The Least Generation 1.

American education seems to be a lot like American health care: we spend more per-capita (patient/pupil) than do most countries and get less for the money than do most countries.[1] American 15 year-olds rank 15th in literacy, 21st in science, 24th in problem-solving, and 25th in math. Even in high school and college graduation rates, with schools pushing every lazy moron out the door with a diploma clutched in his/her hot little hand, America has lost ground from 1st to 18th place. (Now, it could be that everyone else got their ten pounds in a five pound bag and caught up to the US. I don’t know what the test scores show on this matter.) Still, American parents appear to believe that their own local schools are a happy island of excellence in a sea of national mediocrity.

The supposed crisis in American education actually seems to come down to what we do about the low performing schools, which are mostly in low-income areas.

Teachers make a difference in the lives of young people—and not always for the better. If you have three successive years of having a poor teacher, you’ll never catch up with the students in the same school who had a competent teacher.   The buzz surrounding the movie “Waiting for Superman” has focused attention on teachers and especially on teachers’ unions. The unions seem bent on frustrating every effort at reform out of a selfish interest in protecting even their least-competent members at the expense of the children.

What makes a teacher “good”? According to Teach for America: setting high goals for your students, seeking to engage them by whatever means necessary, and involving the parents in the education of their children. Teachers have to be persevering and hard-working. In another view, it isn’t so much the individual teachers as the culture of the school: instill good habits and ambition, create an expectation that everyone will strive to be excellent, and put in immense amounts of time.

The Obama administration is trying to measure the effectiveness of teachers by means of a new scheme called “value-added modeling.” In theory, this allows schools to assess the contribution of individual teachers by tracking student test scores from grade to grade.   The Department of Education’s $4.35 billion in “Race for the Top” awards gives the federal government a lot of leverage.

However, the current debate is missing an important part of the equation. Parents play a powerful role in shaping the educational achievement of their children. Teachers argue that homes where the parents read very little, have limited vocabularies, and don’t value education or see much chance for their kids to improve plays a major role in individual success or failure. Some of the most striking elements of successful schools in low-income areas seek to address this problem. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools operate from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and the teachers must be available to answer questions until 9:00 PM. The provision of counseling and medical services by the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school goes in the same direction. Successful charter schools take over the responsibilities that many parents cannot meet. The problem is that no one actually wants to say out loud that the chief source of under-achievement is failed parents, not failed students or failed teachers or failed schools. The decline—relative or absolute—in the performance of American schools or of American students began about 1980. That would suggest that it began among children born between 1962 and 1974. That would suggest that a lot of Baby Boomers turned out to be lousy parents. The “Least Generation.”

[1] “Targeting teachers,” The Week, 15 October 2010, p. 15.

Straight talk on American Education.



The cost of sending your kid to a university has gone up by 8 percent in the middle of the next-best-thing to “The Great Depression” that my folks lived through. President Obama—God bless his pointy little head—has offered a plan to help some of the worst off. His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been hard at work on a plan to replace the much-despised “No Child Left Behind” with “Well, Some Children Will Be Left Behind.” (At least it falls in the tradition of what American schools have been doing for two hundred years.) Asian countries have been gaining on American educational achievement like alligators fed on a mix of steroids and speed. Americans are desperate for better and more cost-effective schools.

I’ve taught at a little college for almost twenty years and at an Enormous State University for half a dozen years before that, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what high-school graduates bring with them to college (aside from enormous bongs and that idiot dub-step music). I’ve got two boys aged twenty (graduated from a public school in the suburbs and attending a private college in the farther suburbs) and seventeen (who may graduate from an elite private school—unless he does one more thing to piss-off the headmaster), so I’ve got some idea of what kids are capable. Here’s my plan.

Close a bunch of the lesser universities and colleges, public and private. On the one hand, this will increase the competition among students to get in to colleges. There won’t be “safety schools.” There will just be clerking at Wawa or being the assistant manager for deep-fried products on the swing-shift at McDonald’s. You’ll end up looking like Jabba the Hutt and you’ll never get a member of the opposite sex to look at you. So, get good grades in high-school or Darwinism will take care of the rest. On the other hand, this will stop the facilities arms race that began in the Seventies. I spent six weeks in a Harvard dorm one summer a few years ago. No air-conditioning, buy your own fan; drizzle of lukewarm water from the shower, no matter how far you had run; took five minutes to get the badly-cut key to turn in the door lock; Army noodles with ketchup in the dining hall every night; did you want them with fish balls, pork balls, or tofu balls? Gym is crowded? Go for a run and do some push-ups. Library is crowded? Read your textbook in your room. Classroom is crowded? Get there early or stand at the back. Long line outside the professor’s office? Bring a book—or chat with the others about Darwin.

Fix the public schools. On the one hand, “Waiting for Superman” was right up to a point, but then confused the little bit—teachers’ unions are bad–with the larger whole of the problem—the schools are a mess. You have to be smart, committed, and know your subject to teach. Nothing more. Teach for America is right: smart kids who know a lot about their subject do better than ordinary teachers. Socrates didn’t have an Education degree. In fact, nobody had an Education degree before the end of the 19th century. Education schools didn’t exist. How did we ever manage to progress? On the other hand, stop using the schools as the vehicle for delivering useful public services. Self-esteem, psychological disorders, poor nutrition in the home, bullying, obesity, and sports-band-ceramics for that matter, are not central to the educational mission. Focus! (NB: That doesn’t mean some other agency can’t deliver those services.)

At the root of all our educational problems is the family. Turn off the “social media” (including the television). It turns kids’ brains to applesauce. Take your kids to the public library. Library is closed? This is worth burning buses over. Most of all, read to your kids. Nothing is more important. Except, maybe them seeing you read too.

Technology? Remember, Bill Gates didn’t have a computer in his house or school when he was growing up. Imagination and ambition come from somewhere else.


The End of the University as We Know It.

A letter that the New York Times did not publish.


To the Editor,

Thank you for publishing the wonderfully stimulating and utterly wrong-headed essay by X    X.  Professor X writes from the perspective glimpsed from the balcony of the ivory tower and, as so often happens, his view is distorted.  (Try shooting a gun downhill sometime: one tends to aim too high and miss the target.)  My own perspective on the problems of American education–seen from closer to–or even under–ground level–is as follows.

First, the essential problem is to fix public education.  There is no reason so many people should be going to college after high school.  The reason they do so is because college has become two years of remedial high school and two years of post-industrial arts classes.  Schools are failing to prepare students for life in any of its forms, so college has become a form of educational Spackle.  This situation can be remedied.  The remedy would entail getting rid of schools of Education and teacher certification.  I have one son in a public school, generally bored out of his mind; I have another son in a boarding school, deeply engaged by all that his teachers place before him.  Many of the teachers in the public school are time-servers waiting on retirement.  None of the teachers in the boarding school have ever taken a class in an Education program.  Education courses are a waste of time which deprives their students of exposure to real knowledge in other disciplines.  Teach for America is the “dirty secret” to which Professor Taylor should attend.

It would also entail doing away with the system of funding public education through local property taxes.  This is a formula for disaster for any children attending public schools in depressed urban or rural areas.  Parents in upper middle class areas already load enough cultural advantages on their children.  The outbreak of swine flu among the students of a Catholic prep school in New York who had spent their Spring Break in Cancun is eloquent testimony to the inequalities of experience which parents can provide. Why make it much worse by relying on local property taxes as the basis for school funding?  States–or the federal government–should equalize per capita school spending.

Second, the follow-on problem is to fix post-secondary education at its various levels.  On the one hand, this would involve forcing a great many minor colleges into bankruptcy.  The Baby Boom led to the expansion of many institutions of American life as the mouse passed through the belly of the snake.  The result was an overbuilding of capacity in many areas.  While retirement homes and Kevorkiums are on the horizon as investment opportunities, colleges and universities are struggling to survive by recruiting from a shrunken pool of students.  The educational arms race has turned colleges toward creating a country club environment in order to attract students.  It also compels them to keep marginal students by supplying support services.  Support staffs at colleges and universities have grown far faster than have full-time faculty teaching substantive knowledge and intellectual skills.  If many colleges were driven out of existence, then the remainder could afford to become pickier about which students they admitted while reducing unnecessary and costly amenities.  The schools would be compelled to do their job properly so that high school graduates would have a better chance of finding work or getting in to a college.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for closing down many marginal graduate programs in the liberal arts.  Only a handful of elite schools–Columbia University among them–have any prospect of seeing the graduates of their Ph.D. programs find rewarding and useful employment.  Many other graduate programs exist to provide the professional certification needed for promotion in various bureaucracies (Education, Psychology, Social Work).  Between these heights lies a morass of graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences which exist for the convenience of the tenured faculty in minor institutions.  By running graduate programs these scholars get teaching assistants to grade the masses of semi-literate work generated by open-admissions policies, and they get students for graduate courses which are so much more interesting than is instructing freshmen on the differences between this and that, and that and which.

How are the interests of the republic advanced by any of this nonsense?