The 24 Hour School Day

We read in today’s Los Angeles Times these words of Andy Warhaftig, an English teacher in that city:

“This is a crucial time for the district. Debates rage over the mandates of No Child Left Behind and how much testing and teaching-to-tests we should do. Charter schools — some good, some bad — are siphoning off students and resources. High schools are subdividing into Small Learning Communities, a model that’s produced mixed results elsewhere, without adequate planning or funding. Most students don’t pass Algebra I the first time, yet Algebra II will become a graduation requirement in a few years, likely increasing the already abysmal dropout rate.”

About how many inner city school districts might we have said the same thing? Probably all of them. For these are issues confronting every inner city school district in the nation. And up until now no one seems to have the answers.

The irony is that these and other issues have arisen from what were supposed to be the answers to earlier issues or problems, NCLB (the answer to low minority achievement), Charter Schools (to failing district schools), Small Learning Communities (to huge, impersonal middle and high school learning environments), Algebra II (to low expectations, when no algebra at all, or algebra I was all that poor and minority students might expect to encounter in high school).

Why have what were supposed to be the solutions to the earlier problems become the new problems?  Perhaps because we were afraid to take the big steps, to make the really fundamental changes, with the result that our timid and tentative steps were (and are) never substantial enough to bring about real reform.

And we go on in this fashion, bungling ahead with our hesitant reform efforts, really going nowhere at all.  (see Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: a century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Take the longer school day as a case in point, a current and popular reform effort. One can agree with these reformers that children, especially at risk kids from poor and minority families, need to have more supervised hours in school during the day.

So what might we do to bring this about? We first need to persuade the principal and the teachers that such is vital to raising student achievement. Then we need to persuade the state legislators, or other funding sources, to put up a few million dollars to lengthen by a few hours the school day in perhaps a dozen now “failing” elementary and middle schools throughout the state.

And we may very well bring this about. In Massachusetts it has already been done. But our goal is, of course, much more than this. We want to extend the extended day to all struggling elementary and middle schools throughout the state, that which represents a generation-long project, at least, given the additional monies that would be needed. And there’s probably not much chance that our money sources would stay with us throughout the reform effort, leading to another failed reform.

Furthermore, even if the additional monies could be found, there is no hard evidence that the additional 2 or 3 hours in school, while probably beneficial, especially in as much as some of the extracurricular activities eliminated by NCLB would be reinstated, —there is no evidence that the extra time in school would do much to raise the children’s academic achievement in any significant fashion.

There is another irony here in that the model of a much longer school day, one that might have worked, is out there, currently in place. The model exists among all those poor and otherwise disadvantaged middle school children admitted to elite private schools where the school day is not just a few hours longer but the full 24 hour day long.

And the model exists in what I call “nativity” or “epiphany” schools, those few Massachusetts church connected private schools whose student bodies are all poor, severely disadvantaged middle school aged kids who are given full scholarships and are carefully supervised throughout most of their waking hours, only going home to sleep, and if they have one, to spend a few moments with their single parent care giver.

These two models work well for the kids. The kids are clearly achieving, both while in school and later in the colleges that most of them will attend. Why? Because these models do not represent incremental and therefore insufficient reform efforts, but are instead complete changes in children’s lives, revolutions if you like of what the kids’ lives had been up until then.

But of course they are costly and so far we prefer, or are obliged, to spend our wealth on defense and entitlements, and comfortable security for our old, but not for providing rich opportunities for our young.

What would a real reform of this nature cost? Take the present total of some 50 million students enrolled in our nation’s public schools. Assume that somewhere between a third and a fourth of them, about 15 million, would qualify for full tuition support in the sort of school I mention above.

At a per pupil cost of $25,000 (which I admit, may be low—the full cost to the Academy of a single student at Phillip’s Exeter is nearly $65,000) this would mean an annual budget amount of $375 billion, significantly less than the cost of Social Security or defense, and while a bit less than Medicare a bit more than Medicaid, welfare, and the interest on the national debt.

But this money would be money for prevention. By that I mean that such expenditures in the present would lower entitlement and other social costs in the future. We would end up paying significantly less for the costs to society of failed lives because there would be many fewer of the latter.

Unlike social security, unlike the armament industry whose costs will continue to grow, unless something else is fundamentally altered in our society, these full day tuition costs would be made up in good part from no longer needed portions of Medicare, unemployment and welfare, education and training costs.

Is it lack of vision, imagination, courage that keeps us from undertaking real educational reform? Is it something else? Must we always wait for things to happen to us, rather than making things happen?

Disconnect

The word is disconnect. The word that is being used to understand what happened on the night of December 28 at the, now museum, farm house home of Robert Frost in Ripton, Vermont.

Some 28 teens and young twenties, men and women, boys and girls, spent the night in the farm house drinking, and while doing so trashing the Homer Noble Farm where Frost himself used to reside during his stay at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

At Middlebury Union High School that many of the party going teens attended “administrators and teachers are [still] talking about disconnection.”

Gary Margolis, Associate Professor of English and American Literatures at nearby Middlebury College, admitting that it was not uncommon that high school students party, was bothered, however, by the “disconnect.” By the fact that these kids grew up around here and [ought to have known] “that the place is somehow special.”

Jay Parini, Professor of English and Creative Writing and author of Robert Frost: A Life, commented, “There are many ways this could be used as a teaching opportunity to talk to the nation about the value of poetry.”

Gary Margolis added, “I would hope they would build in more than that. I would hope there would be an educational component, an opportunity for them to learn about this place they were just in, a place unique to where they live. And maybe they would have to write a poem about it.”

Now there is certainly a disconnect between the kids and Robert Frost. But there is no less a disconnect between the literature professors and the kids. Do they really believe the things they say? “A teaching opportunity to talk to the nation about the value of poetry?!” “An educational component, an opportunity for them to learn about his place… have to write a poem about it?!”

In my experience we march our kids through our museums (not to mention our classrooms) believing (?) that some of the depth and beauty of the museum contents will somehow reach them, rub off on them, whereas if you’ve ever been a part of this charade you will know that the museum contents and the kids are world’s apart and will remain that way certainly throughout the length of the visit. Disconnect.

What happened at the Homer Noble Farm may for a day or two be, as Parini and Margolis propose, an opportunity to talk about the value of Frost’s poetry, perhaps an occasion to have the kids write a poem or two of their own. But shortly thereafter the disconnect between what the kids, at least most of them, are doing and thinking while in school, and what we think we are doing to them, with them, for them, will go on.

Things may be learned in school, but most often not those things at the top of our wish lists for our kids, things like civil behavior and responsible citizenship, respect for one’s surroundings, respect for the past, appreciation of art and literature and music, the value of sacrifice and hard work and all such.

All such things learned, in fact the content of the most important lessons life has to offer, stem much more from example and experience than from the classroom. In the present instance perhaps a closeness to the poet, perhaps the living example of Robert Frost himself, might have spared the farm house from the teen onslaught during a night of drinking and partying. We will never know.

The disconnect, however, is all about us. Adults are disconnected from their children. Children are disconnected from the places they live. I give you the example of Kenya today, the daily images that strike us on the front pages of our newspapers, the bodies of children and adults, the teenagers at war with other teens, pictured on the front page of the New York Times shooting at one another with bows and arrows.

Kenya_3371

In Kenya the disconnect between the teens and the place where they
have lived all their lives is no less pronounced than that between the
Ripton, Vt teens and the Robert Frost farm house and heritage, both within
their own community.

For the Kenyan teens live in the Rift Valley, that several thousand
mile stretch of land running from the Red Sea in the north, down
through central Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, all the way to Mozambique in
the south. The valley, an infinitely greater and more precious
heritage than the farmhouse, was very possibly the birthplace of our
species. Fossil finds here during the past 50 years have pointed to our common origin in Africa.

The disconnect? Kenyan teens ought to have known that they were
descendants of the very first humans, that they were close cousins of
the teens who were the targets of their arrows, that the clan differences
between them, the reason why the killings were taking place at all, were in
fact of little or no significance.

Furthermore, had they ever been told that their ancestors were also our ancestors, and that all of us are members of one single species, cousins sharing a common biological heritage?

Of course they didn’t know this. They hadn’t learned this in school (although they may very well have been told it), no more than the Ripton, Vt. teens had learned that Robert Frost’s poems were their heritage, and that the poet could have been no less precious to them as he is to us, someone from whom they might have gained insights of real importance to their own lives.

What did they gain from a night of drinking and carousing? What did the Kenyan teens gain from the bow and arrow shootout with their peers?

But perhaps things had to happen the way they did. The disconnect may really boil down to that between the young and the old. For are we really surprised by the behavior of the Ripton and Kenyan teens? Probably not.

Civilization’s Fault Lines

Where today do we find the most pronounced "fault lines" in our still highly fragile world wide civilization? Some would say in the rapacious practices of our international corporations. Others would say in a continuing neglect of the biosphere, that which could result in an environmental deterioration substantial enough to threaten our very survival as a species.

And there are certainly many other fault lines that one could readily name. But I would say the most dangerous of them all is that resulting from our failure to provide too many of our impoverished and disadvantaged youth with a proper education followed up by our no less significant failure to provide them with decent employment opportunities once they have left school.

What has happened in place of the education and job opportunities that should have been provided? What has happened and is still happening is that large numbers of jobless young people throughout the world, not just in the underdeveloped countries, are readily falling prey to recruiters of all kinds offering employment and purpose to what had been up until then jobless and purposeless lives.

And these recruiters are everywhere. They are the neo-Nazis in the former "republics" of the Soviet Union, the extremist Shiv Sena party recruiters throughout India’s third largest province, Maharashtra, and in particular in Bombay, the city that Shiv Sena would have us call Mumbai.

They are the Taliban and Al Qaeda recruiters in the wild northwest provinces of Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Middle East, and they are the failed politicians in so many failed African states, themselves recruiters who enlist unsuspecting youth members of their own clans into their failed causes.

First world or developed countries are no less free of these people who would use young men, and young women to their own ends. They are the Al Qaeda and other terrorist cells in the suburbs of London, Paris, and other European cities that promise heavenly bliss in exchange for the sacrifice of the lives of their recruits.

And they are the gangs of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and other Western cities that provide more than minimum wages as well as "prestigious" positions in the gang hierarchy to unemployed youth who agree to participate in their criminal activities.

The world wide presence of tens of millions of unemployed youth, mostly young men, remains an inexhaustible source of live bodies for carrying out the antisocial and antidemocratic schemes of growing numbers of religious fanatics and hard core criminals.

This is the fault line that most of all makes any talk, let alone realization, of a world wide civilization with accompanying democratic values such a problematic undertaking. This is the fault line on which the Americans in Iraq continue to stumble and fall.

We will probably see more and more, as in Britain, of what are called Asbos, or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are a special set of rules that unemployed and "misbehaving" youth are expected to follow. I say, good luck, to the governments who adopt this plan for virtue cannot be taught, let alone mandated.

What about those in society who do want to hold things together, promote civilized behavior in the young, protect us from breaking down along the fault line of youth unemployment? Individuals, private organizations, the governments of nations, for example. What are they doing, if anything, to diminish the large numbers of unemployed young men?

So far little or nothing, although there is much talk. Instead we continue to devote more and more of our resources to fighting the terrorist and other criminal gangs that result from our world-wide failure to take substantial preventive action in the lives of at risk youth. The gangs (think Hamas and Hezbollah) provide purpose and positions for the young in our stead.

Benjamin Barber on Hyperconsumerism

Benjamin Barber in a recent article in the Huffington Post makes these comments about our "hyperconsumerism."

"…the infantilization of adults as impetuous shoppers and the undermining of democracy by a privatized commercial ideology,"

"Shoppers are staying away from the mall and refusing to buy all those goods they don’t need, and the economy’s going down the tubes!"

"…exuberant spending is what is inflating the trade deficit, wrecking the dollar, draining savings, and allowing foreign investors to buy up America — not to speak of corrupting American morals."

"How do we create a prosperous economy that does not depend on Americans buying not only more than they can afford, but far more than they need or want!?"

Now Mr. Barber seems to take for granted that what he calls "hyperconsumerism" is bad. This unquestioned assumption on his part assumes that at some point on a continuum people begin to buy what they don’t need, becoming by so doing victims of a "privatized, commercial ideology."

Now, I challenge you, try to draw that line between the purchases you need and the ones you don’t need. And we are all different in this regard. That line can’t be drawn. I long ago reached a point in my purchase of books where I might have said I didn’t need to buy another book. Just as my son probably didn’t need his new BMW in addition to his Ford Explorer.

And yet my life would have been less without the additional books, as my son’s without the BMW. Why should we make our lives less for a questionable end? By not buying what we do not need, if we could and we can’t determine that, would we somehow be better for it? Would our lives somehow be "more?" A dubious conclusion at the least.

My own life experiences tell me that men’s lives together are most of all structured on the exchange of goods and services. To take away these exchanges, or just reduce them in the manner that Barber would have us do, creates failed societies, such as that of the fallen communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

I lived in the Soviet Union during the last years of the Empire under Mikhail Gorbachev. While I was there no one ever accused the Soviet citizens of hyperconsumerism. For, as everyone knows, the state run factories had created a situation where there was little or nothing to buy.

Actually there were also state run "commercial" outlets called Berioskas, where foreign credit card holders could purchase Western goods (they didn’t need) and continue their hyperconsumerism while paying sales taxes to the Soviet government.

The Soviet Union probably never intended to become an underconsuming society. It’s just that the socks, cars, and electric appliances etc. that they produced in their state run factories were such that nobody wanted them. But there was never any talk about the super benefits of underconsumption in the Soviet Union.

One might think that the environment might have profited from the greatly reduced purchasing power of the nearly 200 million Soviet citizens. Of course it didn’t. The former Soviet Union, and now Russia, remains one of the most polluted areas of the earth. While Americans who over consume, victims as Barber would have us of the dominant commercial ideology, are at the same time creating a cleaner environment, cleaner air, cleaner water, more trees, and such, all to leave to their overconsuming children.

Barber says that overconsumption is making "infants" of us all, "undermining" our democracy. Does he mean by that that we would be better citizens if we consumed less? A very doubtful proposition.

People didn’t and don’t come to this country by the millions, by the tens of millions, in order to become good citizens. They come here to work, and by means of what they earn, to consume. That is America. (Love it or leave it.)

In my experience the best citizens have always come from the ranks of those who own things, such as homes and cars. There is nothing like ownership to create responsibility. And without taking on responsibility people will never be good citizens.

Furthermore, to own a home, to care for it, to maintain it, means an endless series of purchases, and happily in America these purchases are easily made. Unlike in the former Soviet Union where light bulbs, string, and paper clips, not to mention well- stocked super markets, were no where to be found.

So I would say Vive our Hyperconsumerism. And I would say again there is no line to be drawn between our wants and our needs. Even our morals, in particular our caring for others as well as our caring for ourselves, probably stem most of all, if not entirely, from the endless exchange of goods and services that we carry on with our fellows everywhere.

Supply and demand in the non-profit world

Those of us who have been to college and taken Economics 101 are familiar with the supply and demand curve. If you’re not, here it is again.

Supplydemandprice

The demand curve illustrates the variation of a demand Q in relation to the variation of a price P.  The supply curve illustrates a variation of supply according to a variation of price P. The intersection of the demand curve D and the supply curve S represents the equilibrium price Pe where a quantity Qe of commodities will be sold.

What might we learn if we applied this market thinking regarding supply and demand to the non-profit world, and in particular to our public schools? Demand might then become the demand on the part of students for education. Supply would be the knowledge that the teachers brought with them into the classroom.

Learning would take place at the point where the students’ demand for met the teachers’ supply of knowledge.

But what actually happens in our schools? Those of you who have visited our public schools, especially the troubled inner city schools serving largely poor and minority student populations, will readily admit that the “demand” for education on the part of the students is almost non-existent. The students are clearly not present in school to learn, or in other words, to have their demand met by the supply of education that the school is there to provide.

What about the supply? Well, if there is little or no demand we don’t know, do we? We don’t know much about the supply. Teachers may be, or may have been at one time, well supplied with enough learning to meet the demand, but years of close contact with non-demanding students will have sent that supply into deep storage, perhaps never to reappear.

In the supply and demand curve the price is all important. High prices will lower demand, and vice versa. At the point where the two curves meet the price will be right and the purchase will be made.

In our schools, however, the price is always too high. And the students are rarely ready to pay the high price represented by the hard work it will take in order to learn. As a result there is little exchange and the teachers remain pretty much without a market for their goods. The two curves never meet.

The single most important question in regard to our schools, and in particular in regard to those that are failing, is how to increase the students’ demand for learning. How do we motivate them? Up until now only the single teacher, here and there throughout the nation’s hundreds of thousands of schools, seems to know how to do this. And up until now he or she hasn’t known how to pass this particularly valuable skill on to others.

At this very moment the entire country, while following the directives of the No Child Left Behind Law, seems to be using standardized tests to raise the students’ “demand” for knowledge. This of course is not what’s happening. And although the jury is still out regarding the effectiveness of the Law there is ample anecdotal evidence that this “fix” is not fixing anything at all.

We might extend what we have said up until now to the non-profit world in general. In the for profit world goods, cars and televisions etc., things that people want, are constantly being produced, and demand is meeting supply.

In the not for profit world, on the other hand, what is being supplied is not what people want, but rather what some people, often government employees, think that people should want, things such as education, healthcare, jobs, and homes.

But what’s the difference? Don’t people want education, good health, jobs and homes? And if so, why doesn’t demand and supply work in this world also? Well, these goods, education, healthcare, jobs, etc., for their production and full realization, depend no less, perhaps even more, on the consumer than on the producer.

We can build schools and hospitals, provide teachers and doctors. We can create businesses and provide jobs. We can build new homes. But we cannot give someone an education or good health. Both are both things that people have to do by and large for themselves.

Also we can provide a job and a new home. But doing the job satisfactorily and maintaining the home is something else again, something that people have to do largely for themselves, and so far we haven’t been very good at motivating them to do this for themselves.

This is why the demand and supply curve breaks down in the non-profit world. The “rub” is that we go on pretending that it doesn’t break down, that the analogy holds, that education and healthcare can be provided like cars and televisions. They can’t.

The not for profit world is really a supply side world. There is no demand in this world unless we create this demand, that which we don’t yet know how to do. There is only a supply of help, a great supply to be sure for we are the richest country in the world.

A lot of help is what we’ve been providing in Iraq, and in other troubled places in the world, not to mention in our own impoverished inner cities. We have most often failed in our endeavors because, while giving away the store, we haven’t yet been able to arouse in the recipients a demand on their part for what we have to give, be it algebra, history, safe neighborhoods, or democracy.

Two final comments. One, give me a motivated learner and I can teach. If that motivation is not there, if it is not aroused by what I do, I will never teach him a thing.

And two, a last word in regard to standardized tests. Tests shouldn’t have the kind of importance they now have. For if they have that importance it’s really only because nothing else of an academic nature is going on in the school. If the kids were demanding to learn about math and history tests would be of little or no importance, to them or to us.

The Civil Rights Project co-Founder

The other day while rereading my own archives I stumbled on a "Politic" interview with Gary Orfield from 2003 and I was shocked by the number of illconsidered statements made by this highly respected civil rights worker while answering the questions put to him by the Yale students.

Gary Orfield is no longer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was at the time of the interview. He is now at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA where he continues to head The Civil Rights Project that he founded with Christopher Edley in 1996.

All I could think of while reading his responses to the interviewers was that if his thinking, as represented by his statements in this interview, represents the level of thought of the Civil Rights Project in general it’s no wonder that the productions of the Project have had so little influence on the on-going struggle for civil rights in our country.

I’ll show you what I mean. In response to the first question, "what can be the role of education in mitigating racial inequalities," Orfield had this to say: "The American educational system is all we have. We do not have any [other] kind of social support system in the U.S."

Wow I thought to myself, what would the hundreds of thousands of people working in private non profits throughout the country supporting minority families in our inner cities, as well as in our impoverished rural communities, not to mention the similar numbers of people working in hundreds of federal anti-poverty programs surviving from the sixties, say to this?

No social support system in the U.S.? Perhaps he made this dramatic, highly exaggerated statement to draw attention to the fact there is never enough "social support," whether in society or in one’s own family. But why put down the hundreds of thousands of people doing good work in order to make his point?

Further on in his answer to the same question he makes this no less responsible statement that "access to post-secondary education is absolutely critical for any pretense of diminishing inequality." In my opinion he is not only misdirecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of our young people but also giving the wrong message to those within our educational establishment who are already wrongly convinced (probably for reasons of their own job security) that college education should be made available to all. In my opinion it’s not so much it shouldn’t, it can’t.

It is one thing to make the opportunity for higher education available to all. For in fact we still believe in equality of opportunity, and there is still much to be done in this civil rights area in way of multiplying the opportunities available to young people.

But it is another thing entirely to brainwash that "all" into believing that their lives are failures without a college education. For only by lowering achievement benchmarks to ridiculously low levels, as we’ve done in our high schools,  could college education be made "available to all." And why would anyone want to do that?

A college education worthy of the name will always be available only to some. Conservatives will admit this. Liberals will try to make you believe it isn’t so, because they, and I, would like to believe it isn’t so. It is.

We know at first hand that too many of those who are pushed onto college will drop out, and that too many of these (although not a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs) will start life under the stigma of a failed college experience. If they hadn’t been pushed onto college they might have done something else, of much more benefit to themselves and to their country.

Still while answering the same question Orfield tells us that education, while formally equal, "is profoundly unequal in racial and economic terms, and it [therefore] reinforces the racial problems we face today."

And he goes on to say that [the] "situation has relatively little to do with the amount of money to spend and everything to do with the social structure in communities and schools."

But then while answering the next question, seemingly oblivious of what he has just said, he says this: [While advocating preschool] "we are not providing any kind of universal access or quality preschool. Smaller class sizes with good teachers at the elementary level especially in high poverty schools really does make a difference that seems to be lasting."

O.K., but quality preschool, smaller class sizes, and better trained teachers cost money, big money. So is this the underlying message of the Civil Rights project? Not too different from that of Jonathan Kozol. Things are bad and they won’t get better unless we spend a lot more on our schools, according to Orfield the only "social support" system we have. These sorts of answers didn’t encourage me to go rereading the remainder of the interview.

But I did anyway, and Orfield does go on to say some pretty true and important things especially about the richness and depth of experiences that multiracial environments can provide all of us.

Here, for example, in answer to the question, What are the encouraging signs? he says this:

"One of the encouraging signs is that the United States is undergoing
a demographic transformation that is just gigantic and irreversible. We
can see this in the state of California. The encouraging signs are that
young people’s attitudes are continually positive about these issues.
We have been studying interracial classrooms around the country where
they still exist, where re-segregation has not taken place, and we are
finding very positive and comparable attitudes among blacks, whites,
Latinos, and Asians about interracial experiences. They want them, they
value them, and they believe they are transformative.

"We are studying
law schools like Harvard and Michigan, and medical schools and other
graduate institutions. A lot of people want a multiracial experience
and, when they experience it, they find it is very positive for them.
We are finding an emergence of multiracial neighborhoods and schools in
rural areas, which may have a very different dynamic than biracial
transition.

"Regarding Asian teenagers, they are growing up in the most
integrated setting of any population probably in the history of the
country, which is extremely encouraging. What role are they going to
play in the future and in penetrating the tri-racial dynamic in this
country of blacks, whites and Latinos? They are going to be a very
powerful 10 percent of the population in this century. Are they going
to be a bridge of some sort between races or will their racial status
evolve into that of whites?…"

Middle Ground

The liberal, or as Hillary would say, progressive/conservative fault line is no less with us today than it was nearly seventy years ago, when I was a student in elementary school and returning home at night when I would hear my father berate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s newly minted progressive social policies intended to alleviate the plight of Americans hit hard by the depression.

Today the progressive/conservative fault line is world wide. In France and Germany, we are told that students are being forced to undergo "a dangerous indoctrination." They are being raised on a "diet of prejudice and bias, taught that [conservative] economic principles such as capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship are savage, unhealthy, and immoral."

Free markets, these students are led to believe, are most of all supported by reactionary, conservative governments, such as that of the United States. Planned, highly regulated economies with "liberal" and extensive social safety nets, such as those of France and Germany, are much to be preferred.

The irony is that the victors of the Cold War have not fully shed the influence of the former Soviet Union. Even in the United States the presidential candidate, John Edwards, no less than the Soviet apparatchik then and the teachers in the French and German schools now, sees the American capitalist as exploiting the working man for the benefit of the super rich.

Elsewhere in the world, and especially in the Far East, which perhaps holds the future of civilization in its grasp, the free market is still alive and well. We learn, for example, that in India, that democracy of over one billion souls, Tata Motors has just made the world’s cheapest car, thereby bringing the family car to families up until now without. Probably not something the Indian government, or any government would ever have done.

Vive l’entrepreneur!

But even here, when people so obviously benefit, the liberal/conservative fault line is no less in evidence. There are plenty of those who, knowing what’s best for the rest of us, loudly decry the additional pollution, the additional traffic congestion, the continuing neglect of mass transit systems, that the Tata people’s car promises.

But more numerous, certainly, are those who will quietly celebrate the placing of the car well within the economic reach of millions of Indian citizens. In this case, as in many others, the liberals would free the roads, the conservatives the people.

But of course the right is not entirely on either side. In fact, when will our politicians get it, that there is only one place to be, that there is no either/or, liberal or conservative, only a middle ground from which a cost/benefit analysis will usually determine which action to take, while, in this instance, being sure that the benefits to the individual of owning a car, no less than the costs to all of us of additional cars on the road, are not ignored.

Three Easy Pieces

The Achievement Gap

Achievement always comes with a “gap.” There will always be those who achieve, thus leaving behind, sometimes way behind, those who do not.
Why is it that in regard to the achievement of some youngsters in school, we speak of the gap between their achievement and the lesser or even non achievement of their classmates? Why has this become such a hot button topic and problem?
In fact, there are achievement gaps everywhere you look, and most of them are accepted as being quite normal.
Take chess players, basketball players, runners, nuclear physicists, microbiologists, in fact most everyone who in some one occupation achieves at a level that others cannot match.
Furthermore, who ever would go to great efforts to overcome the gap between the achievement of particular individuals in their one specialty area, and the much lesser, probably non achievement of everyone else in that same area? No one has ever tried to help me lessen the achievement gap, say that between me and Luciano Pavarotti, or me and Gary Kasparov.

No Child Left Behind

In respect to being “left behind,” well I’ve been left behind by practically everyone of my generation in one or more respects. A single school reunion is always enough to convince me of that. In fact, it’s rare for me to ever see myself as not having been left behind.
So why the “no child left behind” mantra of the professional school people? Don’t we just create thereby unsolvable problems for ourselves? For there will always be those who are left behind, in fact most of us.

The School Dropout

The “school dropout” is also of our own creation. Unnecessary. There was no reason to stigmatize in this manner children who decided that school wasn’t for them. Does anyone really believe that school is for everyone? Those whose livelihood comes from the schools, the school administrators, teachers, and school board members may act, even believe that all children should be in school, but does that make it so?
Along with the “achievement gap” and the “no child left behind” we ought to banish from our discussions about kids and schools the “school dropout.”
The school dropout is a problem only because we have for some reason laid down the law that all youngsters have to remain in school for some number of years. Why? Were we afraid that they might become free thinking individuals and start a business, or career, simply travel, get a job, write a poem or paint a picture?

Reform and the Schools Establishment

One of the principal obstacles to reforming the public schools in our large cities, where the school failure and dropout rates are particularly high, remains the fact that those who are best positioned to carry out any reform, the Teachers Unions and the school Superintendents, are not willing to change their own mostly defensive positions in regard to the schools, and admit that major reforms are necessary.

Now without a doubt, at least for those who are not union members or school superintendents, the most significant public school reform effort within the city of Boston, and probably within the whole country, during the past 20 years has been the Commonwealth Charter School.

It is well known, if not well recognized, that a good number of the charter schools in Massachusetts have been extraordinarily successful. Several of them have all but eliminated the so-called achievement gap between Blacks and Latinos on the one hand, and White students on the other, that which some felt couldn’t be done, given the enormous disadvantages that encumber the lives of inner city Blacks and Latinos compared with their White peers in the suburbs.

What has been the response, or rather the lack of response, of the public school Establishment to these highly successful, so-called “no excuses” charter schools? Has the Establishment contacted these public schools in order to begin to understand their successes?

The previous Boston Superintendent may have visited one charter school once during his ten year tenure, although I’m not sure about that. The new Superintendent, as far as I know, has yet to reveal what she will do in this regard.

As for the Teachers Union, instead of welcoming the “new kid on the block” as friend and partner, it looked instead for a way to compete with the charter schools, perhaps in order to thereby lessen the obvious positive impact of these new schools on kids and families in Boston.

The Teachers Union’s response was to support pilot schools, although only begrudgingly because the pilots were a lot like charters and therefore represented a threat to the traditional way of doing things.

But other than this defensive action there has been nothing else in the way of response, no sharing of best practices, no other contact, as far as I know, between the Boston Teachers Union and the Commonwealth Charter Schools. I find this situation incredible, and I find it even more incredible that no one is even talking about it.

If I could I would ask the Superintendent of Schools along with Teachers Union several questions, all in an effort to better a bad situation. First, is it because they believe that poverty itself does most to explain the achievement gap and that without  addressing this “gorilla” there is little that the school could do on its own to be effective?

Another question stems from the common establishment criticism of charters, that they remove good students from the “regular’ public schools to the detriment of these schools. But in fact in this regard who is most at fault?

Which group of schools, public charters or public exam, pilot and magnet schools, such as Boston Latin School, Fenway, and the Arts Academy, do the most “harm” to the non-selective district schools by removing the particularly talented children, not to mention the most motivated parents, from the general admissions pool?

Isn’t the answer is obvious? Clearly the highly selective exam, pilot, and magnet schools are most to blame, although we don’t hear anyone complaining about it. That no one does complain is probably because these schools have important friends, both in the School Department and in City Hall. OK, they are doing good work, but so are many of the Charters.

Two last questions, the first in regard to the most recent school reform, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which the defenders of the public schools see as a first step in the further dismantling of the public schools by private, usually corporate interests.

Does anyone really believe that Ted Kennedy, George Miller et al. had the undoing of the public schools in mind when they fashioned the law? I don’t think so. Wasn’t it one more attempt to address the problem of failing inner city schools, the problem that the Schools Establishment is loath to admit, let alone address?

Finally, in a series of op-ed pieces about intelligence appearing in the Wall Street Journal in January of this year Charles Murray makes a strong case that we are sending, or trying to send, too many students to four year colleges. For Murray it’s clear that many of them won’t be able to do the work, and will be quickly frustrated and disappointed and probably drop out.

Is Murray right, about there being only a minority of students in the inner city schools that are college material, perhaps no more than a quarter of an entering high school freshmen class? 

If he is right wouldn’t it mean that we should be getting behind major structural changes in our schools? Isn’t this a reform that is urgently needed? And about this also we hear absolutely nothing from the Establishment. Do the Superintendent of Schools and the Teachers Union even have a position on this issue?

No Such Thing as Moral or Spiritual Progress

The contemporary British philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes in Why I Became a Conservative:

“Edmund Burke persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”

I think he and Burke are wrong about the first, partially right about the second, and completely right about the third.

Societies are forever being organized according to a plan or a goal, even if not always successfully. For it is true that the best laid plans (witness the totalitarian fascist and communist states of the past century) often come to naught, the goals of the planners abandoned.

But the U.S. Constitution was a “plan” and this plan, after more than 200 years, is still very much a plan we can live with. Also, in regard to a “goal,” the goal of securing for all certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is no less our goal today than it was in 1787.

I’m not sure I know what Scruton means when he says there’s no direction to history. Perhaps this is just another way of saying there is no goal, that history is not going anywhere?

But this country’s history is the history of our reaching, or still trying to reach, one end point after another, be it civil rights for African Americans, equality for women, health care and education for all. So given all that has been accomplished of what we set out to do, isn’t there plenty of direction to our history?

But if Scruton means by direction to history, progress, well then things are no longer so simple or straightforward. The word progress itself, or the idea of progress, has not yet been defined to everyone’s satisfaction.

If by progress we mean a greater understanding of our biological nature as well as of the physical world we have certainly made enormous progress. For doesn’t the undeniable progress of knowledge, of science, and the technologies resulting therefrom, give a direction to history, even if we can’t yet envision an end to which all this progress is taking us?

But Scruton is clearly right where he says there has been no moral or spiritual progress, no progress in our view of man. This conclusion is supported by the fact that we read the oldest literary texts today as if they were no less relevant now than they were in their ow time, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Progress in science is demonstrated by the fact that our science texts, while not ever being completely discarded, are constantly being replaced by new works reflecting our greater knowledge of man and nature. Literary texts, on the other hand, those of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and innumerable other writers, have not yet been set aside and replaced.

Our conclusion that we have not yet experienced moral progress, that know very little of what we really are, and even less of what we ought to be, should teach us humility. Yes we can go to the moon, but we are no more in control of our individual lives and destinies that was the biblical Job.

Yes, Roger, there is, so far anyway, no such thing as moral and spiritual progress. Is this conclusion enough to make conservatives of us all?

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité