Monday, December 05, 2005

Public education -- One play book doesn't fit all

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:30 PM |  

A reader emails --

I assume by now someone has called your attention to the Katherine Kersten column in that other paper today. I think it is time to ask the question, and demand an answer. Why, given twice the money and a proven successful example, can the Minneapolis schools NOT do likewise? More critically, why do they REFUSE to do so? Still more critically, why are they HARMING the children in their care, when it is clearly unnecessary? Shouldn't someone have a lawsuit here?
The Kersten column referred to is entitled “Public schools could take a page from this playbook.” The “playbook” is the curriculum and teaching methods of Ascension Catholic School, located as Kersten notes “in a rough north Minneapolis neighborhood.” Kersten then gets into specifics --

Ninety percent of Ascension's 293 students are minority, and 66 percent are low-income. About two-thirds come from single-parent homes. Some live in shelters, and some have been abused. They're precisely the "at risk" kids our society too often expects to fail.

Yet this year, Ascension eighth-graders scored near the top on the Minnesota Basic Skills tests, right up there with Edina eighth-graders. Ascension's "at risk" kids beat out affluent suburban districts including Eden Prairie and Lakeville.
And so on . . . the point of Kersten’s column being Ascension does education right, public schools do education wrong. And it’s not about the money.

Ascension stands as a powerful rebuttal to one of the American education establishment's central tenets: Better schools require more money. Minnesota schools are now digesting the $800 million biennial funding increase they got last spring.

That was one of the biggest boosts from the Legislature since the 1980s. But last week, the Star Tribune reported that, at most schools, little is changing at the classroom level.

Nevertheless, we'll likely hear loud demands for even more money when the Legislature reconvenes in March, given the state's projected revenue surplus just announced.

After-inflation per-pupil education spending in America more than doubled between 1970 and 2001. But Ascension's inspiring (and unsung) tale teaches that good education is not, first and foremost, about money. It is about curriculum, leadership and a sense of mission.
Of course, Kersten is right -- as far as she goes, which is not nearly far enough, which is why people like the reader can respond as he does. The problem with American education will not be solved by government schools being run like Ascension, even if they could. That’s not the answer. While I’m a big fan of the Saxon Math program and Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, staples at Ascension, there is no one “playbook” for educating kids.

River Heights, a St. Paul charter school, uses project-based learning, which eliminates classes, bells and worksheets. The Pioneer Press reports that students find topics they are interested in and research them, manipulating them to satisfy state standards.

"The main verb in traditional schools is teaching, not learning," [teacher / advisor Bill Zimniewicz] said. "Students are afraid to try; they're afraid of the wrong answer. They don't even ask questions anymore. Their curiosity is dried up. Those schools don't accept failure as learning. They only reward kids who get everything right. River Heights is about giving kids options."

Okay, I can not think of a school I would be less likely to send my children to than River Heights, but it is turning on kids that were failing in a traditional public school environment. We can argue all day whether River Heights kids, or for that matter the kids at Ascension, are getting a good education, but that is a somewhat secondary debate unless you have kids and are considering either school.

I have no more right to mold public education such that it forces River Heights kids into an Ascension education model than River Heights parents would have forcing Ascension kids into their model. And that is what a one-size fits all single “playbook” public education system does. If a conservative one-size fits all system is what Kersten, not just the headline writer, is implying, then she is wrong.

A good public education system is one that considers “public education” to include government schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools and methods of education not yet conceived and facilitates family options to choose from among them regardless of income level. It provides many choices that fall both on the traditional and progressive ends of the spectrum. It responds instantly to market demands for change, and when changes don’t work, parents have immediate options. When changes do work, school administrators have the immediate opportunity to incorporate them.

When anyone, even someone whose judgment I agree with, says they have the “playbook” for education, it’s axiomatic -- they are wrong. As she does often, Kersten lets issue-based conservatism get in the way of a philosophy-based conservative approach to public policy. Ascension is a great model, but not the only model. I think River Heights is a lousy model -- but if it fails, it ought to fail in the marketplace, not the legislature.

The noble cause is not changing public schools to fit a conservative model; the noble cause is freeing families of all economic levels to seek out the Ascensions, or the River Heightses, or the Al-Amals or an exceptional public school or whatever flavor of education suits them best. The first step in changing public schools is freeing families, through vouchers and tax credits, to send kids to schools of their choice.

Category: Education, School Choice