Politics & Policy

The Dream Palace of Education Theorists

Closing those pesky gaps.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from John Derbyshires upcoming We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, to be released Sept. 29, 2009.

As a single specimen of sunbeams-from-cucumbers education theorizing — I could equally well have chosen a thousand others — here is a long article from the New York Times Sunday magazine of Nov. 26, 2006. The piece is titled “What It Takes to Make a Student, and is by staff journalist Paul Tough.

The story is billed on the magazine’s cover under the different heading: “Still Left Behind — What It Will Really Take to Close the Education Gap.” Which gap would that be? “The achievement gap between black and white students, and the one between poor and middle-class students. Ah. So, two gaps then, actually. (I’ll introduce a third one shortly. A huge chunk of education theory is about gaps.)

Let’s cut to the chase here. What will it take to close those gaps? I turned to the end of Mr. Tough’s article.

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate [sic] is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like — it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools — but what is clear is that it is within reach.

#ad#“KIPP is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program, a network of intensive college-preparatory schools for inner-city kids started up in 1994 by two idealistic young teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston. There are now 52 of these schools nationwide. They get good results, but this is not very surprising. KIPP schools have long hours (typically 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), a longer-than-average school year, and strict standards of behavior.

KIPP schools are covered in Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, where more of the game is given away: “There is an application process that tends to — and is intended to — discourage families unlikely to cooperate with the school. Indeed, one of the five pillars upon which the KIPP schools rest is ‘choice and commitment.’ . . . The fact that these are schools of choice is not incidental to their success. You can bet it’s not.

All the recommendations offered by Mr. Tough — and by other education theorists, like the Thernstroms — have little trapdoors built into them like this. Look back at Mr. Tough’s prescription: “ . . . but also high-quality early-childhood education.”

Oh, like Head Start? That landmark Great Society educational program, launched in 1965, is still going strong. The name of the program is still a sort of magic spell among liberals. Their faces light up with virtuous certitude as they utter it — Head Start! — and the effect of the spell, they seem to imagine, is to silence their opponent. You can’t POSSIBLY be against Head Start!

You should be. The Thernstroms reported that 20 million children had passed through it by 2003, at a cost to the federal taxpayer of $60 billion. They go on to report that while there is some slight, disputable evidence of marginal benefits for white children from Head Start, “It does not seem to have improved the educational achievement of African-American children in any substantial way.” Whether it has done anything for Hispanic children is not known.

Similarly with “incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools.” Setting aside the obstacles posed by the almighty teacher unions, even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools — inner-city schools serving minority neighborhoods — ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those “best teachers? And how many “best teachers are there, anyway?


As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of “saints and masochists” — teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many.

That’s ed theorists for you. They love to talk about how the top 1 percent of superbly excellent and inspired teachers can lift up the bottom 5 percent of students. That’s interesting in its own way, but not very important as an issue in education. An example of an important issue would be: What can the average or mediocre teacher do for the average or mediocre student? Why is that question never asked? Because here in the Republic of Happy Talk, there is no such thing as an average — let alone mediocre! — student. “Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.”

#ad#Another important issue — Murray gives it a whole chapter in Real Education — is education of the gifted. Here you really get into sunbeams-from-cucumbers territory though, as no accredited education expert could ever admit, even under pain of torture, that any child is innately gifted at anything.

The way out of this conundrum is to argue that every child is innately gifted at everything — given the opportunity, most people could do most anything! — and that only the foolish cruelty of current education policy prevents struggling teachers from bringing out this universal giftedness. This is the actual working platform of the National Association of Gifted Children — I’ll introduce one of their luminaries later.

What does the foolish cruelty of current education policy consist of? Why, it consists of not spending enough money!

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