Tuesday, November 09, 2004

EDUCATION -- More means over ends

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:44 AM |  

If MPR’s Town Hall meeting on the achievement gap was “painful,” Dr. Gerald Bracey’s presentation on the condition of public education at Hamline University last evening was downright excruciating.

Ostensibly, Bracey is a proponent of the public education system, but he’s also of the ilk that puts the emphasis on “public” as in government controlled rather than on “education.” In other words he is anti-school choice, anti-free market, and anti anything that disrupts the status quo of government controlled education.

We’re talking about a guy who stated his presentation by joking that he might be moving to Minnesota because global warming is going to cause floods on the east and west coast. “Get ready for one-party rule,” he cracked. The presentation ended with a final question (written questions selected by a moderator) “Do you think that the No Child Left Behind Act is a rightwing plot to defund public education by defining it as ‘failing?’” Bracey’s answer -- "maybe."

I’m no fan no the No Child Left Behind Act, and I agree with Bracey that’s there’s no constitutional authority for federal involvement in education (one wonders if he was as adamant in that stand vis a vis Clinton-era Goals 2000), but Bracey’s leap from bad education policy to conspiracy theory is enough to pull a mental hamstring in any thinking person. Unfortunately, it drew only approving head nods from the majority of attendees -- many of whom were next generation teachers from Hamline’s Graduate School of Education.

Bracey’s theory on NCLB is that private companies want education to remain “public” but with privatization of services so they can reap profits at taxpayer’s expense. Earlier in his presentation he connected the “backpack crisis” (heavy backpacks causing back problems in children) with the notion that private companies produce larger textbooks in the United States where government does not control the content.

In fairness, something that he showed very little of in his presentation, Bracey did trot out statistics that are relevant to the discussion of public education and that are frequently ignored by its critics. Simpson’s paradox -- the fact that a collective statistic like test performance can decline or remain flat while all subgroups within the collective improve -- is one such example. Also relevant to the discussion of education is that when comparing international test results, when the universality of American education is factored out, our best students are better or equal the best of any country in the world -- many of which only educate their best.

That being said, the majority of his presentation, a lot of which was pulled from 14th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, was a collection of informal logical fallacies, snide remarks about anybody associated with school choice, and Bush-bashing cultural division. While proclaiming the success of government-run education, he spent the majority of his presentation bashing the government that is running education -- never making the connection that it matters not which party is in power, government-run education is always subject to political whims always to the detriment of students and parents seeking some consistency over a student’s K-12 academic career.

Further, Bracey begged the one critical question that government-school proponents always dodge -- Even if one grants that the public school system is working adequately, why is a monolithic, all-our-eggs-in-one-basket government-run system the best and only acceptable system for educating children while a school choice system that provides a diversity of educational philosophies and opportunities is inherently evil?

The validity of this question was inadvertently raised (unnoticed in the myopic mode of the event) in the moderated Q&A. In reference to a slide in Bracey’s presentation (which he used to debunked the notion that testing is the only measure of quality education) that listed intangible qualities that rightly belong to education -- things like community involvement, patriotism, courage, tolerance, compassion and the like -- the question was “How is public education doing in the intangible qualities?” Bracey was somewhat taken aback with no canned answer. He put the slide back up and mumbled about ways one might measure, but he clearly failed to make the vital connection that a monolithic government run school system can never adequately address qualities about which society holds such diverse opinions. Nor should it.

These qualities are exactly why school choice is a necessity. You can’t homogenize ideas like community involvement, patriotism, courage, tolerance and compassion. Individuals have very different ideas about what these are -- that’s the very definition of diversity. And individuals have the right and should have the opportunity to educate their children in these areas as they determine is proper. They should be able to select among schools that best reflect their values as well as their commitment to high academic standards.

In short, Bracey’s presentation was about protecting the means by which children are educated rather than pursuing the end of education. And the saddest part was future Minnesota teachers were lapping it up.