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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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.