27 January 2012
It’s as though an epidemic were raging in a city, but nobody knew what was causing it, so nobody could agree on what to do to put a stop to it.
Except that we do know what the problem is. At least, those of us who are old enough to have had a public education before the epidemic began know.
What is the main difference between public education in this country fifty years ago and public education today?
Is it that the curriculum has gotten harder? No. If anything, the curriculum has been dumbed down.
Is it that the teachers used to be smarter? No. The young people who dedicate their lives to teaching today are every bit as bright, and every bit as dedicated, as teachers used to be. It is the system that defeats them.
Is it that we don’t invest enough money into the public education system? No. We spend more than $500 billion a year on K–12 public education, far more than in the past as a percentage of GDP, and more than in many other countries whose educational outcomes are much better than ours.
The main difference between then and now is the liberal educational philosophy that imposed a topsy-turvy worldview on education schools, then on principals and teachers, and then on parents, children, and everyone else, beginning in the 1970s.
In the old days, it was taken for granted that the grown-ups were in charge. Therefore, disciplinary standards were enforced as a matter of course. Therefore, kids behaved themselves—for the most part—or else.
In too many schools today, that is no longer the case. The adults have abdicated responsibility—both in the home and in the classroom—and chaos reigns in both places as a result.
In the classroom, kids are openly defiant and verbally abusive to teachers, with no repercussions. Teachers routinely have to yell above the uproar in their classrooms to make themselves heard to the few who wish to learn.
Shouting and swearing are deemed “part of the students’ culture,” and as such are just as “valid” as any other way of behaving. Children and parents alike have learned the drill, and play the cultural-relativity card to the hilt. The result is that punishment becomes politically infeasible, and kids get away with murder.
If a disruptive student ever does get sent to the principal’s office, he will more than likely be bounced right back to the classroom. Principals are just as intimidated as classroom teachers.*
Given a system that tolerates such conditions, we are all more than a little hypocritical to affect surprise that test scores are falling and drop-out rates rising.
So, what needs to be done is pretty obvious. Education reform is not rocket science.
And yet, the need to overthrow the liberal educational philosophy is seldom debated in public. Even conservative reformers are reluctant to talk about it, perhaps for fear of being branded as “racist.” This, more than anything else, is what makes the whole debate about school reform often feel so detached from reality.
I bring all this up, because I’ve just been reading about the Noble Street Charter School network in Chicago.
Noble is a free public-school network with no entrance requirement. The schools do not cherry-pick their student bodies; admission is by lottery.
And yet the graduation rate for the network is close to 100%, and college matriculation and graduation rates are also very high. In the Chicago Public School (CPS) system overall, the graduation rate is barely above 50%.
What’s the difference?
There are a number of factors to consider.
For one thing, even though the Noble schools are free and non-selective, there is still a significant self-selection effect in favor of a more motivated student body, because only kids with highly motivated parents will end up there.
Then, there is the smaller class size, with approximately 20 students per class the norm, as opposed to classes in CPS that can be nearly double that size. In addition, the school day is nearly two hours longer. On top of that, heavy homework assignments are given and expected to be done—a rarity in CPS. In short, the kids are made to work, but they also get more personalized attention.
Finally, there is the fact that Noble is non-union. This gives management the freedom to put the kids’ interests first, and hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance. It also makes possible many of the other positive factors like the longer school day.
So, the Noble system clearly has a number of advantages working in its favor.
However, according to the founder of the Noble system, Michael Milkie, one of the overriding differences lies in the schools’ approach to discipline (see the video, below):
One of the things that Noble and other charters have brought to the educational landscape is that school culture is paramount—not only important, but paramount—to success. For too long in this country, we’ve allowed students to behave in a way that’s just really unacceptable.
All of this makes for an entirely different environment—the “school culture” Milkie speaks about—which is the indispensable prerequisite for learning to occur.
The question remains: Can the success of the Noble system be replicated throughout an entire public school system like Chicago’s?
I used to feel that the school-choice movement was a distraction, and that the necessary reforms needed to be instituted throughout the public-education system all at once. Otherwise, we are leaving the majority of kids—the very ones who need help most—high and dry. It’s a question of basic fairness.
But I’ve changed my mind. Why?
Noble makes the following point on its web site:
Because charters are starting from scratch, they can establish achievement-oriented cultures from day one.
I have come to see the wisdom of this statement. If the liberal philosophy has already penetrated and corrupted a school, it is going to be very difficult to root it out.
So, the only practical way forward may be to start afresh in a parallel system like the Noble network, until more and more parents vote with their feet and the old, exhausted way of doing things collapses under its own ideological weight.
* * *
For more information about the Noble Street Charter School network, you might want to watch this hard-hitting, half-hour video:
* These are all occurrences I’ve heard about first-hand from public-school teachers. Obviously, they are not the norm everywhere; but that they are tolerated anywhere at all is outrageous.