Posts Tagged ‘federalism’

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

May 4, 2010

Bill Gates

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Our society is just beginning to recover from a long spell of Magical Thinking. Instead of confronting our problems and dealing with them, Americans spent the better part of a decade hoping that great men on horses would ride into to town bearing sanctified sidearms which fire magic bullets—instead we got George W. Bush in a flightsuit. But after 9/11, most of us we’re too scared to acknowledge or even see The Emperor’s Clothes. We just pretended that there were new, bold serious solutions that would preternaturally eliminate serious issues. Decisive Federal Action would fix public education just as it would defeat Islamo-facism and unfetter the Titans of Finance. Those were some heady times.

Today, our institutions are just beginning to recover from the febrile dreams which have infected (and continue to threaten the very existence of) our body politic. Sadly, no one is yet bowing in obeisance to the heroes who were banished from the Punditocracy for the crime of premature wisdom (i.e., Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield and Robert Sheer). Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the people who advocated these asinine and self-destructive policies over the last decade are still running this country and they’re not about to begin pointing fingers at one another.

That’s why Diane Ravitch should be praised for speaking up about her recent recovery from Hedda Payness Disease:

I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope(3-4).

I remember seeing a documentary years ago about how hospital administrators in the Soviet Union (who obviously knew nothing about how hospitals actually work) used to do surprise inspections in hospitals in which they would randomly swab the walls looking for evidence of bacteria. Consequently, the medical staff wasted a good deal of time scrubbing the walls with bleach. Funny thing about big bureaucracies, they tend to replicate such madness:

Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education (16).

In our age of Magical Thinking, even really smart guys (because we all know that the billionaires are the best among us) like to dream of a simple world with simple solutions. For example, Bill Gates was blissfully “unaware of the disadvantages” of promoting smaller highs schools as a one-size-fits-all panacea for American education:

It was never obvious why the Gates Foundation decided that schools size was the one critical reform most needed to improve American education. Both state and national tests showed that large numbers of students were starting high schools without having mastered basic skills…the root cause of poor achievement lie not in the high schools, but in the earlier grades (205).

After pissing away a couple of billion bucks, the Foundation wised up, but it wasn’t about to admit any mistakes:

In late 2008 the Gates Foundation announced that it was changing course. The $2 billion investment in new small high schools had not been especially successful (although it was careful not to come right out and say it was unsuccessful) (211).

by Richard W. Bray