Money out the Window?

Please note the question mark.  What follows is supposition, not fact.


For years at seven p.m., local CPTV (PBS) has been diligently sharing with us the national concerns of men and women around the world.   Judy leads off; Hari (at least for the time being) seconds her.  Monday nights are now politics;  Thursdays belong to Paul and economics.  Tuesday is Science and Miles.  There are short essays (IMHO) and brilliant Moments.  Fred tells us what’s going on in the subcontinent of India, and Africa. Malcolm brings us up to date from Europe and the Mediterranean.  Friday belongs to David and Mark (hurrah!)

And EVERY night belongs to education.

Nearly every single Newshour includes a segment about educational trial and error, about progress and failure, about experiments that promise wonderful results for children and experiments that collapsed under them.   We get essays about charter schools versus public schools.  We are treated to hours spent with the disabled, the autistic, the savants.  We visit trailblazers in Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.   The segments are cooperative, with Kaiser sharing some of the load and St. Olaf’s, St. Mary’s, St. Williams’ (in Minnesota) chipping in, too; not to mention various philanthropic organizations from around the country, or even the world.

We walk dusty paths in India with Fred, we wrinkle our brows as we listen to the earnest concern of Charlayne Hunter-Gault, we’re buoyed by the enthusiasm of young first year teachers and amazed by the sturdiness of teachers in their forties and fifties.

All of whom, and all of this air-time, are devoted to finding ways to improve the abilities of children around the world – in Syria, Brazil, China, South Korea, and Ferguson – to read, think, design, dream.

And, it seems to us, getting nowhere.

When academic rankings are displayed on our screens, the US of A generally falls in middle range – 14th to 17th – in reading, lower slightly in mathematics.


This is old-fashioned reasoning, but we think valid just the same.   Year after year Congress insists on giving funds to localities that, after all, are reputed to know their communities and their children best.  These cities and towns, these local schoolboards (now heavily politicized) are believed to be better prepared to create curricula for their students than the national government.  The very idea of a national educational standard has become anathema to our august lawmakers, as well as to activist parents, teachers, and unions.

In fact, what governmental funding has proved, over and over again, is that earmarks –bringing home the bacon to a Congressman’s district – have nothing to do with education and everything to do with bribes.

Public education in these United States was, for more than one hundred years, one of the glories of the Republic.  Kids learned how to read and write, how to think critically, how to climb from nowheres to somewheres.  In the last forty years when ”getting ours” came to matter more than what was done with it when it got here, we’ve seen the rise of what once might have been grand – independent schools – and the wreckage of the umbrella system that promised families children of whom they could be proud.

What PBS has failed to do is follow each scheme to its happy or miserable conclusion. Sometimes we do learn about particular programs that were once promising but which sank under local conditions.  Generally, we are presented, night after night, with yet one more hot-off-the-drawing-board plan that is destined to shine for six minutes and then disappear forever.

Which leads us to ask what’s wrong with national standards?

A condition.  No Federal money should be released to school districts until and unless they can improve the results of what they’re already doing.  The Feds should not be mucking about in local school district business but should that district come up with a sparkling plan that actually does affect the kids in those local schools beneficially, that school district should be rewarded.

No one at the Federal level should care about HOW results are achieved, or try to direct those curricula.  This is a scheme based entirely on the districts competing with each other – and ideally helping their kids therefore.  There should not be constant testing from the Feds, an annual review of what the government assumes is common and useful knowledge – reading, writing, and arithmetic – should suffice.  If a district wants to include in its studies art, music, electronic wizardry, it is free to do so with the hope that in doing so the skills young people are going to need for the future are imbued.

If local districts want to grab hold of the charter movement, that’s their decision, although it is important to remember that in doing so, the money available to teach in the public schools is decimated.  What matters at the end of the year is not HOW a student has learned, but that the Student HAS learned.

It was once assumed that children in public schools had knowledge and skills in common by the end of the eighth grade.

We think that assumption should be revived.  FAST.


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