Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Breaking Free" from Failed Public Education

Sol Stern from the Manhattan Institute has written a terrific book on education policy--Breaking Free. I can't recommend this book highly enough for those interested in education policy.

Surprisingly, most social conservatives are well-informed on matters of foreign policy and domestic politics--but are often completely uninformed when it comes to education policy. I'm not sure why this is, but my guess is it is because a lot of us are products of public education and lack perspective. Plus, most rely on the mainstream media for information about education.
For example, I've noticed many conservatives will naively take the education union lines without question that teachers are underpaid and overworked, smaller classrooms are good, "child-centered" classrooms are conducive for learning, a qualified teacher is a "certified" one, school systems need more money, standardized tests are bad, etc.

Breaking Free bursts many of the myths about public education. I would say this book is one of the very best in exposing the inanities of "progressive" public education (in this case the New York school system) and the crazy, selfish rules the American Federation for Teachers and the National Education Association have hoisted upon entire school systems. It is also a passionate and well-researched plea for vouchers, the only solution that will reform public education.
Stern proves in Breaking Free that school choice is truly the only way to break the cycle of poverty (just as economic choice is the only way for a capitalistic society to function and bring success to a nation). Most inner city parents know this solution intuitively, but the unions and liberals steadfastly refuse to let them exercise their right to choose their schools--a choice hypocritical, wealthy liberals exercise everywhere when they place their kids in prestigious private schools.

Too many great quotes in this excellent book, but here are a few:

On Left-wing favorite Jonathan Kozol (an unabashed communist) that almost all education students have to study:

A typical chapter [of On Being a Teacher], "Disobedience Instruction," tells teachers how to encourage skepticism of authority by calling attention to "those ordinary but pathetic figure who went into Watergate to steal, into My Lai to kill--among other reasons, because they lacked the power to say no." According to Kozol, teachers should also invoke mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, whose "own preparation for obedient behavior was received in German public schools"--which resemble our own in aiming to produce "good Germans, or good citizens, as we in the United States would say."

All the book's model lessons aim to teach little children to withstand America's state-sponsored brainwashing and to open them up to the self-evident truths of feminism, environmentalism and a Marxist interpretation of history. At the end of the book, Kozol thoughtfully provides a long list of left-wing publications and organizations--including the information agencies of the Chinese and Cuban governments--where teachers can get worthwhile classroom materials. But, he warns teachers, be stealthy about all this; you can't altogether neglect teaching the basic skills, because administrators or parents would then see how politically motivated you are. [my emphasis]

Parents, particularly those of minority children, should dread the prospect of having one of Kozol's guerilla cadre in charge of their children's classrooms; such teachers are almost never much good at imparting basic skills, because they almost always embrace the ed schools' latest progressive pedagical fads. The teacher who feels compelled to denounce every one of Columbus's depredations against the Arawaks--as my son Dani's fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 87 did--is also likely to believe that standardized tests are bunk, that math and reading should never be taught through drill, that children should not be taught "mere facts" and that the very idea of literacy is merely a Western conceit.

On the "progressive" fads that are pervasive in public schools, including P.S. 87, considered one of the best public schools in New York:

We first became uneasy when we learned that P.S. 87 was using a new method called "the writing process," based on the assumption that all children were "natural writers." The old-style concern about sentence drill, grammar and spelling squashed natural childhood talents, we were told, while the new method let children's creativity flow by dispensing with these stifling rules and letting kids write down in journals whatever came to their minds, including their own invented spelling. They would then revise these entries, with but a smidgen of guidance from the teacher.

P.S. 87 didn't seem to hold teachers accountable for making sure that students attained some objectively measured level of writing competence. Indeed, the parents of children who were less "natural" writers than others, who couldn't compose a correct sentence by third or fourth grade, were still hearing assurances that all children develop at their own pace and that there really is no "correct" way to write. In other words: don't worry, be happy.

I have a Master of Education from what is considered a prestigious education school--The Curry School of Education of University of Virginia--and believe me, these "progressive" fads are taught almost exclusively to aspiring teachers. Furthermore, in most Social Foundations of Education classes, a political worldview akin to Jonathan Kozol's is disturbingly exclusive in most classes. Thankfully, in the my introductory Social Foundations class at UVA, we were exposed to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a nationally prominent reformer and education traditionalist (most likely because he was a University of Virginia professor). Despite his stature and influence in the reform movement, most students are sadly not exposed to his writings. This reason is most "social justice" professors know with certainty if exposed to traditional ideas of education and nutty "social justice" theories, the game is up. Students will choose the former with a fair exchange of academic ideas. Therefore, most schools of education refuse to give students the whole picture.

From my perspective, UVA had an unusually well-balanced Social Foundations department, and even so I would say 80% of the professors would fall into the "guerilla cadre" social justice types--a good example is one of my former professors at UVA and my number one fan, nationally prominent education scholar Dan Butin, now professor at Cambridge College (and who has so tolerantly threatened to sue me for libel in a post below)--or Deweyan liberals, such as the head of the Department, Bernadette Black (even though I completely disagree with Dewey's philosophy, she was an excellent professor who gave a well-balanced perspective of Social Foundations), and about 20% education traditionalists. Most schools would be 100% the former and 0% the latter, so UVA is truly quite remarkable.

Because public education teachers have to be licensed and most have received their educations from these
Left-wing Schools of Education (Dan Butin is prominently quoted in the article by David Steiner linked), it is not surprising that so many teachers, especially young ones, are gung-ho advocates of "progressive" methods that so harm especially our nation's inner city children. The only solution, Sol Stern discovers, is school choice. From the terrific chapter "Catholic School Lessons" on how Catholic schools are doing a far better job at educating than public schools:

The early scholarship attributed Catholic schools' superior performance to their more rigorous academic curriculum and their greater degree of discipline. But researchers also credited the distinctive organization of Catholic schools. Free from the central bureaucratic controls then beginning to weigh heavily on public schools, the Catholic schools seemed more like autonomous communities--yet were accountable to their students' families. James Coleman observed that whereas the public schools sytem had become an arena for the clash of political and economic interests, Catholic
schools were infused with an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between teachers, administrators and parents, based on a shared moral vision.

Stern, an expert on New York's Catholic schools, gives a whole slew of statistics showing irrefutably how Catholic schools--with the highest amount of minority students and less than half the budget of New York's schools--score far higher on tests and graduate far higher number of students, than do New York's public schools. Yet liberals refuse to acknowledge Catholic schools' success and give students and parents the choice to exit the nihilistic public schools. Some "social justice."

Sol Stern's Breaking Free is a wonderful first hand account of the failures of public education and the imperative of school choice. It is certainly one of the best education policy texts out there, and I highly recommend it as a reference.


diana said...

Extremely interesting posting!

Daniel J. Cassidy said...

Stern has an interesting article about the Bloomberg reforms posted today at Real Clear Politics --

Thanks for your many interesting posts.

Gabe said...

Thanks Diana and thanks Daniel for the article. Diane Ravitch and Sol Stern, both New Yorkers, have been really been battling the mayor about his taking over the entire New York school system. What he has done has been incredibly harmful to the New York schools because what he did was place a "progressive" in charge of the curriculum. There is absolutely no way that it will help students and you will see what a terrible idea this was in the next few years. I think I will do a post about this in the next couple weeks.