Stupid in America
This week 20/20 aired a special called Stupid in America: How we Cheat our Kids. The crux of John Stossel’s argument is that the problems facing American public education are systematic, and that calling insufficient funding the primary obstacle to improvement is not only wholly incorrect but in fact destructive to improvement efforts. Stossel also revised his argument for a Reason Online preview as well as a follow-up piece on the subject. Not everyone likes Stossel’s style — I for one wish you couldn’t tell his side of every issue simply by the tone of his voice — but his special did a great job of touching on nearly all the major components of this extremely complex problem.
I’ve been able to wrestle with these issues some in grad school and in my workplace, so while I’m no expert I do think I understand the basics, and what upsets me the most about this “debate” is that it’s not really a debate so much as a special interest shoutdown in which the sides were chosen before the facts were considered. The issues are “underfunded” vs. “unaccountable” more than test scores or reading levels or graduation rates or preparation for college and life. Whether or not a citizen believes “No Child Left Behind” is well designed — or even well intentioned — is more closely correlated with one’s opinion of the President than one’s opinion of the problem. Why do partisan legislators and career lobbyists get to create a world where you have to choose between improved teacher pay and improved accountability? And still worse, why do we have to make that choice exclusively at the ballot box once every two years, at best?
Many of my friends are public schoolteachers — among the best, brightest, and most dedicated by every indication I have — and I suspect they’ll agree that the problems Stossel cites definitely exist. Over the years I’ve heard them say that the public school system doesn’t pay teachers enough, makes class sizes too big, forces them into boilerplate rituals for curriculum and student development, strips them of time and resources, has no clue how to manage special education, and hamstrings their ability to do what they do best with debilitating administration or legislation at every level of the system and the government. But what my friends, and every expert I’ve ever heard, disagree on is how to actually fix the problems. It seems there’s no one person, no committee, no board, and no legislative body in the world that can figure out how to provide everything needed to educate all types of children in every way demanded by parents and society while simultaneously providing for its hard-working educators and being efficient stewards of their allocated funding.
So, if no person or team has the capability to devise a solution to such a complicated problem, can American schools ever dream of even approaching this optimal level of service to their constituents and society at large? And if not, how in the world do we prioritize? Well… I do have one suggestion: isn’t this exactly the kind of scenario in which the concept of choice is most useful? Is it possible that, when we let parents prioritize for themselves, we can look at the aggregation of their choices and get a real sense of the kinds of classrooms and schools are most important to them? And while nearly anyone willing to be a public school teacher under the current system is clearly caring, hard-working, and dedicated, wouldn’t teachers and students alike benefit if their administrators have to provide teachers with the resources necessary to compete for the parents’ satisfaction and respect?
Now, when I say choice, I should clarify that I’m not necessarily referring to a particular boilerplate solution. We’re still missing a lot of data. With few exceptions, education research can’t even find weak associations between particular variables and educational improvement, let alone correlations. As a result, I’m extremely sympathetic to the argument that we don’t have enough reliable data to make a case for a wholesale switch to vouchers, charter schools, or even private schools. But these would seem to be arguments in favor of getting the data, not stifling the debate — but for some reason that’s never an allowable compromise. (read: NEA)
Are there counter-arguments worth discussing? Sure there are — it’s extremely relevant to discuss the impact of a closing school on the local community, the financial and social costs of transition, the need to retain accountability of our tax dollars, and whether we can trust parents to make the best decisions for their children, to name a few examples. But we should wage the serious arguments — deriving an intrinsic and, heaven forbid, productive value from educating about education — and not resign ourselves exclusively to the reductio ad absurdum. I don’t have the answers, but I do resent that there are people or organizations out there who don’t even want to have the conversation.
And this brings me to what I like best about John Stossel: he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions in front of what is often a hostile national audience. He’s good enough at his job to warrant a soapbox, and he’s willing to fight the good fight without having to resort to Michael Savage-ian or Nancy Pelosi-esque tactics. If you can get ahold of Friday’s special I recommend watching it, if only to get a different perspective than the average sound byte — and in fact making 20/20 a part of your weekly TV viewing wouldn’t be such a bad idea in general.
(And now we see how many of those internet trollers will come along and prove my point with a random insult about burning in hell for abandoning teachers and minority students, or a lengthy tirade against the Bush administration that nowhere in this soliloquy did I support or defend. It’s not inevitable, but it’s certainly not unpredictable. Please, if you should happen to grace me with your internet presence I prefer attempts at sound reasoning minus the ad hominems.)
[Update 1/19/06: As an afterthought, I did a cursory Google search of the top 200 articles that mentioned the special. Most of the citations were complimentary, but to be fair, I hope you’ll check out a few of the dissenting posts: AS STOSSEL DOES! Stupid is as John Stossel does. on The Daily Howler; Looks Like Stossel Is “Stupid in America” on Tomorrow’s Media Conspiracy Today; Attention in America: Your Children Are Dumb on Daily Kos; A Nasty Title on The SLJ Blog.]