careful look. But because these colleges can afford to be extremely selective, and some have income restrictions on whom they admit, we also profile at least one public university in each of the 50 states. Paying in-state tuition, a student can attend at one-third or even one-fourth of what others would pay.

The advantage of such a cost savings is obvious. And there really are excellent opportunities at most state universities. In these profiles, we point you to honors programs at state schools that often are nearly as rigorous as the options at elite private colleges. Some public institutions even offer Great Books programs; we tell you which ones. We highlight options for honors housing, which lets serious students escape the zoo atmosphere that pervades too many state-college dorms. We also tell you about schools that have set up internship programs with local employers or enable science students to work closely with senior faculty in research.

Even outside these programs, the Blue Collar Ivies have many dedicated professors — frequently people whose own degrees come from the best schools in the country. Such teachers are often frustrated by the mediocrity and ideological pressure that prevails at state universities, and they uniformly report that they are delighted when eager, intellectually curious students seek them as mentors. You will find in every college profile some names of such professors.

While spotlighting outstanding programs at state universities, we also call attention to land mines you should avoid. We flag programs and departments that are directionless, underfunded, or flooded by radical activists (as many liberal-arts departments sadly are), and we try to steer students to the strong ones. The good news is that state universities are so big, there is almost always some worth­while path a proactive student can forge through the trackless forest. We find you that path, combing through each school’s catalogue to select a solid core curriculum of classes that will guarantee a basic liberal-arts education to any student, regardless of major.

The Blue Collar Ivies aren’t perfect. But if you follow the advice offered by the wise professors and savvy students who talked to our reporters, you will find a way to gain a solid, affordable education.

Here are excerpts from our profiles of two of the best state universities we covered — one on the East Coast and one out west:

The University of Maine

Orono, Maine

Strong Suits

Plenty of traditional, solid courses to meet both gen-ed and majors’ requirements.

Strong emphasis on teaching, in addition to research.

Very solid programs in sciences, engineering, forestry, nursing, political sci­ence, history, psychology.

Humanities departments are less ideological than at most state schools.

Excellent honors program with many serious liberal-arts courses.

A Great Books Living Learning Community.

Women’s-studies department may close for lack of student interest.

Weak Points

Some departments are “unwelcoming” to religious or conservative students.

Foreign-language majors have been cut due to lack of funding.

Several social-science departments are subpar.

Few options in theater or the arts.

The University of Maine, a land- and sea-grant university, opened in 1868. While its research is well respected, the school also focuses sharply on teaching, especially in the liberal arts. UMaine students and faculty speak with pride of their engineering, nursing, forestry, and agriculture programs, and the Honors College is truly noteworthy.

Academic Life: Partly Cloudy

All students must fulfill a set of general-education requirements within six categories: Science, Human Values and Social Context, Mathematics, Writing Competency, Ethics, and Capstone Experience. There are good courses offered (along with fluff) in each of these categories, so students should choose carefully. Under Human Values and Social Context, students must take a course in Western Cultural Tradition, with very good options like “History of Ancient Philosophy.” In the required Cultural Diversity and Population and Environment subcategories, pickings are slimmer and include “Sex and Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Students can satisfy the Ethics requirement with a worthy class such as “Introduction to the Jewish Bible.”

UMaine’s student-faculty ratio is a middling 15:1, and more than half of courses have fewer than 20 students. Even the most crowded courses top at around 35 students. “Professors are quite accessible and helpful,” says one student. “I have had absolutely fantastic professors.” A teacher comments, “One of the things I really like about UMaine is the close balance of teaching and research. The university places a much greater emphasis on teaching than other research universities,” with stan­dards “similar to those at very highly ranked liberal-arts colleges.”

The honors program offers classes no larger than eight to 14 students. Says one, however, “The honors-sequence experience varies greatly depending on the professors.” A professor praises the Honors College as the “jewel in the crown,” stating that his best students “write very solid senior theses to conclude their B.A.,” followed by a two-hour defense to a faculty committee. The thesis project, a well-chosen adviser, and some of the excellent course material offered (the Odyssey, the Republic, Greek dramas, the Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Inferno, Renaissance art, the Bible, The Prince, Shakespeare’s plays, The Social Contract, the works of John Locke, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and much more) make the honors sequence the best choice for an undergraduate at UMaine.

Besides the Honors College, students and faculty speak most highly of engineering, chemistry, anthropology, political science, forestry, nursing, history, psychology, biology, marine sciences –as well as the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Other programs are weaker. A professor warns against the social sciences, “with the exception of psychology . . . which has a nationally respected doctoral program, especially in family counseling.” Though one student calls UMaine’s business school “pretty good for a public state university,” a professor counters that it has “low standards.” This professor also notes that the foreign-languages department is “too small” with “too few courses in non-European languages.” Another teacher says that UMaine’s theater, public-administration, and women’s- studies departments have all been “slated for being phased out due to low numbers of majors.”

UMaine is a real bargain for Mainers, who paid only $8,370 in tuition in 2012–13 (compared with $25,230 for out-of-state students) and room and board of $8,848. Some 60 percent of students received need-based aid, but those who borrowed racked up a daunting $32,438 in average student-loan debt.


University of California at Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, California

Strong Suits

Comparatively little ideology in the classroom: “Just the data, ma’am.”

20 percent of students take part in research with teachers.

Excellent hard-science departments (especially Nobel-rich physics) and good programs in the humanities, political sci­ence, and film studies.

Highly qualified faculty who do all teaching (grad students lead discussion sections).

Comparatively wholesome dorm policies and a beautiful campus.

Weak Points

Some enormous (800-student) classes.

Politicized courses in the black- and Chicano-studies programs fulfill general-ed mandates.

General advising is weak.

Many bars and a good deal of drinking near campus.

Several chaplaincies are slackly heterodox.

What is today the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) was founded in 1909. Twice in the past decade, UCSB has been named one of Newsweek’s “twelve hottest American colleges.” Five Nobel laureates and dozens of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellows on faculty attract such attention; so do twelve national state-of-the-art research centers. It also helps that students and teachers don’t waste much of their time on radical politics. The school isn’t near the beach; it’s on the beach. (The university includes a weather report on its homepage.)

Academic Life: Science More than Letters

Most of the almost 19,000 undergraduates at UCSB are attracted to the school’s science-centered programs and the chance to participate in top-flight research, but Santa Barbara also has some good liberal-arts departments. Although the university has no core curriculum, there are many substantial courses available that can help students gain a solid liberal-arts foundation if they choose wisely.

UCSB is known as a research institution, and its strengths accordingly lie in the sciences. Several departments are among the best in the nation, especially physics, where four members of the faculty have won Nobel Prizes. More than 20 percent of undergraduates (including freshmen) participate in some form of research, and there are abundant opportunities — not just in the hard sciences but in the humanities and social sciences too — for those who seek them.

Apart from instructors, students have plenty of other academic resources available. The UCSB Libraries are major research facilities with 3 million books and bound journals, and more than 500,000 sound recordings.

There are only a few politicized distractions in the curriculum — men in lab coats tend not to put up with them. “Strange and bizarre courses are very few, since UCSB mainly focuses on the hard sciences,” says a student. For the most part, students can express their views without fear of reprisal. According to one student, because Santa Barbara is “predominantly a hard- science school, there is a communal belief that everything has to test for validity, no matter who says it.” But the few distractions, when they do occur, are glaringly obvious. The black- and Chicano- studies departments get most of their business by helping students fulfill a particular general-education requirement.

The film-studies department is considered by some to be the best in the country and was given a big financial boost when alumnus Michael Douglas donated $1 million to the Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television, and New Media.

The Department of Religious Studies “is one of the major centers in North America for the study of religions,” the school reports. It takes pride in having once employed the famed post-Christian theologian Paul Tillich. The department “houses the prestigious Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life; maintains close ties with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, [and] boasts several endowed chairs located within it — the XIV Dalai Lama Chair in Tibetan Studies, the Virgil Cordano Chair in Catholic Studies, and the Tipton Distin­guished Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies.” It’s probably a good sign that a fair number of professors in the religious-studies department earned degrees at the University of Chicago; several philosophy professors come from UCLA; and classical studies tends to hire from Berkeley and Harvard.

For a student who knows what he would like to study and what courses to take to get there, the College of Creative Studies, dubbed “the graduate school for undergraduates,” is an interesting alternative. With approximately 300 students, “the creative-studies major is for talented students who are committed to advanced and independent work in one of the disciplines represented in the college,” according to the catalogue.

There is also an undergraduate College Honors Program, which earns a student a diploma with distinction as long as he maintains a B average. Some of the courses are graduate level, while some undergraduate courses may count for honors credit if students attend honors discussion groups. Honors students have access to the graduate-student library, an honors study center, priority registration, special academic awards, field trips and research lectures, and a mentorship program that pairs honors upperclassmen with freshmen.

Students outside the honors program say the best advice comes from faculty advisers in their majors. There is a general-education advising office on the campus: “They can sometimes be helpful,” a student warns, “but they don’t always know the whole story. The professors have a better grasp.”

Once in class, students can generally expect to find professors (in the upper-level courses) or lecturers (in the lower-level ones) doing their own teaching. Graduate teaching assistants handle some discussion sections and the grading in larger, lower-level courses. Class sizes for some general-education courses can range from 200 to 800. The average class size in lower-division classes is 52. Upper-division courses average 36 students. The overall student-faculty ratio is 18:1.

Despite the large classes, students are impressed with the faculty. They report that their professors are outstanding teachers and mentors with proven track records. “My professors have been the most important part of my education here and have encouraged me, guided me, taught me, and trained me,” says one student. Another student calls her professors “amazing and helpful.”

In 2012–13 California residents (and illegal aliens residing in California) paid $13,671 in tuition and required fees to attend UCSB. Out-of-state Americans paid $36,549. Room and board were a hefty $13,275. Fifty-five percent of all students received need-based aid, and the average loan burden of a recent grad was a moderate $18,627.


The Blue Collar Ivies


Auburn University

University of Alabama


University of Alaska


University of Arizona


University of Arkansas


University of California at Berkeley

University of California at Los Angeles

University of California at Santa Barbara


United States Air Force Academy

University of Colorado at Boulder


University of Connecticut


University of Delaware


Florida State University

University of Florida


Georgia Institute of Technology

University of Georgia


University of Hawaii at Manoa


University of Idaho


University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign


Indiana University Bloomington


University of Iowa


University of Kansas


Alice Lloyd College

Berea College

University of Kentucky


Louisiana State University


University of Maine


United States Naval Academy

University of Maryland


University of Massachusetts–Amherst


University of Michigan


University of Minnesota–Twin Cities


University of Mississippi


College of the Ozarks

University of Missouri


University of Montana


University of Nebraska–Lincoln


University of Nevada

New Hampshire

University of New Hampshire

New Jersey

Rutgers University

New Mexico

University of New Mexico

New York

Brooklyn College (CUNY)

Cooper Union

State University of New York at Binghamton

United States Military Academy

North Carolina

North Carolina State University

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

North Dakota

University of North Dakota


Ohio State University


University of Oklahoma


University of Oregon


Pennsylvania State University

Temple University

Rhode Island

University of Rhode Island

South Carolina

College of Charleston

South Dakota

University of South Dakota


University of Tennessee


Texas A&M University

University of Texas at Austin


University of Utah


University of Vermont


College of William and Mary

George Mason University

University of Virginia


University of Washington

West Virginia

West Virginia University


University of Wisconsin–Madison


University of Wyoming

 John Zmirak is editor of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions. This adapted excerpt is reprinted with permission of ISI Books and has been amended since posting.



Show Us the Money


A bank would never grant a loan to a business that failed to disclose its overhead. So why do taxpayers and state legislators consistently vote to increase spending on public schools without knowing their full cost?

A new report from the Cato Institute finds that state education departments routinely understate the cost of public schools and often completely fail to report key spending categories. This may be contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education.

The report, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?,” assigns A-to-F grades for the completeness, timeliness, and accessibility of the spending data that the departments publish on their websites. The report reveals that very few state education departments provide complete and timely financial data that are understandable to the general public.

The most useful figures for comparing school districts of varying sizes are the annual per-pupil expenditures (PPE). However, half of all state education departments report PPE figures that leave out major cost items such as buildings, interest on debt, and pensions, thereby significantly understating what is actually spent. Alaska’s Department of Education website does not report PPE figures at all.

Other important spending categories are often omitted. Eight states fail to provide any data on capital expenditures, ten states lack any data on average employee salaries, and 41 states lack any data on average employee benefits.

Few states manage to publish timely spending data. By the end of the last calendar year, only 13 states had published per-pupil spending data for the 2011–12 school year. Most states’ data were a year behind, and for a handful of states the most recent spending data were two or three years old.

In addition, states too often report spending data that are hard to find or interpret. For example, the commonly used term “current expenditures” gives the false impression that it refers to data that are recent, which is not necessarily the case.

The average citizen is unlikely to know that “current” refers to “operating” expenditures, indicating that the figure excludes some major categories of spending, such as capital expenditures. Moreover, state education departments often use undefined acronyms that are practically impossible for the average citizen to decipher.

This financial opacity may be contributing to widespread misperceptions about public-education spending. Despite tremendous and persistent spending growth in the last half-century, the public greatly underestimates how much is spent on public schools.

A recent survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that the public’s average estimate of the annual cost per student in public schools nationwide was only $6,680. The true cost is more than double that estimate, at nearly $14,000 per student annually, according to the most recent inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Harvard survey also examined how misconceptions about education spending affect support for spending levels. The researchers randomly divided survey respondents into two groups. The first group of respondents were simply asked, “Do you think government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?” Respondents in the second group were first told what the annual per-pupil expenditures were in their school district.

The survey found that informed respondents were significantly less likely to support increased spending. While 53 percent of uninformed respondents stated that they wanted to increase spending on public schools, support fell to only 43 percent among informed respondents, while 57 percent wanted spending to stay the same or decrease.

The public’s gross underestimation of education spending has real-world consequences. For example, on Election Day 2012 in Colorado, a majority of voters in 29 of 31 districts voted to increase K–12 education spending by a total of over $1 billion, approving 34 bond issues and operating-revenue increases. Nearly two-thirds of the ballot questions passed with less than 60 percent of the vote. If the Colorado voters resembled the Harvard survey’s national sample, it is very likely that a fully informed public would have voted differently.

An informed public is a necessary prerequisite for self-government. When government agencies offer incomplete or misleading data, they deprive taxpayers of the ability to make informed decisions. At a time when state and local budgets are severely strained, it is imperative that state education departments provide the public with accurate, timely, and accessible spending data.

— Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the author of “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?”

The Wannabe Oppressed


What do America’s college students want? They want to be oppressed. More precisely, a surprising number of students at America’s finest colleges and universities wish to appear as victims — to themselves, as well as to others — without the discomfort of actually experiencing victimization. Here is where global warming comes in. The secret appeal of campus climate activism lies in its ability to turn otherwise happy, healthy, and prosperous young people into an oppressed class, at least in their own imaginings. Climate activists say to the world, “I’ll save you.” Yet deep down they’re thinking, “Oppress me.”

In his important new book, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, French intellectual gadfly Pascal Bruckner does the most thorough job yet of explaining the climate movement as a secular religion, an odd combination of deformed Christianity and reconstructed Marxism. (You can find Bruckner’s excellent article based on the book here.) Bruckner describes a historical process wherein “the long list of emblematic victims — Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples — was replaced, little by little, with the Planet.” The planet, says Bruckner, “has become the new proletariat that must be saved from exploitation.”

But why? Bruckner finds it odd that a “mood of catastrophe” should prevail in the West, the most well-off part of the world. The reason, I think, is that the only way to turn the prosperous into victims is to threaten the very existence of a world they otherwise command.

And why should the privileged wish to become victims? To alleviate guilt and to appropriate the victim’s superior prestige. In the neo-Marxist dispensation now regnant on our college campuses, after all, the advantaged are ignorant and guilty while the oppressed are innocent and wise. The initial solution to this problem was for the privileged to identify with “struggling groups” by wearing, say, a Palestinian keffiyeh. Yet better than merely empathizing with the oppressed is to be oppressed. This is the climate movement’s signal innovation.

We can make sense of Bruckner’s progression of victimhood from successive minorities to the globe itself by considering the lives of modern-day climate activists. Let’s begin with Bill McKibben, the most influential environmental activist in the country, and leader of the campus fossil-fuel divestment movement.

In a 1996 piece titled “Job and Matthew,” McKibben describes his arrival at college in 1978 as a liberal-leaning student with a suburban Protestant background. “My leftism grew more righteous in college,” he says, “but still there was something pro forma about it.” The problem? “Being white, male, straight, and of impeccably middle-class background, I could not realistically claim to be a victim of anything.” At one point, in what he calls a “loony” attempt to claim the mantle of victimhood, McKibben nearly convinced himself that he was part Irish so he could don a black armband as Bobby Sands and fellow members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army died in a hunger strike. Yet even as he failed to persuade himself he was Irish, McKibben continued to enthusiastically support every leftist-approved victim group he could find. Nonetheless, something was missing. None of these causes seemed truly his own. When McKibben almost singlehandedly turned global warming into a public issue in 1989, his problem was solved. Now everyone could be a victim.

Wen Stephenson, a contributing writer at The Nation and an enthusiastic supporter of McKibben’s anti-fossil-fuel crusade, is one of the sharpest observers of the climate movement. In March, Stephenson published a profile of some of the student climate protesters he’d gotten to know best. Their stories look very much like McKibben’s description of his own past.

Stephenson’s thesis is that, despite vast differences between the upper-middle-class college students who make up much of today’s climate movement and southern blacks living under segregation in the 1950s, climate activists think of themselves on the model of the early civil-rights protesters. When climate activists court arrest through civil disobedience, they imagine themselves to be reliving the struggles of persecuted African Americans staging lunch-counter sit-ins at risk of their lives. Today’s climate protesters, Stephenson writes,“feel themselves oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces beyond their control.” And they fight “not only for people in faraway places but, increasingly, for themselves.”

One young activist, a sophomore at Harvard, told Stephenson that she grew up “privileged in a poor rural town.” Inspired by the civil-rights movement, her early climate activism was undertaken “in solidarity” with Third World peoples: “I saw climate change as this huge human rights abuse against people who are already disadvantaged in our global society. . . . I knew theoretically there could be impacts on the U.S. But I thought, I’m from a rich, developed country, my parents are well-off, I know I’m going to college, and it’s not going to make a difference to my life. But especially over this past year, I’ve learned that climate change is a threat to me.” When one of her fellow protesters said: “You know, I think I could die of climate change. That could be the way I go,” the thought stuck with her. “You always learn about marginalized groups in society, and think about how their voices don’t have as much power, and then suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what I am, with climate change.’”

The remaining biographical accounts in Stephenson’s piece repeat these themes. Climate activists see themselves as privileged, are deeply influenced by courses on climate change and on “marginalized” groups they’ve been exposed to in high school and college, and treat the climate apocalypse as their personal admissions pass to the sacred circle of the oppressed.

It may be that these activists, eyes opened by fortuitous education, are merely recognizing the reality of our impending doom. Or might this particular apocalypse offer unacknowledged psychic rewards? These students could easily be laid low by an economic crisis brought on by demographic decline and the strains of baby-boomer retirement on our entitlement system. Yet marriage and children aren’t a priority, although they could help solve the problem. Why? Many dooms beckon. How has climate change won out?

Last academic year, the National Association of Scholars released a widely discussed report called “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.” The report chronicles what I’ve called a “reverse island” effect. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the classic liberal-arts curriculum first came under challenge, courses in ethnic and gender studies were like tiny islands in a sea of traditionalism. Politicized in ways that were incompatible with liberal education, these ideologically based “studies” programs were generally dismissed as necessary concessions to the nascent multicultural zeitgeist.

Today the situation is reversed. Not only have the ideologically driven “studies” programs taken over a large share of the college curriculum, but many courses in conventional departments reflect the underlying assumptions of the various minority-studies concentrations. Today, classic liberal-arts courses have themselves been turned into tiny besieged islands, while the study of alleged oppression represents the leading approach at America’s colleges and universities.

In this atmosphere, students cannot help wishing to see themselves as members of a persecuted group. Climate activism answers their existential challenges and gives them a sense of crusading purpose in a lonely secular world. The planet, as Bruckner would have it, is the new proletariat. Yet substitute “upper-middle-class” for “planet,” and the progression of victimhood is explained. Global warming allows the upper-middle-class to join the proletariat, cloaking erstwhile oppressors in the mantle of righteous victimhood.

Insight into the quasi-religious motivations that stand behind climate activism cannot finally resolve the empirical controversies at stake in our debate over global warming. Yet understanding climate activism as a cultural phenomenon does yield insight into that debate. The religious character of the climate-change crusade chokes off serious discussion. It stigmatizes reasonable skepticism about climate catastrophism (which is different from questioning the fundamental physics of carbon dioxide’s effect on the atmosphere). Climate apocalypticism drags what ought to be careful consideration of the costs and benefits of various policy options into the fraught world of identity politics. The wish to be oppressed turns into the wish to be morally superior, which turns into the pleasure of silencing alleged oppressors, which turns into its own sort of hatred and oppression.

What do American college students want? I would like to think they are looking for an education in the spirit of classic liberalism, an education that offers them, not a ready-made ideology, but the tools to make an informed choice among the fundamental alternatives in life. The people who run our universities, unfortunately, have taught their students to want something different, and this is what truly oppresses them.

 Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected].

Liberal Education vs. Liberalist Education


Among those hit hardest by the prolonged downturn in the economy are recent college graduates, who face both high unemployment rates and a high debt burden from college expenses. This fact has rightly caused many to question the value of a college degree. But when the numbers are broken down, they tell a slightly different story. Graduates with degrees in engineering or teaching, for example, are much more likely to find work than graduates with degrees in the humanities.

And so the question is narrowed: What is the value of a college degree in the humanities or liberal arts? (Here I shall use these terms interchangeably.) A recent story in the Wall Street Journal, which focuses on the drop in liberal-arts undergraduates at Harvard University, is only the latest in a growing refrain of unease among students, parents, and policy makers on the value of a liberal-arts education.

But the question is still not sufficiently in focus, for it fails to ask a prior question: What is a liberal-arts education? Until we answer this question, we will not have a clear idea of what is really at stake in the debate. As I tell prospective students and their parents when they come to visit Hillsdale College, where I teach, although most colleges and universities describe themselves as liberal-arts institutions, only a very small fraction of them offer anything close to the real thing. What they offer should really be called “liberalist education.” Liberalist education is characterized by three features: First, a suspicion of all authority, including the authority of truth; second, the celebration of autonomy and individual choice; third, a commitment to social justice. Whatever the merits of these things, none of them has anything to do with a real liberal-arts education.

The real educational problem we face today is not the value of a liberal-arts education per se, but the large number of liberalist education programs — most of them heavily subsidized by taxpayer money — that masquerade as liberal-arts programs while depriving students of the specific excellences that can only come from the real thing. Liberalist humanities professors prepare students to fight hegemonic power structures through various kinds of victimization studies organized around race, class, gender, etc. In response, conservatives are often all too ready to throw liberal education overboard and to replace it with an education focused on technical training for productive employment. Both groups can miss what is singular and valuable about a liberal-arts education. 

David Brooks is on the right track, then, when he attributes today’s crisis of the humanities to a change of focus within the humanities themselves. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he writes. “They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” Unfortunately, Brooks then commends to his readers a new report by a commission (of which Brooks was a member) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.”

The title of the report alone suggests why Brooks’s underlying tone about the report is less than enthusiastic, despite his endorsement. Amazingly, in over 60 pages of prose, this report, produced by what are presumably the nation’s leading figures in the humanities, does not use the words “truth,” “goodness,” or “beauty” even once. Instead, the report echoes the kind of high-sounding but meaningless phrases one is now accustomed to hear from increasingly desperate humanities professors.

For example, the report repeatedly states that education in the humanities will produce “an adaptable and creative workforce,” without ever bothering to ask whether adaptation is always good. Rather than address the real problem, the report merely reinforces the contemporary academic division of labor: The physical sciences change the world, the humanities teach us how to “adapt.” As the banal boilerplate of one typical liberal-arts college puts it: “A liberal arts education prepares human beings to adapt to a diverse and rapidly changing world.” It’s no wonder the humanities are in trouble.  

How can one distinguish between liberalist and liberal education? This is itself a question for liberal inquiry. Put most simply, a true liberal-arts education cultivates the intellectual virtues whose ultimate object is wisdom or knowledge of the whole. It differs both from technical training, which serves useful ends, and from “specialization,” which focuses exclusively on some part of the whole. Specialization and technical training are necessary and useful, but by themselves they are radically incomplete. A liberal education enables human beings to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, and beauty from the obscene and sentimental. It is, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, not simply for the sake of living, but for the sake of living well.  

How does one identify a college that offers this kind of an education? Here are three marks to look for.     

First, does the institution have a robust and unified core curriculum consisting of specific courses every student must take, and specific texts every student must read?

If the liberal arts really are arts, then like other arts they consist of a substantive body of knowledge, specific practices, and standards of excellence that are internal to those arts and which can only be learned under the careful guidance of masters in those arts. Unfortunately, recent defenders of the humanities have a habit of reinforcing the common but false stereotype that the hard sciences are about reason and reality, whereas the humanities are about spontaneous emotion and subjectivity. Lee Siegel reflects this naïve, romantic prejudice when he writes in the Wall Street Journal that “every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and method. Literature requires only that you be human.”

Liberalist institutions, instead of initiating their students into the specific excellences of the arts, flatter their democratic prejudices by giving them the widest possible range of choices across a distribution of general subjects. But what other art can be mastered by the undirected and free choice of the apprentice? No program in biology or engineering or accounting operates in this way, and neither should a liberal-arts education. To tell students otherwise is to do them an injustice.

Harvard University is a case in point. The university website celebrates its new “Program in General Education,” which consists of eight categories. The reason why these particular categories were chosen and how they are related to one another is far from clear. Most of the category titles are vague (“Culture and Belief”), meaningless (“Societies and the World”), or simply parochial (“United States in the World”). Within each category is a long menu of course offerings. “Culture and Belief,” for example, includes 41 different course offerings with titles such as “Animated Spirituality: Japanese Religion in Anime, Manga, and Film” and “Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games.”  

Two graduates of another Ivy League university recently recalled to me how a professor at their freshman orientation announced to his audience, “we look forward to learning from you.” (Doubtless this professor did not pay the same tuition as them for this privilege.) They told me they would be willing to spend a considerable amount of money now to get the liberal education they never received at their alma mater. This fact speaks volumes. Ivy Leaguers are often wealthy enough to go to school twice, but not all are so fortunate. Most 18-year-olds can recognize when they are being patronized; sadly, it is often only later that they discover the costs of this indulgence. 

Second, what is the quality of the teaching?

I once saw a clever college advertisement that read something like this: “Your teachers this year will be: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot.” If, as I did, students receive a degree in the humanities without reading these authors, they have been defrauded.

Today it is common to describe a liberal-arts education as training in purely formal skills such as “critical thinking and reasoning,” but the real masters of that tradition are the Great Books. Logic, along with rhetoric and grammar, are necessary and important tools in a liberal-arts education (and would that more liberal-arts colleges today taught even these), but by themselves they tell us nothing about reality itself. The Great Books are characterized by powerful imaginative and intellectual forms that guide, test, deepen, and enrich our knowledge of reality.

A true liberal-arts education, therefore, is not freestanding or contentless. It is constituted by what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “tradition of inquiry,” which is recorded, expressed, articulated, challenged, revised, and continued through the Great Books. For liberalist humanities professors, however, the term “Great Books” is code for a right-wing political agenda that is bound up with sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of hegemony and oppression.

The irony here is that this very criticism is made possible by the Great Books tradition. The Great Books tradition, unlike most other traditions in the history of the world, is characterized by openness to the truth and the value of different cultures and ways of life, and so is permeable by the artistic and intellectual gifts of all cultures. By closing a liberal-arts curriculum around the Great Books, therefore, students are made more open to seeing the richness of reality than by the flat, directionless “open” curriculum.

It is not enough simply to read the Great Books, however. Moderately intelligent readers can find spontaneous delight in reading the Great Books for fun, but the deeper and more lasting delight comes from the ability to unpack the depths of rich meaning in these books. This requires an art of interpretation and analysis. In a real liberal-arts education teachers are like well-trained tour guides who teach their students how to notice not only the surfaces of things, but also the layers of meaning lying in and beneath that surface. This involves a trained art of reading. Just as no biology teacher tells her students that an organism is whatever they feel or want it to be, so no liberal-arts teacher tells his students a book means whatever they feel or want it to mean. Texts, like organisms, like reality, have a real structure and meaning that can be discovered only through careful and often difficult interpretation and analysis. An education in postmodern deconstruction is not a liberal-arts education. Criticism has an important role to play in a liberal-arts education, but the “hermeneutic of love” must come before the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Socrates is a better guide than Descartes.

Third, what is the quality of student life outside the classroom?

Does what the students are learning in the classroom feed their conversations and friendships outside the classroom, or are life in the classroom and social life sharply demarcated? Are the students more energized by the ideas they are learning, or by the prospect of the early-weekend drinking binge?

Here again the common core curriculum described above plays an important role. I’ll never forget the first party I attended at a true liberal-arts college (by then I was a graduate student), when amidst the free-flowing libations a fierce argument broke out among the whole group over the relative merits of Achilles and Odysseus, Homer’s two great epic heroes, who exemplify the tension between the specific excellences of body (bie) and mind (metis). It was not quite a symposium, but it was a far cry from the usual bacchanalia one finds on other campuses. Without a common core, students simply lack a common subject matter to discuss with their roommates, to argue about, and build friendships around when they are not in the classroom, and teachers have no common foundation upon which to build in upper-division courses.

A liberal-arts education is not principally concerned with what you do, but with what you are. Therefore defenders of the humanities are right to insist that the value of a liberal-arts education cannot be measured simply by productive employment. To defend liberal education in this way is like defending religion in terms of morality, or friendship in terms of personal utility.

But then one can also say that just as real religion does in fact reinforce morality, and just as real friendship is in fact useful, so a real liberal-arts education does in fact prepare students for productive employment and for democratic citizenship. Imagine what the American Founding would have looked like had Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton only been trained in gender studies, or accounting. But the fact that liberal education is ordered to non-useful ends should not be a cover for fraudulent humanities programs to insulate themselves from the criticism they have received and deserve. The real scandal is not that graduates in the humanities cannot find jobs, but that they have spent four years and thousands of dollars on a random hodgepodge of trendy courses. Jobless, they don’t even have the comfort of a rich intellectual life to compensate them for their poverty.  

— Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College.

Don’t Leave Responsible Parents Behind


One of the remarkable things about contemporary education reform may be its lack of interest in responsible parenting. In recent years, an intense focus on closing racial and economic achievement gaps has resulted in policies and practices that can sometimes come at the expense of families that work hard and play by the rules.

Don’t misunderstand: Parents get plenty of lip service. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sounded all the right platitudes when he told USA Today, “Parents are always going to be our students’ first teachers. The most important thing I can do is to read to my children every night, to not have them watching TV and to really be a partner with that teacher. Parents have to step up.” Presidents, governors, and civic leaders are always saying things like this.

Yet school reformers have done little or nothing to encourage, support, or honor responsible parenting, and have seemed remarkably unconcerned with the possibility that their reforms might harm those parents who are trying to do the right thing.

Take the hotly discussed issue of college affordability. Proposals to rethink college loans and grants are plentiful right now, but hardly any see fit even to mention that families that struggle to save are today penalized by being asked to pay more so that colleges can offer bigger aid packages to students whose parents didn’t save.

In September, the Brookings Institution touted a new analysis that argued that state financial-aid systems “undermine” federal financial aid (because merit-based state aid is insufficiently redistributive). Utterly absent was even a pro forma reference to how these systems affect incentives for families to save. This simply reflected standard practice. Collegiate financial aid is driven by an “expected family contribution.” This figure, based on a family’s income, assets, debts, and future obligations, is an estimate of what a family can be expected to pay for college. Basically, people who save more are eligible for less aid. Yet this penalty for savers seems to bother none of the nation’s experts on higher-education policy. 

For instance, of 15 major financial-aid white papers that were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and released in 2013, just one (a College Board discussion of education savings accounts) makes any reference to encouraging savings. The rest are silent on this topic – including papers by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Alliance for Excellent Education, Association of Public Land Grant Universities, and Institute for College Access and Success.

While most states have created so-called 529 plans to encourage families to save for college, economists Roberto Ifill and Michael McPherson have found that saving money in 529 plans can reduce the amount of financial aid a family receives. For a middle-income family, the researchers estimated that an additional $100 in 529 savings would reduce the amount of aid they’d receive over four years by $15. They noted that families that use prepaid tuition plans or save in another manner thereby “reduce their eligibility for need-based aid.” Policy proposals start, reasonably enough, by asking how to help low-income students attend college, but they too often fail to consider how doing so might undermine desirable norms such as encouraging working families to save aggressively for college.

A similar effect can be found in K–12 schooling, where most of the nation’s schools and systems avidly encourage teachers to “differentiate instruction.” In plain English, this means tailoring instruction to individual students. In theory, this makes terrific sense. In practice, it’s really hard to do for everyone. Today, given education’s monomaniacal emphasis on basic proficiency rates and closing “achievement gaps,” teachers tend to devote less attention to students whose parents have already equipped them to learn. For instance, pollsters Steve Farkas and Anne Duffett have reported that teachers believe their students are all entitled to equal attention but that, when asked who is most likely to get one-on-one attention, 80 percent said academically struggling students and just 5 percent said academically advanced students.

The Teacher’s Guide to Success, published by Pearson, lists 15 techniques to differentiate instruction for struggling learners, but fewer than half as many for gifted learners — and many of those for the latter group amount to euphemisms for benign neglect. Teachers are advised to “encourage the reading of library books” and “provid[e] opportunities to sit in on special unit activities in other classes.” In June, the nonprofit literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental reported that just one in three parents read bedtime stories to their young children daily. The same report noted that children in families with an annual household income below $35,000 are more likely to watch TV (40 percent) than read books (35 percent). Reformers horrified by such statistics nonetheless  promote policies and practices that effectively neglect the children of those parents who read to their kids, turn off the television, and focus on academic success. State accountability systems that emphasize minimum proficiency and teacher evaluation systems that focus monomaniacally on improving reading and math scores have the effect of marginalizing those students whose families have taken care to read to them and do math problems with them — and who look to schools for more.   

When it comes to school choice, it’s striking how quickly an admirable concern with the right of low-income families to exercise choice can turn into contempt for middle-class and affluent families who exercised the choice to pay a premium to buy a home in a high-performing suburban school system, and who resent the idea that families from outside the community who don’t pay local taxes have a right to attend their schools. The fact that parents may have worked hard, saved responsibly, and then bought a house in order to ensure their child a seat in a good neighborhood school is often treated as suspect. Adam Emerson, the “school-choice czar” at the conservative Fordham Institute, last year acidly attacked the residents of Zachary, La., for not choosing to throw open their schools to children who didn’t live in the district. Emerson blasted the community for “erect[ing] a fence around its public schools” and thundered at “those who make ‘sacrifices’ for the best [but] want to keep their investment exclusive.” 

Choice advocates are right to argue that low-income children ought to be free to escape awful schools. But parents and homeowners who have paid dearly to purchase homes in desirable school districts also deserve some consideration. Rhetoric like Emerson’s turns school choice into class warfare, with reformers questioning the decency of parents who have worked hard to do right by their kids. Given that, it’s not hard to see why vouchers and charter schooling have played so poorly with suburban parents and homeowners.

All of this helps convince working-class and professional families that much of the education-reform agenda has no interest in or is hostile to their concerns. The result is that reform is tolerated rather than embraced. Gallup has reported that only about one in five respondents think “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” is the most important of the nation’s education challenges – yet it seems that five out of five education reformers think just that. This disconnect makes it hard to build broad, sustained support for reform.

In an era in which reformers have pledged to “leave no child behind,” raising such concerns can seem off-putting. After all, policies that reward responsible parenting will tend to magnify the advantages of kids born to educated, responsible parents. The consequence of our inattention on this score, though, is that education reform has steered around the role of parental responsibility and given short shrift to the policies and practices that can foster it. 

Three ideas might help for a start. One is that savings ought not to reduce eligibility for college aid, at least not for professional and working-class families with accumulated assets of less than $1 million (the very wealthy may be another matter). This would permit need-based aid formulas to still factor into account earnings and substantial wealth, but would reduce the current penalty for savings. 

A second is that school districts should adopt formal policies making it clear that accountability systems and established practices should not be taken as an excuse to short-change students whose families have helped them master basic skills. They should devise metrics and evaluate principals and teachers with an eye to ensuring that the focus on “closing achievement gaps” does not serve as an excuse to ask more-prepared students to babysit themselves for large portions of the academic day. 

A third might be a pledge by school-choice advocates that they will cease any and all attacks upon parents of means who have chosen to pay a premium for good public schools, and who have reasonable concerns about proposals that would change the terms of the deal by affecting the quality of their schools and harming their property values. Choice advocates should design plans with an eye to win-win solutions, such as aggressively encouraging the emergence and expansion of terrific new private and charter schools, supporting the expansion of choice to schools and systems that want to enroll participating students, and ensuring that incentives reward suburban districts that do choose to open their doors to students from outside their boundaries.

As usual, the penalties for parents who read to their children nightly or who save assiduously for college have little impact on the truly wealthy, who can insulate themselves in ritzy private schools and easily afford even Ivy League tuition. Instead, the costs fall most heavily on responsible working-class and professional families.

Education policy can and should help level the playing field. It’s admirable to put a thumb on the scale towards equalizing opportunity, but the aftermath of the Great Society should have taught us that nothing good is accomplished when technocratic reforms are allowed to displace responsible familial norms. A good place for reformers to start might be by taking their own version of medicine’s Hippocratic oath. They should pledge to at least ask whether their bright ideas are poised to weaken or impugn the very filial behaviors that they purport to uphold.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Education Debit Card


‘The public-school system has no ability to handle Shawn’s sensory needs,” says Jennifer Doucet, mother of the Arizona fourth-grader. “We needed a program that understood him, that [we] could gear toward his needs, instead of him having to fit into someone else’s box.”

So the Doucet family enrolled Shawn in Pieceful Solutions, a private school in Chandler, Ariz., with a mission of providing personalized education for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. It’s the longest-running school in Arizona designed specifically to meet the needs of students with autism.

Shawn’s mom says the teachers at Pieceful Solutions understand autism; they “know the difference between when he is acting out and he really does not understand something.”

#ad#Jennifer also says enrollment at the school would not have been possible without Arizona’s innovative education savings account (ESA) option. “The ESA is the only reason we have been able to stay at [Pieceful Solutions]. Without a savings account, we would not be able to afford the care that Shawn needs.”

Arizona enacted first-in-the-nation education savings accounts in 2011. It expanded the option a year later, and again in 2013.

So how exactly does the option work, and how are ESAs different from vouchers? In Arizona (the only state currently offering ESAs), parents who are not satisfied with their child’s assigned public school can withdraw the child from the public system and have 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child deposited into an education savings account. Those funds are deposited directly onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and providers.

Approved expenses include private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services, educational therapy, curricula, and a host of other education expenses. And that is what makes ESAs unique — a refinement of Milton Friedman’s original concept of school vouchers. Parents can direct their child’s share of education funding to multiple providers and services, instead of using those funds at a single educational institution, such as a private school.

As innovative as that is, the architects of Arizona’s pioneering choice program didn’t stop there. Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year, a policy that encourages parents to consider opportunity costs (are they getting a good bang for their educational buck?) and empowers families to save for future education expenses. Families can even roll unused funds into a college savings account.

Parents using an ESA receive distributions to their account quarterly, after having submitted receipts for all purchases to the Arizona Department of Revenue. In the event funds are used on a non-approved item or service, the subsequent quarter’s funds can be used to rectify the error. In the event of an egregious misuse of funds, ESAs are subject to audits by the state.

ESAs were first opened to Arizona children with special needs. In 2012 eligibility was expanded to include children from low-income families in underperforming schools, children of active-duty military parents, and children in Arizona’s foster-care system. In 2013, eligibility within these categories was extended to children entering kindergarten (that is, the requirement that students had to already be enrolled in public school to apply for an ESA was eliminated for kindergarteners). Today, more than 220,000 children are eligible for an ESA.

Stories from some of the first families to enter the program illustrate how life-changing the ESAs have been.

“Two years ago we weren’t even sure if we were ever going to have a conversation with him,” says Amanda Howard, mother of second-grader Nathan. “He is in a private school now for kids with developmental delays. . . . He reads now. He is reading a little below grade level. But he likes math. He is working above grade level for math. And he really loves social studies; he knows all the 50 states. So it is really exciting to see all the progress he has made verbally and being able to communicate, and that he is actually making a lot of academic progress.”

Like Jennifer Doucet, Amanda Howard credits her son’s progress in part to their ESA. “I think that for kiddos like Nathan, it really shows the difference the right education environment can make,” she says.

While the Doucets and the Howards have been using their children’s ESAs primarily to access private-school options, many Arizona families are using their accounts for a variety of education-related services and providers, completely customizing their children’s educational experiences to meet their unique learning needs.

According to a new evaluation by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, more than one-third of families are using their ESAs to pay for multiple education services along with private-school tuition. Some have eschewed private school altogether and are using their ESAs to purchase textbooks, curricula, and online classes, and pay for private tutors.

ESAs represent a complete reimagination of what it means to finance education publicly. They represent a shift from the very worthwhile goal of school choice to educational choice, the future of school choice.

As more states across the country consider ways to provide school-choice options to families, ESAs should be at the top of their lists. And states with existing voucher or tuition-tax-credit programs should consider expanding the allowable uses of funds and transitioning them to more flexible ESAs.

“When you find out your kid has autism, you go through a stage where you think you are all alone,” says Nathan’s father. “But then people slowly, but surely, point out different things. The ESA is one of those things.”

— Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. To learn more about ESAs, read: The Education Debit Card: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts.

Bind Us Together? Not in Public Schools


The ongoing federal shutdown offers a powerful lesson about public schools, and it’s not just that you can’t count on checks from D.C. It is something much more basic: When government makes decisions, it is very often a zero-sum game — either you get what you want or someone else does — and that is a recipe for harmony-shredding conflict.

That our nation is politically polarized is obvious. Indeed, it feels like an entire industry has sprung up to let us know just how torn asunder we are. As a Washington Post headline declared recently, “Shutdown’s roots lie in deeply embedded divisions in America’s politics.”

Alas, this isn’t a new or one-time thing. No, it seems that the more Washington has tried to control, the worse our divisions have gotten. Take the president’s health-care law, arguably the biggest single increase in federal power in decades. It is probably also the most divisive; having caused rage-filled town halls before it was rammed through on a purely partisan vote, it now drives much of the current federal paralysis.

Basically, the more that government does, the more inevitable divisive warfare becomes. Government action forces everyone into the political arena to determine who gets what from whom, rather than letting people freely choose with whom they’ll interact, and freely choose to cooperate for mutual advantage.

Ironically, perhaps the fundamental notion undergirding public schooling is that government control is essential to bind diverse people together. Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common Schools,” declared that the only way Americans could be educated and kept out of “social, interminable warfare . . . is the elevation of the common schools.”

How has that worked out?

In Mann’s Massachusetts, the common schools first exacerbated long-simmering tensions between Congregationalists and Unitarians — Mann was among the latter — forcing them to debate what kind of religion the schools would teach. It was a burning dispute dampened only by the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholics — at the time, a common enemy of many Protestants.

Roughly a century of political and social tension between American Catholics and Protestants is well documented. But the battles were perhaps most heated in education, where they included physical combat — with numerous people killed — in the 1844 “Philadelphia Bible Riots.” The spark that set off the conflagration was the question of whose version, if any, of the Bible would be used in the public schools.

Of course, numerous districts for many decades saw peace. What largely maintained tranquility was that, unlike Philadelphia and other diverse areas, most districts were small and their communities homogeneous. That, and large “out” groups — especially African Americans — either were shamefully barred from public schools or, in the case of Roman Catholics, established their own institutions.

As public schooling evolved, it became increasingly centralized, first with consolidated districts, then with state and federal controls. With extremely diverse people now placed under unified governance, today we see constant conflict over numerous values-laden, intensely personal matters, including religion in the schools (or lack thereof); portrayals of different races and ethnicities in curricula and texts; student speech rights; reading selections; and the list goes on.

Indeed, the Cato Institute has been tracking public-schooling battles since 2007 and has posted a map (with ongoing updates) identifying hundreds of “values” battles across the country. And those are just the throwdowns that have received relatively prominent media attention.

Painfully illustrative of the problem is the Anoka-Hennepin district in Minnesota, north of Minneapolis. First it was torn by accusations, in the wake of several student suicides, that it fostered an environment hostile to gay students. Then it came under fire for contemplating policies that conservatives considered threats to their values. Superintendent Dennis Carlson concluded that being a district designed to incorporate very diverse people was the root cause of the seemingly inescapable conflict. Then he said, “It’s not a battle we want to fight. That’s not why we’re here.”

Sadly, Mr. Carlson is wrong: Forcing diverse people together is why public schools are here, as Horace Mann himself proclaimed. But as we are learning the hard way, not just in education but across politics, government control often does not yield harmony. Indeed, quite the opposite.

— Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the report Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.

Education Today


‘One of my most treasured possessions is a picture taken many years ago when I was a young father,” William J. Bennett writes in the introduction to his Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. “It is a picture of me at the beach and on my shoulder I’m carrying my older son, John, who was three years old. I love it partly for obvious reasons of sentiment, but also for another reason. The picture represents one of those moments when I might have played the role of a father well. It is an inspiration and a reminder and it lifts me up, as I lifted up my son on that day.”

Bennett, the former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, has sought to uplift as a husband and father, public servant, author, commentator, and radio-show host. As it happens, his most recently published book, written with David Wilezol, asks the question “Is college worth it?” To begin National Review Online’s fall education week, Kathryn Jean Lopez checked in with Secretary Bennett, the bestselling author of The Book of Virtues, about education in America today.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What troubles you most about American education today?

WILLIAM J. BENNETT: What troubles me the most is poor or mediocre performance and the fact that too many Americans are satisfied with it. Second, that too many education policymakers are focusing on money. The focus needs to be on the right kind of work by teachers, parents, and students.

LOPEZ: You’re an optimist, though. What’s the good news?

BENNETT: (1) Massachusetts. If it were a country, it would be about the tenth highest-achieving country in the world.

(2) New Orleans. It’s an example of good leadership and great reform efforts.

(3) Douglas County, Colorado. Douglas County is an affluent, urban district that refuses to be self-satisfied.

LOPEZ: What’s the most important thing a parent can teach a child?

BENNETT: (1) God loves you.

(2) I love you.

(3) Hard work works. 

LOPEZ: Whatever happened to those old Heritage Foundation backgrounders on the need to abolish the Department of Education? Is the Tea Party today providing that viewpoint?

BENNETT: Yes, for the most part, but that’s not their focus. 

LOPEZ: What would be your priorities if you were secretary of education today?

BENNETT: They would be the same as they were before: choice, accountability, content, and character.

LOPEZ: Will peace come to the debate about Common Core?

BENNETT: Not for a while. We probably need to get rid of the term and have a discussion without the interference the phrase generates.

LOPEZ: Did you learn anything from Ronald Reagan?

BENNETT: Yes, tons.          

You mentioned optimism? I never knew a warrior as happy as — or better than — Ronald Reagan. His 1994 open-letter good-bye reflected the faith, courage, and affection he demonstrated throughout his public life and in his friendships: “When the Lord calls me home,” he wrote, “I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”

The man loved his country and was eternally optimistic.

LOPEZ: How should history remember him? And how might that help us today?

BENNETT: In education, he was concerned about us not passing on the legacy of America to our children. He was right then and is still right today.

LOPEZ: What have you learned since the days when you were secretary of education? About education? About life?

BENNETT: About education, I have not learned much different from what I understood then. About life, I’ve learned that you see things a little differently at 70 than at 45.

LOPEZ: Are Cabinet secretaries what they once were? Do they have the same influence?

BENNETT: Sure — they mostly don’t matter.

LOPEZ: What’s the best advice you were ever given — and that you could ever give?

BENNETT: The advice my wife, Elayne, gave me. When I was secretary of education, she said I should go to the schools, teach, and talk to the students, their parents, and their teachers, and find out what I’m talking about before I run my mouth. I went to about 120 schools back then, and I’ve been to almost 500 schools more since then. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

Race-Based Admissions after Fisher


It’s depressing that, nearly six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the legality and morality of racial discrimination in education continues to be a contested issue.

Consider: Last month the Obama administration issued “guidance” for universities on the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision last June in Fisher v. University of Texas. The guidance predictably reiterates that the administration “strongly support[s] diversity” — including, of course, using discrimination in order to achieve it — but, as a legal matter, this is irrelevant if a school is sued, because whether in a particular case there are educational benefits stemming from such diversity is an educational judgment, not a political one.

The fact is that this “guidance” is designed not to help schools follow the law, but to push them to adopt dubious race-based policies that the Supreme Court has warned against and that have prompted lawsuits in the past, but that the Obama administration and its political allies stubbornly support. The whole tone of the new guidance is to offer encouragement to schools that want to engage in racial discrimination: The administration promises that it “will continue to be a resource” for such schools. It is as if the FBI offered eager encouragement to state and local police that wanted to engage in racial profiling without violating the law.

What’s worse, though, is that the guidance is probably telling many schools just what they want to hear: Study after study by the Center for Equal Opportunity has shown that universities across the country are only too happy to weigh race very heavily indeed in their admissions. But, if they (and their lawyers) read the Fisher decision honestly, it ought to make them gulp and reconsider such discriminatory policies. And I should add that, in the run-up to the ruling, it became clear how increasingly unpopular and discredited racial preferences in admissions are, even among liberals who had once supported them. This ought to prompt some serious soul-searching among university presidents on whether “diversity” is really worth the price of racial discrimination.

In Fisher, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, before race can be used in university admissions, a university must give “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to achieving the goals that are purportedly being achieved by weighing race in admissions decisions. The high court said that the lower court, on remand, “must assess whether the university has offered sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.”

The Court also said that there must be “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.” And: “The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” A nondiscriminatory approach must be used if it “could promote the substantial interest about as well and at tolerable administrative expense.”

There is certainly enough in this language to justify an aggressive and thorough challenge to universities’ use of race in admissions, and so they should expect as much. Universities must now be able to document their consideration of alternatives to weighing race, including any reason for not adopting such alternatives.

A particular example would be documentation of how the educational benefits of considering race in admissions would be greater than the educational benefits of considering other, nonracial factors instead. How is education improved by using race, exactly — and how much, exactly, are those benefits of “diversity” enhanced by considering race in admissions, rather than nonracial characteristics that provide actual diversity in backgrounds, such as income or parents’ professions/educational level or geography or age or work experience or whatever?

If a nonracial admissions system would achieve similar benefits and with fewer costs, then the consideration of race cannot be said to have been narrowly tailored to the achievement of those benefits.

More fundamentally, schools must now be able to document why and how race is considered in student admissions and must periodically review and rejustify those considerations. And they must be able to document not only (a) the anticipated benefits but also (b) the possible costs associated with the consideration of race in student admissions at the university — and especially, with regard to the latter, the relative academic performance of members of groups that have received such favorable consideration: That is, they must address the “mismatch” problem of “preferred” minorities being set up for academic underachievement or failure by being admitted into schools where their academic qualifications are significantly below those of the rest of their classmates.

As the Fisher litigation continues, meanwhile, Texans should ask the University of Texas’s president, Bill Powers, “Mr. Powers, just how much of the taxpayers’ money from the people of Texas are you willing to spend in litigation to justify your school’s racial discrimination against wrongly colored Texans?” The predicted expense is now above $1 million.

Three other quick points:

1. Litigation expenses and bad policy aside, the amounts spent — that is, wasted — on these diversity programs is appalling, as Manhattan Institute fellow and NRO contributor Heather Mac Donald has documented.

2. As legally and morally dubious as racial preferences are in student admissions, they are even less defensible in faculty hiring and promotion — yet they are equally ubiquitous, with the added problem that here sex rears its ugly head as well. A recent lawsuit filed by a white male administrator against the University of Florida is a good wakeup call for university officials, many of whom seem to think that, if race can be considered in student admissions, it can therefore also be considered in employment decisions. This is just not true. The statutes and the law are different in the two areas, and there is no plausible legal justification for universities to weigh race in making employment decisions in 2013. Here’s a recent discussion of why universities have no legal justification for racial/ethnic/gender preferences in employment.

3. A word with regard to K-12 education: It is appalling that the Justice Department is trying to use old school-desegregation orders to block Louisiana’s school-voucher program (as John Fund discussed in the NRO piece that really broke this story). But, as I wrote more than a decade ago, the underlying problem is often that school districts — for shortsighted political reasons — have been too complacent in leaving these old orders in place, and so they must bear some of the blame. There are still a couple of hundred of these court orders out there, and school districts — and federal judges, on their own initiative — ought to be proactive in removing the ones that are no longer necessary and in fulfilling any that have not yet been fulfilled, six decades after Brown.

— Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which joined an amicus brief in the Fisher case.

Heralded Report on the Humanities Falls Flat


On August 15, in the middle of a ratings desert on Comedy Central, Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University, gamely pitched the humanities in his five-minute close-up with Stephen Colbert.

The show, insiders agreed, was a public-relations coup. “Duke President Richard H. Brodhead got some laughs and the humanities got some love during his appearance Thursday on Comedy Central’s popular ‘The Colbert Report,’” Duke Today reported the next day, unaware that what the humanities need is not late-night laughs or even love.

Brodhead is co-chair and public face of “The Heart of the Matter,” the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences’ final report that was created to make the case for increased public “investment in research and discovery.” It was requested by members of Congress and undertaken by the venerable American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Cambridge, Mass.

The state of the humanities is no joke. Their stature is badly reduced. Increasingly they seem an afterthought or frill in higher education instead of civilization’s Rock of Gibraltar.

Brodhead coveted this high-profile job. His last big television appearances were on 60 Minutes, in 2006 and 2007, as he shamefully oversaw the Duke lacrosse “rape” debacle, documented by Stuart Taylor and K. C. Johnson in Until Proven Innocent.

Mounting a defensive effort to counter the favor in which STEM is held in Washington, D.C., the commission tries to explain why the humanities are essential to American competitiveness and security. But what “The Heart of the Matter” shows is why many Americans and lawmakers consider the humanities marginal or immaterial to the nation’s well-being.

The 88 pages add up to a text-light graphic masterpiece, and they are accompanied by a lyrical video. Whole pages feature catchy pullout quotes and photographs of smiling children with sparkling eyes full of wonder. Ten pages contain pocket bios of the 53 signatories.

The executive summary concludes in lofty but empty language: “The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.”

God forbid that the humanities be elitist or have any trace of disparate impact. But this is only the warm-up. The bromides continue to the bitter end.

“The Heart of the Matter” heralds the importance of “educating Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy.” It calls on the nation to increase “access to online resources, so all students — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — can use quality materials.”

“The Heart of the Matter” is all for “fostering a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong,” creating “cohesive curricula” to ensure “basic competency” in the humanities and social sciences. It affirms “qualities of mind, such as critical analysis, problem-solving, and communication” to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

Veering off course, it features literacy issues. Then it endorses the Common Core state-standards initiative. It proposes a bizarre Culture Corps, which brings to mind a Children’s Crusade or the Pied Piper.

“The Heart of the Matter” ignores — and fails to appraise — the central intellectual events of our times. It sidesteps bitter internecine battles over content, curriculum, and privilege. To read the document, race, class, and gender as hegemonic cross-curriculum themes don’t exist.

The looming cul-de-sacs of postmodernism, diversity, and revisionism identified by Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, and Daniel Bell a generation ago? Not here. “The Heart of the Matter” does not describe, much less disapprove of, the unending efforts to block and punish any individual or institutional deviations from what have become strict, self-certifying conceptual orthodoxies.

“The Heart of the Matter” steers away from any concrete definition, standard, or design of excellence, thought, or beauty. It sidesteps the sublime, metaphysical, cosmic, and divine, which leaves the humanities, as they are generally conceived, in a fix.

No hint of the interior life or refinements of character, morality, and ethics that have bound humanistic thought since the Renaissance sullies these bright and glossy pages. Appreciation or even acknowledgment of classical antiquity, European philosophy, Christian theology, or Anglo-American law or literature is absent. Western civilization is not “the heart of the matter.” Plato and Aristotle, Ovid and the Old Testament, Copernicus and Newton? Gibbon, Johnson, or Austen? Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche? The Tao Te Ching? No, nothing.

If members of the humanities establishment find the report’s zombie music inspiring or even persuasive, that raises serious questions about their gravity and taste. If they do not, then “The Heart of the Matter” is a grant proposal to the federal government, disguised as a work of thought, and serious intellectuals should denounce it as loudly as they possibly can for its lack of substance. They should set to clean house, starting with the obviously troubled American Academy.

Days after “The Heart of the Matter” was released, the Academy fired the woman who had been its director since 1996, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz. Out too went the head of the board, Louis Cabot. For the past two years their mismanagement had given Brodhead and his allies free rein to run the project.

The Boston Globe had exposed Berlowitz’s bogus doctorate on grant applications. That was only the final chapter of a long, sad story. Many had set Berlowitz in their sights for years.

Berlowitz had become a Cambridge legend and not the good kind. Sharp-eyed progressives describe her as a “monster” and “creepy.” She always stood ready to cheapen the AAAS brand, promising new ventures and events to trustees desperate for impact. She was canny at fundraising and drew names — stars, cultural celebrities, and philanthropists – to liven up the mix and enrich the treasury at Norton’s Woods, AAAS headquarters adjacent to Harvard University.

Berlowitz punished and humiliated staff members who got in her way. Trustees rewarded her with an astonishing $600,000 salary. She received such a generous package and go-away settlement from the august and secretive institution (which does not publish an annual report) that Massachusetts state authorities investigated.

The American Academy is full of fine minds, the best. It has enough inner ballast to weather both “The Heart of the Matter” and Berlowitz. It publishes Daedalus, the universally respected quarterly. It is composed of 4,000 top scholars, many of them scientists and others whose work lies far outside the humanities. They are protective of their own reputations, their fields, and their institutions’ reputations. They are folks driven by quality — not ideology.

And there’s a happy ending. Don Michael Randel, the new AAAS board president, is a much-admired music historian whose work ranges widely, from medieval chant to Schumann. He has been president of the University of Chicago and the Mellon Foundation.

Randel has work to do. The central crisis of the humanities is not plunging enrollments. Scare statistics recently in the news are misleading. The humanities’ diminished state is to a large degree self-inflicted, as Steven Pinker and Stanley Fish observe. Much of what is rewarded as advanced thinking on campus is undecipherable, trivial, filtered, or capricious. Hiring, tenure, soft money, and university publishing help protect these modes of thought.

Young talent from diverse, less privileged backgrounds — the students that colleges and universities eagerly sought not so long ago — are choosing medicine, law, engineering, technology, and finance over the humanities: They are trying to make a living, not find themselves. Is this a surprise?

Even at top schools, undergraduates often avoid English and history courses, seen as theory games with little added value. The best and brightest rightly find the prospect of an academic career discouraging, especially if they cannot flash the right ideological cards.

In a decultured world, one more drawn to electronic stimuli and contemporary figures than the nation’s inherited past — a past that academic humanists have proudly revised downward for a generation — public indifference to their plight should not be unexpected. The chickens have come home to roost.

No doubt “The Heart of the Matter” brings up genuine needs. The U.S. would do well to expand foreign-language studies sharply. Most research libraries and archives are frightfully underfunded. University presses and authors need subvention more than ever. In spite of decades of funding cuts, the National Endowment for the Humanities expertly runs extraordinary programs such as EDSITEment. Individual scholars continue to do brilliant and original work.

But more federal money is not the fix, nor can it be. “The Heart of the Matter” does not make the case for the humanities. It reveals instead the mindset of the nation’s humanities establishment and its arid, mercenary response to its shrunken prestige, authority, and even credibility. 

— Gilbert T. Sewall is the author of Necessary Lessons and editor of The Eighties: A Reader. He is a former fellow of the National Humanities Center. 

The Decline of College


For the last 70 years, American higher education was assumed to be the pathway to upward mobility and a rich shared-learning experience. Young Americans for four years took a common core of classes, learned to look at the world dispassionately, and gained the concrete knowledge to make informed arguments logically.

The result was a more skilled workforce and a competent democratic citizenry. That ideal may still be true at our flagship universities, with their enormous endowments and stellar world rankings. Yet most everywhere else, something went terribly wrong with that model. Almost all the old campus protocols are now tragically outdated or antithetical to their original mission.

Tenure — virtual lifelong job security for full-time faculty after six years — was supposed to protect free speech on campus. How, then, did campus ideology become more monotonous than diverse, more intolerant of politically unpopular views than open-minded? Universities have so little job flexibility that campuses cannot fire the incompetent tenured or hire full-time competent newcomers.

The university is often a critic of private enterprise for its supposed absence of fairness and equality. The contemporary campus, however, is far more exploitative. It pays part-time faculty far less for the same work than it pays an aristocratic class of fully tenured professors with the same degrees.

The four-year campus experience is simply vanishing. At the California State University system, the largest university complex in the world, well under 20 percent of students graduate in four years despite massive student aid. Fewer than half graduate in six years.

Administrators used to come from among the top faculty, who rotated a few years from teaching and scholarship to do the unenviable nuts-and-bolts work of running the university. Now, administrators rarely, if ever, teach. Instead, they became part of a high-paid, careerist professional caste — one that has grown exponentially. In the CSU system, their numbers have exploded in recent years — a 221 percent increase from 1975 to 2008. There are now more administrators in that system than full-time faculty.

College acceptance was supposed to be a reward for hard work and proven excellence in high school, not a guaranteed entitlement of open admission. Yet more than half of incoming first-year students require remediation in math and English during, rather than before attending, college. That may explain why six years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, about the same number never graduate.

The idea of deeply indebted college students in their 20s without degrees or even traditional reading and writing skills is something relatively new in America. Yet aggregate student debt has reached a staggering $1 trillion. More than half of recent college graduates — who ultimately support the huge college industry — are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. About a quarter of those under 25 are jobless and still seeking employment.

Apart from our elite private schools, the picture of our postmodern campus that emerges is one of increasing failure — a perception hotly denied on campus but matter-of-factly accepted off campus, where most of the reforms will have to originate.

What might we expect in the future? Even more online courses will entice students away from campuses through taped lectures from top teachers, together with interactive follow-ups from teaching assistants — all at a fraction of current tuition costs. Technical schools that dispense with therapeutic, hyphenated “studies” courses will offer students marketable skills far more cheaply and efficiently. Periodic teaching contracts, predicated on meeting teaching and research obligations, will probably replace lifelong tenure.

Public attitudes will also probably change. The indebted social-science major in his mid-20s with or without a diploma will not enjoy the old cachet accorded a college-educated elite — at least in comparison with the debt-free, fully employed, and higher-paid electrician, plumber, or skilled computer programmer without a college degree.

Real skills will matter more than mere college attendance or a brand. New competency in national tests in math, science, and English will be considered by employers to be a far better barometer of past achievement and future potential than the mere possession of a now-suspect university transcript.

As in any revolution, much good will be lost along with the bad. The traditional university used to offer a holistic four-year experience for motivated and qualified students in a landscape of shared inquiry and tolerance. The Internet and for-profit trade schools can never replace that unique intellectual and social landscape.

Yet because professors of the traditional arts and sciences could or would not effectively defend their disciplines or the classical university system, agenda-driven politicians, partisan ideologues, and careerist technocrats absorbed them.

The college experience morphed into a costly sort of prolonged adolescence, a political arena and a social laboratory — something quite different from a serious place to acquire both practical and humanistic knowledge.

No wonder that it is now financially unsustainable and going the way of the dinosaurs.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, The Savior Generals, is just out from Bloomsbury Books. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

The Most Interesting School District in America?


When it comes to K–12 education, the nation’s most important election this November may be in Douglas County, Colorado. While most of today’s eye-catching education fights involve high-profile contests in big cities, one of the nation’s most significant struggles may be playing out, largely unnoticed, in this affluent Denver suburb. Here in Colorado’s third-largest school district, with 65,000 students — an enrollment larger than Washington, D.C.’s and as large as Detroit’s — the superintendent and board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform.

The Douglas County School District is trying to do something truly new. An all-Republican school board has created the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program, introduced market-based pay, allowed its teachers’ union contract to expire, and developed a regimen of home-crafted standards and assessments in lieu of the Common Core (which superintendent Liz Celania-Fagen dismisses as the “Common Floor”). Former Reagan secretary of education William Bennett has opined that Douglas County is “trying to do all the good reforms at once.”

For Douglas County, a critical election looms this fall. Four of the school board’s seven members are up for election, and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) would dearly love to sweep them out and claim the board majority. School-board president John Carson says: “The teachers’ union would like to return to the days of big payouts for union officers, . . . ending choice for students, and rewarding bad performance. This election presents a clear choice between union interests versus what is best for our students.”

For a decade or more, school reform has been an urban tale, dominated by cities with high rates of poverty and dismal academic achievement. Since the urban communities in question tend to be lopsidedly liberal, reform has been largely a Democratic family affair. While debates between teachers’ unions and reform-minded Democrats have been sharp, the permanence of contracts and the inevitability of union influence has been assumed.

Douglas County provides a stark counterpoint to this narrative. One of Colorado’s highest-performing districts, Douglas County boasts an average ACT score of 21.8 and a graduation rate of 87.4 percent. Given the advantages of affluence and already-impressive results, superintendent Celania-Fagen and the school board have chosen not to rest on their laurels but to see if they can dramatically raise the bar.

Using a novel interpretation of Colorado’s charter-school law, Douglas County set up a virtual “charter school” by giving students vouchers worth 75 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding to take to any school of their choice. The ACLU sued over the program, and while the district triumphed in appellate court, the program remains on pause while Douglas County awaits a date with the Colorado Supreme Court. If the district prevails there, it will offer a voucher model that almost any school district could emulate. The Wall Street Journal has noted that this “could transform the debate about vouchers nationwide” by making them relevant “for families who want more than even high-performing public schools have to offer.”

Unwilling to settle for just adding merit raises atop the old industrial pay scale, Douglas County has adopted a market-based pay system. After hiring a former human-resources manager from GE to lead its effort to rethink teacher pay, Douglas County has established five broad pay bands based on the supply and demand for various teaching roles. This allows the districts to pay more for hard-to-find teachers, such as a special-education audiologist, and less for teachers in easier-to-fill roles. For the first time in memory, superintendent Celania-Fagen reports, the district had more quality applicants for special education than they had positions available. Douglas County has shown, with little media fanfare, that it is possible to pay teachers what the market requires instead of being tied to a rigid, union-imposed, one-size-fits-all pay scale.

It’s no surprise that these district initiatives have proven unpopular with the teachers’ union, the DCFT. In any of the Democratic locales where reform typically plays out, the DCFT would be regarded as unusually collaborative. But in Douglas County, reform is playing out in a community where Republicans are the home team. Having swept elections over DCFT-backed slates in 2009 and 2011, board members have felt no need to compromise or slow down. So in 2012, the board simply allowed the DCFT contract to expire.

When it comes to standards and testing, Celania-Fagen thinks the controversial Common Core standards were written “with good intentions to help a lot of [low] performing states and districts,” but are a poor fit for high-performing systems like Douglas County. Unable to find other districts or foundations eager to swim against the tide, Douglas County has created its own set of standards and assessments, organizing hundreds of teachers to review the Common Core and Colorado Academic Standards with an eye, says Celania-Fagen, towards crafting something more “cognitively demanding.” District leadership and faculty worked collaboratively to devise the district’s new “Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum.” The district is going through a similar process to develop its own customized assessments.

While challenging and fraught with complications, this kind of do-it-yourself approach has a lot going for it. It reflects the kind of entrepreneurial instinct one is more likely to see in a cutting-edge charter school than in a high-performing traditional school system. Detractors suggest that the district’s ambition is foolhardy, but Celania-Fagen points out that no one would think it unusual for a 5,000-person company to customize its performance targets and compensation system.

Douglas County reveals some of the ways in which the familiar paradigm of urban reform is an awkward fit in conservative, suburban districts. But high-performing communities can be terrific laboratories for bold solutions. Fueled by a unified board with a coherent vision and a bold superintendent, Douglas County is serving as the site of what may well prove a critical chapter in the story of contemporary school reform. Attention should be paid.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Max C. Eden is a research assistant at AEI. They are co-authors of the new AEI report “The Most Interesting School District in America? Douglas County and the Pursuit of Suburban Reform” (available here). 

The Anti-School-Reform Canon


Diane Ravitch, the prophet of education’s anti-reform crowd, has a new book out on September 17. Reign of Error, the sequel to her hugely successful Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), continues her assault on contemporary school reform. That makes this a moment of celebration for those who oppose school choice, accountability, merit pay, and the rest.

Sounding notes sure to be heard repeatedly this fall, David Kirp, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday penned a piece for Slate, in which he argued that Ravitch and other authors of new books “decimate” the case for school choice and accountability. In his piece, Kirp name-checks first Chris Lubienski and Sarah Lubienski, who, in The Public School Advantage, use data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to argue that public-school students outperform private-school students. Kirp also mentions a new volume by University of Michigan professor David Cohen and coauthors, who in Improvement by Design argue that some really lousy schools have found ways to get better over time.

There will be much more such commentary this fall. This is due in large part to a brewing backlash brought by the missteps of reformers, including their embrace of the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all teacher-evaluation systems and the divisive Common Core state standards, all promoted by the aggressive machinations of the Obama administration. As was the case with No Child Left Behind a decade ago, these efforts seem geared to repel middle-class and suburban parents and teachers and drive them straight into the anti-reform camp.

Here are four points to keep in mind this fall when confronted with Kirp-like arguments that American schools are doing great, that “public education’s antagonists have manufactured a crisis in order to advance their agenda,” that educational bureaucracy is effective and productive, and that school choice and private schools are bad for kids.

First, well . . . seriously? Kirp concedes that the U.S. has slipped from first to 14th internationally in college graduation. (Ravitch concedes it too; she just doesn’t think it’s important.) School spending is up 250 percent since 1970 (after inflation), but the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been essentially flat over those four decades. In their new book Endangering Prosperity, Stanford’s Rick Hanushek, Harvard’s Paul Peterson, and the University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann note that just 7 percent of U.S. eighth-graders are performing at an advanced level in math, a share that’s lower than in 29 other countries. While school systems — including those in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles — teeter on the verge of insolvency, huge outlays have delivered no meaningful improvement. If Kirp and Ravitch want to argue that this is a picture of educational health, reformers ought to have a field day.

Second, the Lubienskis have managed a neat parlor trick, writing a sure-to-be-controversial book that will be warmly embraced by the government-school lobby. But their argument is weak. For one thing, they rely on cross-sectional, national data to make sweeping comparisons across very different kinds of schools. This analytic approach is precisely the one that the public-school lobby has (justifiably) denounced when it is used to indict public-school performance. More to the point, high-quality research on charter schooling and voucher programs has consistently shown modest but positive effects. More important, the Lubienski-Kirp line shows a profound misunderstanding of market dynamics, because . . . 

Third, there’s an underlying ideological dimension here that it’s vital to keep in mind. The liberal mind seeks examples of what “works” so that it may be mandated, and so that uncertainties, inequities, and vagaries can be alleviated with scientific precision. The tricky thing about markets, choice, and sensible accountability (in education, as elsewhere) is that they don’t dictate practice or promise miracle cures — they create circumstances in which educators, local citizens, and entrepreneurs can figure out how to better serve students. Truth be told, whether and how well this all works depends on what people do with the freedom. Rather than trust people to do the right thing, the liberal imagination chooses to put great faith in bureaucracy and technical expertise. That’s why Kirp professes his faith that public schools are buoyed by their bureaucratic constancy and suggests that autonomy is actually bad for private schools, as it has allowed them to use an “outmoded pedagogy” that stresses knowledge rather than “problem-solving.” (That alone is fodder for a whole column, so we’ll leave it for another day.)

Fourth, let’s not kid ourselves. The school-reform community has asked for a lot of this backlash. As Kirp rightly notes, John Chubb and Terry Moe unfortunately recommended 23 years ago, in their seminal book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, that reformers think of choice as a “panacea.” Contemporary reform has unfolded as a grand crusade to “close achievement gaps” in reading and math, with remarkably little attention to the day-to-day concerns of most parents or educators. Conservatives have joined liberals in designing overwrought accountability and teacher-evaluation systems while failing to address the regulatory, contractual, and licensure barriers that make it tough for dynamic educational leaders to drive real change.

Indeed, if the emerging anti-reform canon forces reformers to sharpen their arguments, clarify their principles, and take a hard look at their mistakes, it could make this an enormously constructive fall for reformers.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Obama vs. Education


It was 50 years ago this June that George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent two black students from enrolling at an all-white school. His slogan was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

These many years later, Democrats still are standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enjoying the educational benefits available to their white peers, this time in Louisiana instead of Alabama. Playing the Wallace role this time is Eric Holder, whose Justice Department is petitioning a U.S. district court to abolish a Louisiana school-choice program that helps students, most of them black, to exit failing government schools.

The Obama administration is a serial offender on this issue, and its cynicism is startling. The Justice Department says that Louisiana’s school-choice program must be constrained because failing to do so would threaten to make the schools less racially integrated than they are today. As noted, the majority of the students who benefit from the program are black, and the great majority of them — 86 percent — are enrolled in schools rated D or F by state education authorities. Which is to say, the DOJ objects to Louisiana’s program precisely on the grounds that if we allow more black children to escape the worst schools, then the worst schools will have fewer black children in them.

It is unclear to us what legitimate end is served by ensuring that the worst schools have a sufficient number of black students; to the contrary, the evidence suggests that black students are tragically well represented in the nation’s worst schools.

But if you believe that this is about desegregation, you could not be more wrong. If President Obama were indeed worried about the continued racial segregation of our schools, he wouldn’t need to look far for a spur to action: The single most segregated school district in the country is not in the South at all but in his adopted hometown of Chicago, followed by other Democrat-dominated cities: Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, and Los Angeles. Louisiana’s modest program has had barely measurable effects upon the racial composition of its schools — this one seven-tenths of 1 percent less white, that one nine-tenths of 1 percent less black, and so forth.

What we are seeing in Louisiana is a revival of what the Washington Post called the Obama administration’s “petty machinations” against the District of Columbia’s school-choice program. As in Louisiana, the D.C. program primarily benefited black children, the great majority of them poor and trapped in dysfunctional schools. Similarly baseless attacks were made on a school-choice program in Milwaukee. In those cases as now, the real source of opposition is the public-sector unions that bankroll and staff Democratic campaigns — and object strenuously to school-choice programs, which link funding to accountability and give parents the power to make educational choices for their children rather than being mere passive participants.

School choice is Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the National Education Association is concerned. And when it is a choice between the financial interests of the nice white ladies who just happen to be the largest political donors in the country and the educational interests of poor black children in Louisiana, the Obama administration’s loyalties are plain. That the Louisiana intervention gives his administration occasion to stick its thumb in the eye of a popular Republican governor must make the deed even more attractive.

Setting aside the naked political cronyism that is in fact at the heart of this dispute, consider the DOJ’s case on its merits: The government is arguing that the choices of actual black students and their families must be constrained in the service of preserving certain statistical measures of how black certain schools are. Put another way, this case really turns on the question: Are black children human beings?

If they are actual human beings, then it is inhumane to cut them off from much-needed educational opportunities in the service of mere political preferences. The people of Louisiana have decided to make certain kinds of educational assistance available to students in troubled schools; those students and their families have in many cases chosen to avail themselves of those opportunities; and the Department of Justice howls, because assistance rendered to actual black students threatens the hypothetical racial interests of a statistical aggregate. Beyond that, national experience suggests that school-choice programs in general improve racial integration; our schools are segregated because our cities are segregated, and school choice unchains the children from the neighborhood.

There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and Governor Wallace eventually renounced segregation. Would that his fellow Democrats should have a similar change of heart and give up their half-century stand in the schoolhouse door.

Obama vs. Education


It was 50 years ago this June that George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent two black students from enrolling at an all-white school. His slogan was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

These many years later, Democrats still are standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enjoying the educational benefits available to their white peers, this time in Louisiana instead of Alabama. Playing the Wallace role this time is Eric Holder, whose Justice Department is petitioning a U.S. district court to abolish a Louisiana school-choice program that helps students, most of them black, to exit failing government schools.

The Obama administration is a serial offender on this issue, and its cynicism is startling. The Justice Department says that Louisiana’s school-choice program must be constrained because failing to do so would threaten to make the schools less racially integrated than they are today. As noted, the majority of the students who benefit from the program are black, and the great majority of them — 86 percent — are enrolled in schools rated D or F by state education authorities. Which is to say, the DOJ objects to Louisiana’s program precisely on the grounds that if we allow more black children to escape the worst schools, then the worst schools will have fewer black children in them.

It is unclear to us what legitimate end is served by ensuring that the worst schools have a sufficient number of black students; to the contrary, the evidence suggests that black students are tragically well represented in the nation’s worst schools.

But if you believe that this is about desegregation, you could not be more wrong. If President Obama were indeed worried about the continued racial segregation of our schools, he wouldn’t need to look far for a spur to action: The single most segregated school district in the country is not in the South at all but in his adopted hometown of Chicago, followed by other Democrat-dominated cities: Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, and Los Angeles. Louisiana’s modest program has had barely measurable effects upon the racial composition of its schools — this one seven-tenths of 1 percent less white, that one nine-tenths of 1 percent less black, and so forth.

What we are seeing in Louisiana is a revival of what the Washington Post called the Obama administration’s “petty machinations” against the District of Columbia’s school-choice program. As in Louisiana, the D.C. program primarily benefited black children, the great majority of them poor and trapped in dysfunctional schools. Similarly baseless attacks were made on a school-choice program in Milwaukee. In those cases as now, the real source of opposition is the public-sector unions that bankroll and staff Democratic campaigns — and object strenuously to school-choice programs, which link funding to accountability and give parents the power to make educational choices for their children rather than being mere passive participants.

School choice is Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the National Education Association is concerned. And when it is a choice between the financial interests of the nice white ladies who just happen to be the largest political donors in the country and the educational interests of poor black children in Louisiana, the Obama administration’s loyalties are plain. That the Louisiana intervention gives his administration occasion to stick its thumb in the eye of a popular Republican governor must make the deed even more attractive.

Setting aside the naked political cronyism that is in fact at the heart of this dispute, consider the DOJ’s case on its merits: The government is arguing that the choices of actual black students and their families must be constrained in the service of preserving certain statistical measures of how black certain schools are. Put another way, this case really turns on the question: Are black children human beings?

If they are actual human beings, then it is inhumane to cut them off from much-needed educational opportunities in the service of mere political preferences. The people of Louisiana have decided to make certain kinds of educational assistance available to students in troubled schools; those students and their families have in many cases chosen to avail themselves of those opportunities; and the Department of Justice howls, because assistance rendered to actual black students threatens the hypothetical racial interests of a statistical aggregate. Beyond that, national experience suggests that school-choice programs in general improve racial integration; our schools are segregated because our cities are segregated, and school choice unchains the children from the neighborhood.

There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and Governor Wallace eventually renounced segregation. Would that his fellow Democrats should have a similar change of heart and give up their half-century stand in the schoolhouse door.

(Simply insert your e-mail and hit “Sign Up.”)

Subscribe to National Review