The Magazine

PBS Flunks Its Back to School Test

September's here and the Blob is still in charge.

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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THIS TIME OF YEAR always brightens education with the optimism of fresh starts. Classrooms are clean, teachers rested, children eager. There are new textbooks on the shelves, new hardware in the computer labs, perhaps a new menu in the cafeteria.

Some of this year’s innovations are even more profound. Hundreds more "charter" schools will open their doors in coming weeks, bringing the total to nearly 2,500. In some cities, such as Washington, D.C., Kansas City, and Dayton, the charter enrollment approaches 20 percent (though nationally it’s still below 1 percent). Tens of thousands of youngsters are studying in private schools with the help of privately funded voucher programs. More children than ever aren’t sitting in school at all; they’re being educated at home and by a cluster of high-tech "virtual" schools. More schools than ever are being outsourced to private management firms, one of which has just been engaged to devise a new master plan for the entire Philadelphia system. "Alternative" teacher certification is spreading as evidence mounts that able liberal arts graduates are at least as effective in the K-12 classroom as those who attended education schools.

In sum, there’s lots of reform ferment. And yet we’ve been reforming U.S. education for at least 18 years—since 1983’s "A Nation at Risk" report—and have mighty little to show for it. Test scores remain flat at an unacceptably low level. Rich-poor and black-white gaps remain wide. Our international rankings remain stagnant, also at an unacceptably low level. Remediation remains the greatest growth sector in higher education. Employers seeking technical workers continue to look overseas. Many of our new teachers are still drawn from the bottom third of their college classes, and a dismayingly large fraction of our children are being "taught" by people who barely studied the subjects they’re now responsible for teaching. Yet with all this evidence that our schools aren’t producing decent results, 62 percent of parents still award "honors" grades to the public schools of their communities.

As if Newton’s laws of physics governed education policy, we also find that, for every promising reform, there’s an equal and opposite reaction seeking to quash it. Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program barely dodged a legislative bullet this summer. The charter school laws of Ohio and Pennsylvania are under courtroom siege by teachers’ unions and school board associations—which have a special animus toward "virtual" schools that need fewer teachers. New York’s fledgling charter program is paralyzed by election politics. State after state is entrusting teacher certification to "independent" boards run by the ed-school/teachers’ union cartel. Chicago’s hard-charging school superintendent was dismissed by the mayor—and his counterpart in Los Angeles is faltering even as New York City’s businessman-chancellor appears headed for the exit. Many communities face a testing-and-accountability backlash fomented by unions, "testing experts," and affluent parents. President Bush’s ambitious "No Child Left Behind" plan to reform federal education policy, though winning plaudits from the public, has had most of its stuffing knocked out by Congress; the testing scheme that survives is imperiled in a conference committee, even as Messrs. Daschle and Kennedy hint that no bill will reach the Oval Office until lots more money is earmarked for those weary, ineffectual old federal programs.

The reactionaries have even recruited the Public Broadcasting Service, which is greeting the new school year with two documentaries chock full of bad education ideas. One of these films profiles a quintet of earnest young teachers during their first year in the classroom. It’s quite appealing, until you notice that they’re never shown imparting academic skills and knowledge to their pupils. Rather, they function as social workers, guidance counselors, prejudice-erasers, and political agitators. There’s nary a whiff of science, history, literature, or math.

The longer and more troubling film spends four hours persuading viewers that today’s public schools are doing exactly what Thomas Jefferson dreamed of, and that those dreadful agitators for standards, testing, choice, and competition are bent on destroying the American dream. Perhaps it’s only coincidence that the Clinton administration pumped $1.6 million into this documentary project; that the public school establishment is falling over itself to promote it; and that the filmmakers are relatives of former vice president Fritz Mondale and his brother Mort, the quondam National Education Association official who in the late 1970s helped hold Jimmy Carter to his ill-conceived pledge to create a cabinet-level education department.

Television documentaries don’t set policy, but they do influence the war of ideas. And as school resumes we would do well to recognize that today’s crucial education battles are ultimately about ideas. Our readiness to replace bad ones is the key to real reform. But ideas are Newtonian, too. The resistance to changing them is intense and, so far, at least equal to the push for reform. Five dubious ideas top the list of candidates for replacement:

First, stop defining public education as a bureaucratic system of government-run schools. Instead, let it mean educating the public: ensuring that all children gain the skills and knowledge they need from whatever sources suit them best—physical or virtual schools, governmental, private, charter, non-profit, for-profit, home, or hybrid.

Second, stop assuming that the "experts should be in charge." Rather, acknowledge that education’s big decisions are best made by parents and public officials such as governors and legislators.

Third, stop insisting that all teachers be ed-school graduates who are "certified" by state bureaucrats. Instead, let schools hire—and deploy, retain, and compensate—anyone who knows the material and is willing to teach it to kids.

Fourth, retire the faux-progressive notion that education’s main task is developing children’s self-esteem and self-awareness. Affirm instead that the crucial work of teachers is to infuse specific skills and knowledge into their pupils along with good behavior and decent character.

Finally, quit treating "accountability" as a meaningless mantra and start putting it into practice. Children who learn what they should ought to be promoted and graduated—and the rest should be tutored until they do. Adults who teach them successfully should be properly rewarded. Those whose students don’t learn should find their own lives less pleasant, their pay less generous, and their jobs less secure.

Welcome back to school, boys and girls.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.