The dangerous listing of American education

I participated on a panel earlier this week on the stubborn persistence of achievement gaps, and as you might guess, at the first opening I jumped in and started talking about the importance of giving parents more opportunities to send their children to private schools, if they believe doing so is in their children’s best interest. I said what I said because research is clear that many lower-income and minority kids (not all) do better in private schools, very much including religious ones, than they otherwise might in public schools.

I can’t say this was met by wild agreement, or frankly agreement of any kind by my distinguished co-panelists. But they may have disagreed even more when I respectfully noted that their analyses of problems, as well as recommendations for alleviating them, sounded similar to what many educators and others have been saying for decades now, in some instances going back to the 1960s.

For prime example, think of curricula more deeply cognizant of the history and contributions of African Americans. This might well help if conceived and taught in solid ways. But the recommendations offered the other day almost implied that K-12 lesson plans and textbooks are as dominated by all things white as they used to be, and they’re not. At any rate, students of color have continued to do disproportionately poorly almost regardless what textbooks and other books they have read – or as is often the case, not read. I have special standing to say this because, as a teenager, I didn’t read what I was supposed to either.

Then again, not just minority students, but American students overall have not done markedly better over the same half-century despite shiploads of presumed scholastic improvements aimed their way. What kinds of intended upgrades might these have been? I pulled together the bulk of the list below five years ago and read it during this week’s panel discussion, with what I would like to think some rhythmic flare. The session, by the way, was held at the University of Minnesota and will be broadcast at some point by MPR.

An important caveat: Please note that various instructional programs featuring painfully silly acronyms are not included here. My personal new favorite is SPONGE, which stands for “SHORT, intense, vivid activities, which provide PRACTICE of learned material, which students can do ON their own, and which will also include NEW arrivals or those finishing an assignment early, by keeping the GROUP involved, and designed to ELICIT an immediate response.” No, I’m not making this up, as we can thank a professor at UCLA for this gem.)

The litany:

  • Increased spending
  • Smaller classes
  • Smaller schools
  • Teacher-run schools
  • Intra-district choice
  • Inter-district choice
  • Charter schools
  • Cultural literacy schools
  • Vouchers
  • Tax credits
  • Education savings accounts
  • Digital learning
  • Extra courses
  • Extra-intensive schools
  • Effective schools
  • Early childhood education
  • Compensatory education
  • Special education
  • Multicultural education
  • Bilingual education
  • Different ways of teaching reading
  • Different ways of teaching math
  • Different ways of teaching teachers
  • Different ways of compensating teachers
  • Different ways of hiring teachers
  • Alternative certification
  • Desegregation
  • Neighborhood schools
  • Magnet schools
  • Improved ties between schools and parents
  • Improved ties between schools and businesses
  • Decentralization
  • Centralization
  • The three-legged stool of standards, assessments, and accountability.
  • And everyone’s favorite, Common Core

In no way is this inevitably incomplete collection composed of mostly bad or inferior ideas, as many remain imperative. But that begs the question of how to reconcile the introduction of so many strong proposed changes with the way in which student performance has barely budged? Just one partial answer: Might the mix of entrenched interests and clogged bureaucracies, resulting in minimal competition, have had something to do with it? How could it not have?

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.