The Catastrophe of Public Education

But if teachers fail to educate children, they don't lose one dime, no matter how much those children and the country lose by their failure. If the schools waste precious time indoctrinating children, instead of educating them, that's the children's problem and the country's problem, but not the teachers' problem.

Thomas Sowell, "Different decisions... and results," 7 June 2011

...the great task of the school...[is] to counteract and transform... the influence of home and church.

John Dewey (18591952)

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have, because we've always had kind of a private notion of children:  Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility. We haven't had a very collective notion of "these are our children." So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it's everybody's responsibility and not just the household's, then we start making better investments.

Melissa Harris-Perry, Professor of Political Science, Tulane University, MSNBC, April 8, 2013 [boldface & color added]

We have knowingly reared a whole generation in ignorance of history, literature, religion, morality. "They have sown the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind." (Hosea 8:7.)

David Gelernter, America-Lite, How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats) [Encounter Books, 2012, p.152]

...the government, responsible for the education of the nation, circumscribes and gradually eliminates the freedom of university teachers, and tells them what, how, and how many to teach. To demonstrate their increasing productivity, professionals must spend an ever-greater proportion of their time filling in forms to demonstrate their increasing productivity; they have not only to comply with regulations, but prove that they have complied with regulations. And thus work, even that which was once so rewarding that it was largely its own reward, becomes a form of slow torture.

Theodore Dalrymple, Litter, How Other People's Rubbish Shapes Our Lives [Gibson Square, 2011, p.113]

If there is one political goal all Democratic progressives agree on it's this: They will kill any attempt anywhere in the U.S. to educate those low-income or non-income inner-city kids in alternatives to the public schools run by the party's industrial-age unions.

Daniel Henninger, "Obama's Favorite Gini," The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, February 13, 2014, p.A11 [with a reference to the Italian Fascist economist Corrado Gini]

Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities... When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), "Scribe Had Deep H'W'D Ties," Daily Variety, Thursday, June 7, 2012, p.2

The UFT [United Federation of Teachers in Brooklyn] quietly let slip last week that this showcase [union-run] K-8 charter school is closing after a legacy of failure. [Union chief] Ms. [Randi] Weingarten's experiment in education of the union, by the union and for the union is a case study in the problems with the status quo of union dominance over American public education...

The unions says it "will work with the Department of Education to ensure appropriate placements for all students affected." These kids deserve automatic admission to the city's top charter schools, not another spin in the union wheel. The lesson for everyone else is that the teachers union's education model of rich funding without accountability fails students even under the ideal operating conditions of its own design.

"A Union Charter Flunks Out," The Wall Street Journal, March 7-8, 2015, A10

But the way students and especially administrators talk about college today, you'd think parents are paying ever-higher tuition so their children can attend a reeducation camp straight out of China's Cultural Revolution.

Nick Gillespie, "Notable & Quotable," The Wall Street Journal, May 2-3, 2015, A13

Yet this Stanford Ph.D. (in psychology) [Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the Newark campus of Rutgers University] appears to be incapable of constructing a grammatical sentence or writing intelligible prose... All the rhetorical goo about the "architecture of segregation" and "dogma of intolerance" rests on deep layers of mental flab [and, considering the prevalence of academic intolerance and trendy, radical racial segregation on campus, hypocrisy]. She is a perfect representative of American academia. And American academia is, by and large, idiotic.

Bret Stephens, "Radical Parents, Despotic Children," The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2015, A11, color & boldface added

History is a race between education and catastrophe.

H. G. Wells (18661946)

What H.G. Wells says in his famous statement above is quite true. History is a race between education and catastrophe. Unfortunately, the manner in which education is delivered in the United States, and in other countries of the Western World, through public institutitions, now is itself the catastrophe. Rather than preventing a larger historical catastrophe, public education is now promoting and contributing to just such a thing.

This is not exactly news. It was already realized early in the 1980's (the federal report, "A Nation at Risk," 1983) that students were graduating from high school, and often from college, without knowing much of anything. Sometimes they were functionally illiterate, especially from inner city schools. Alarms were continually sounded through the 1990's, such as with Thomas Sowell's splendid Inside American Education, The Decline, The Deception, the Dogmas [The Free Press, 1993]. But now, after a good thirty years, and with some marginal improvements in some places, the general problem is just as bad, if not in certain respects worse. With some regularity, polls seem to show that graduates know little about history, government, literature, science, economics, geography, etc.

In the 80's, it was easily recognized that one problem with the schools was just the "dumbing down" of the curriculum. Less and less was expected of students, often deliberately, so as not to damage their self-esteem; and, indeed, international surveys showed that American students felt better about themselves, even when their performance was dismal in international comparisons. Students from say, Korea, felt worse about themselves but accomplished much more. This was a trend that should have been reversed just as easily as it was recognized. But it wasn't. In 1988, E.D. Hirsch published a book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, talking about the essential general knowledge that education should be conveying; but the educational Establishment ignored this.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. Theodore Dalrymple, a British psychiatrist practicing at a public hospital and a prison, in his marvelous Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass [Ivan R. Dee, 2003], remarks that he didn't know what disturbed him more, that the young toughs of his experience were tatooing themselves with swastikas, or that they actually didn't know, thanks to British education, who had actually used the swastika (the Nazis) and what they had done (dictatorship, war, mass murder). His regular experience with the young patients he saw was that they knew little about anything.

Why this has all happened is not all that mysterious, nor why it has proven so difficult to reverse the trend. There has just not been the political will, or perhaps even the political means, to accomplish reform -- with a smokescreen of lies and deceptions confusing the matter. Indeed, I believe that the system is simply unreformable, and the only solution is to allow students and parents to escape it.

The root of the problem can be summarized in three terms:  (1) teachers' unions, (2) education schools, and (3) the federal government. Each of these has become its own rent-seeking and bureaucratic institution, following a dynamic, well described by Public Choice Economics, that serves themselves as institutions but bears little relation to what most people would think of as the purposes of education, let alone public education. The most disturbing feature of this dynamic is the extent to which ignorance promotes the control and purposes of the educational establishment better than the successful dissemination of knowledge would.

Teachers unions exist to protect teachers. Albert Shanker (19281997), the late President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said that when students began paying dues, the union would represent the students. Thanks to the familiar dynamics of labor unions, and especially public employee labor unions, we find that teacher pay usually is a matter of seniority and that it is almost impossible to fire incompetent, or sometimes even criminal, teachers. Since the reigning idea in primary and secondary education is that "education" is itself an academic speciality in which all teachers should major, hiring is not done among graduates in actual academic disciplines, like history or mathematics, but among graduates of education schools. Not only are those actually qualified in their disciplines thus overlooked, but students who go to education schools tend to have the lowest SAT scores of any university students (apart from Home Economics). This often becomes evident in places where teachers are tested for their own knowledge and competence (as has happened recently in the monstrosity of the Los Angeles Unified School District). The results are usually very shocking, precipitating an uproar from the public and desperate rationalizations from the teachers and their union. Thomas Sowell has noticed something similar when he writes a newspaper column about education. The outraged letters he gets from teachers in reply all too often display little mastery of spelling or grammar, let alone logic.

Certainly there are competent and informed teachers in public education. I hope I was one of them. However, the system often seems rigged to drive just such people out of it. The first problem is modern "education" itself, whose programs and theories are inane and politicized. This is often enough to turn off the more informed and intelligent prospective teachers. Next is the attitude towards teachers on the ground. They are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless of what they may know independently, using the au courant methods of the education schools and education elite; and they are expected to defer to administrators and other "experts" who may have doctorates and other credentials in education. This can produce daily frustration in the classroom, under the gaze of "evaluations" designed to enforce orthodoxy, and perhaps with disruptive (or dangerous) students about whom administrators will do nothing. It is no surprise then that competent teachers may burn out quickly and flee the insanity. The dead wood then just accumulates.

Education schools are such a danger to education that they should all be closed immediately. People with doctorates in "education" should be banned from any involvement in education, until they do some real academic work. (People with actual PhD's in education might be considered on a case by case basis.) Despite the constant failure of their methods and theories, educrats never learn better. When I was a child in the 1950's there was already protest that students were not being taught reading through "phonics," i.e. learning the sounds of the alphabet and sounding out letters to make words. The trendy theory was that, because words are recognized by adults as visual patterns, therefore they should be taught that way. Unfortunately, this means teaching an alphabetic system as though it were Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese characters. Those writing systems are more difficult to learn, and, of course, the virtue of an alphabetic system is that you can identify words that you already know from the spoken language but have not seen in print before. That does not matter to the education elite, who actually discourage parents from teaching the alphabet to their children. It might give them the wrong idea. Nor do the elite seem to care that their approach has worked badly for decades, while students who get separate instruction in "phonics" do quite well. One almost begins to wonder if they really want children to learn to read. I begin to think not.

What may be doing the most damage today is an educational philosophy that goes back to John Dewey (18591952). Dewey was concerned with the autonomy of students and wanted their creativity and independence of mind cultivated rather than just have them stuffed with the "rote learning" of facts. As a Kantian, autonomy sounds good to me. But the consequences of this have been disastrous. It wasn't even coherent in Dewey's own ideology, since he was a socialist and a collectivist (with Hegel in the background). Socialism and collectivism require conformity and the denigration of individualism. It is not all that surprising then when we discover that the actual practice of modern education tends towards political indoctrination, political correctness, and the valorization of conformity -- "solidarity." Autonomy is not taken seriously in any substantive or effective way. What the elimination of "rote learning" means is that students actually don't know anything, which makes it impossible to be autonomous or independent minded in any way that makes a practical difference. If you don't know anything, you can have no informed judgment.

The dominant idea in education presently is not to teach anything in particular, but to teach students "how to learn" on their own. If there were an effective way to do this, it might even be a good idea; but in practice it results in the same kind of nonsense as the autonomy principle. It has taken five thousand years for human civilization to reach a certain point, but children are expected to figure this all out on their own, perhaps in a few days or weeks. Since there are some things, like grammar and spelling, that are conventions and can only be learned by rote, the whole business may be dismissed as "elitist." At the same time, students trying to create their own system of mathematics probably aren't going to get very far. Isaac Newton said that he was able to accomplish so much because he "stood on the shoulders of giants." Now students may be directed to the small shoulders of their peers in learning groups.

Mathematics education, of course, was all but destroyed by the "New Math" back in the 60's. Unfortunately, the manifest disaster of the New Math taught no respect for the older methods, and mathematics education has progressed through one fad after another -- the "New New Math," "Fuzzy Math," etc. (See "The Progress of Math Education" and, more substantively, the discussion of changing methods about teaching calculus.) University mathematics departments consequently fill up with students from China. Few American students are going to be able to teach themselves how to derive or use logarithms, or even Euclidean geometry.

But the modern right thinking educator doesn't waste much sleep over mathematics. It is all Eurocentric racism and sexism anyway. What the students need is "multicultural" education, which does not, as a matter of fact, mean knowing anything about the languages, history, literature, or religion of other cultures, as these may have been defined by the cultures themselves. Universities with a "multicultural" requirement may exclude such subjects from fulfilling the requirement. Instead, other "cultures" are represented by selected and tendentious writings and presentations that are no more than thinly veiled indoctrination in Marxism, Anti-Americanism, and all the attendant radical disciplines (e.g. "Critical Race Theory") that now occupy the attention of the academic Left. It is here that conformity is at a premium and general (or accurate) knowledge the least valued. The students who know enough to differ with the orthodoxy may find themselves sanctioned for racism or hate speech, with far more severe consequences than might have resulted from actual violence. Young children, of course, have no resources to recognize or contradict any of this, and parents are usually unaware of what is going on -- in fact the "CSCOPE" curriculum in Texas was kept secret, with "civil and criminal penalties," until protest and lawsuits broke it open and exposed its prima facie anti-American and Marxist ideology.

With the public alarmed, and the whole business becoming a general political issue, many people figured it was time for the Federal Government to step in. Unfortunately, the effect of this was to pour gasoline on the fire. Much of the corruption of education was the result of the influx of federal money in the first place. Under President Eisenhower, alarm over the Soviet space program led to massive spending on education in science and mathematics. I benefited from this myself, as a National Defense Education Act Fellow at the University of Hawaii in 1972. But then, the money coming to me was no longer for science or mathematics. I was in the humanities, in philosophy. I hope that, for myself, it was put to good use; but in general such money tended to divert education away from knowledge and into rent-seeking. Research, whether really useful or not, tended to replace teaching, and higher education quickly became more and more expensive, far outpacing the rate of inflation. Students needed more and more financial aid, which could be provided, subsidized, or guaranteed by the federal government -- allowing schools to increase their costs even further. The common experience of private enterprise, that you lose business if you are too expensive, was in great measure abolished for American education. And any suggestion that this was costing too much or that public support should be cut could be demonized as "anti-education." And so a perfect racket was created.

On top of this, there could have been no evil greater than the federal Department of Education. The creation of this was a political payoff of Jimmy Carter to the teachers' unions. That it would be used to impose a federal uniformity on education, and especially education as seen by the unions, was inevitable. Ronald Reagan vowed to abolish the Department, was not able to do so, and was followed by politically timid Republicans (the Bushes) who seem to have thought that maybe such a Department was not such a bad idea. The ultimate expression of this, with political cooperation from an ungrateful Ted Kennedy, was George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA). This empowered the educational Establishment as never before, with a smokescreen of requirements for rigor and testing. The testing was vigorously protested by the unions -- despite the long history of serious tests for graduation in one of the favorite regimes of the Left, France, and in Japan, which is famous for its educational rigor (enforced with samurai severity and terrifying peer pressure). Nevertheless, the content of tests could be rigged to suit the tastes of the Establishment. Even the nature of the tests could be changed, according to the newest gimmick in education theory, Outcome Based Education, which can substitute a content-less performance of "skills" rather than actual knowledge. This idiocy can then be enforced through the Department of Education and accreditation authorities, which means it has begun to creep into colleges and universities and is not just another nail in the coffin of primary and secondary education. The new target is the last outpost of possible intellectual independence, in higher education, despite the fact that this alarms even the academic Left.

Of course, we all know what the real problem is:  not enough money. It is amazing to watch educrats and leftists on talk shows who can actually say with straight faces that education has been "underfunded" for decades. Since funding has been increasing steadily since the 50's, and since some of the best funded school districts in the country (e.g. Washington, D.C., Kansas City, MO) have been doing the worst, while poorly funded ones have done better, when private schools, which educate much better than the public schools, get by on half the per-pupil spending, anyone unaware of this can only be dishonest or grotesquely ignorant [note]. Yet the Democrats have no difficultly deceiving voters and intimidating Republicans into allowed ever more spending, schools bonds, etc., despite a consistent history of failure. The voters of California keep passing schools bonds, even though audits have shown that sometimes the money is only spent on salary increases and expensive (crony?) "consultants."

The solution to all this is simply escape. School vouchers enable parents to take their children out of the public schools and get them into private schools. The politics of all this becomes obvious, painful, and bitterly shameful. Children are hostages to the teachers' unions and the educational Establishment, who hate vouchers. The demographic group the most in favor of vouchers is actually that of married black couples with children, people who are acutely aware of the failures and dangers of the public schools in their neighborhoods. Yet the Democratic Party, and multiple black "leaders," despite the voucher movement having been substantively started by black legislator Polly Williams in Milwaukee, simply go along with the preferences of the unions, certain of a 90% vote from black voters. The popular pilot project of vouchers for the District of Columbia was terminated by the Democratic Congress and the Obama Administration -- despite the fact of black parents and children being the only people who would be hurt by this move. Amid larger political issues, this betrayal most foul is simply forgotten.

Recently we have seen how far this can go. Thus, Michelle Rhee was the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, one of the worst, if not the worst, school system in the country. Rhee began firing teachers, closing schools, and generally shaking things up in a way that the teachers' unions didn't like. So they organized opposition to Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee's boss, and managed to defeat his reelection bid at the level of the Democratic Primary. Democrat voters fell for the propaganda. And Rhee wasn't even, at least publicly, in favor of vouchers. With Fenty to be replaced by the union (stooge) candidate Vincent Gray, Rhee resigned.

We also see a smokescreen of dishonesty in the opposition to vouchers. Groups promoting the "Separation of Church and State" have led legal battles against vouchers on the principle that they might be used at religious schools, violating the separation of church and state. This was a bogus argument, since there already was the precedent of the venerable G.I. Bill, whose scholarships could be used anywhere. Parents choosing religious schools were not agents of the government creating an Establishment of Religion. Although the complaint about religion mostly looked like a cover for the craven agenda of the teachers' unions, there also seemed to be simple hostility for religion in the "Separation" crowd, not to mention hostility for parents. The latter came out in the 2000 campaign against Proposition 38, which would have created a voucher program in California. The anti-38 ads essentially attacked the competence of parents, with warnings that people could send their children to schools that only taught fishing or witchcraft. Although it was no surprise that the unions and the Left were against vouchers, they were able to deceive 70.7% of the voters to vote against them. Proposition 38 did not carry a single county in the State. The anti-parent ads were so blatant and insulting, I was astonished that people fell for it. Of course, the Left has never liked parents. It wants children raised by the State (as in Cuba). They have even gotten pliant judges to rule that parents have no say over what their children are taught in the (public) schools. So the child hostages remain in the hands of their vicious government tormentors.

Vouchers are not the ultimate answer. Voucher programs may even improve the public schools, as in Milwaukee, once they have the Fear of God (i.e. abandonment) put into them. But public education was never about education. Literacy was higher in the United States before compulsory public education than after it. The original purpose of public education, as conceived by Horace Mann (17961859) in Massachusetts, was indoctrination, after the pattern of the authoritarian Kingdom of Prussia, responding to fear about the immigration of Irish Catholics. Since the Irish found that the public schools were essentially Protestant schools, the creation of the Catholic school system resulted, with ultimate victory in fighting off attempts to make all students attend the public schools.

The goal of indoctrination continues in the public schools, with high levels of antipathy towards Catholic schools, private schools, charter schools, vouchers, and home schooling; but the system no longer is charged with teaching Americanism, or even Protestantism. It has been taken over by forces that are hostile to America and its principles, not to mention to religion, parents, capitalism, limited government, etc. Although Thomas Jefferson originally proposed something like a system of public schooling (without it, of course, being compulsory), he would have no difficulty understanding what has happened:  "All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence" [Autobiography]. He would instantly recognize the truth of Public Choice economics and the rent-seeking interests of the unions and educrats. But he would especially be horrifed at the witch's brew of incompetence and anti-American politics that has been served up to the modern student -- an education whose very goals seem to have become ignorance and the supine acquiescence to tyrannical government -- creating a "Nation of Sheep," in the words of Judge Andrew Napolitano. It would not surprise Jefferson, however, that those who have made government their business and their livelihood have conspired against the American people in this way and have so far accomplished such a monumental deception, whereby the goodness of knowledge and education is twisted into moral and political poison. The political lies are so effective, however, one wonders if it is actually too late for us.

In 2010 no less than three excellent movie documentaries came out addressing the disaster of public education. These were The Lottery, by Madeleine Sackler, The Cartel by Bob Bowdon, and Waiting for Superman, by Davis Guggenheim.

The focus of these movies is a bit different. The Lottery zeroes in on one charter school in Harlem, run by Eva Moskowitz, and the lottery that was held, by law, to fill its openings from the many applicants who wanted to get out of the public schools in the area. Much of the film followed several parents and children who participated in the lottery. The Cartel has a larger focus, with a more general look at the nightmare of the public education system in New Jersey. Finally, Waiting for Superman has a national perspective. It also follows several families involved in lotteries, but at different places around the country, and ends, like The Lottery, with the actual drawing of names. This movie received the most attention, since it was made by Davis Guggenheim, who made Al Gore's global warming propaganda movie, An Inconvenient Truth [2006]. This gives Waiting for Superman a certain politically correct bona fides, which it needs (probably for Guggenheim's reputation in the liberal cocktail party circuit) because of the otherwise heretical manner in which it exposes the corruption, dishonesty, and bad faith of the teachers unions -- although there is one concession to union orthodoxy:  Vouchers are not even mentioned. Some people, naturally, end up appearing in more than one of these movies, like Geoffrey Canada, a charter school activist in Harlem, whose reminisciences actually contributed the title to Waiting for Superman.

While Waiting for Superman is a fine documentary and does an excellent job (unlike An Inconvenient Truth), the other movies get into some harsher details. The Lottery gives us a much better idea of the thuggish and gangsterish tactics and mentality of the teachers unions. We see New York City officials blindly repeating union talking points, with one of them all but calling Eva Moskowitz a liar when she said that, not only did she live in Harlem, but she always had. This official wanted to know Moskowitz's actual address, which she wouldn't give, because she had received threats, including death threats, against herself and her children. We know that such brutality is second nature to the "liberals" who otherwise upbraid conservatives for their lack of "civility." This nasty official was finally put down by the (black) City Councilman from Harlem, who personally knew where Moskowitz lived, and who admitted living in Washington Heights himself.

In The Cartel we get an ever better sense of the ugly, corrupt underbelly of public eduction. A memorable statement is that the quality of a public school can be judged in inverse proportion to the number of Mercedes Benz automobiles in its staff parking lot. We begin to see the school system as a way of milking money from the public, not for the sake of children or education, but to benefit a bloated, irresponsible, and merely self-serving institution. In New Jersey we see, not merely unethical practices and dishonest politics, but criminal theft and corruption.

These three documentaries, all taken together, provide an education about public education in themselves. The first of these I saw was The Lottery. That was at a special screening in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, sponsored by the Reason Foundation and some activists, such as Ben Austin -- who had just been fired from the California State Board of Education by Jerry Brown (doing the work of his teachers union masters). Although libertarian politics tends to be notoriously white (and male) in composition, much of the audience for the screening was black; and I could not help but feel that a revolt is bubbling below the surface of politics, involving black parents and families, against the Democrats who have so unconscionably taken them for granted and betrayed their interests, not to mention those of the Nation.

One thing that none of these movies get into to any extent is the dumbed down and politicized curriculum, or the follies of education school theory and practice. Indeed, Davis Guggenheim could have filmed students being shown An Inconvenient Truth, not as part of a healthy debate about climate science, but uncritically and uncontradicted as part of environmentalist indoctrination. Nevertheless, what the movies do show is damning enough.

After the blitz of documentaries in 2010, the Empire attempts to Strike Back in 2011 first with Race to Nowhere, an amateur film by a parent, Vicki Abeles. James Freeman says,

The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy. ["Do American Students Study too Hard?" Wall Street Journal, 30 April 2011]

Abandoning testing and grading would certainly further the goal of total ignorance for American students. Ables makes the preposterous claim that American students study too much, memorize too much, and are driven by a relentless "Achievement Culture."

Ms. Abeles argues that U.S. education is focused too much on giving kids "things to memorize and regurgitate," instead of developing the critical thinking skills that will be most useful in solving problems and thriving later in life. [ibid.]

If this is actually what the film says, then obviously Ms. Abeles has simply lifted some party-line propaganda out of the "progressive" critique of traditional education and has paid no attention to the fact that the current miserable shambles of modern education is the result of policies that have attempted to abolish actual learning (i.e. "memorization") and substitute the "skill" of "critical thinking." She must not have read E.D. Hirsch, either in 1988 or more recently.

Abeles may be naive and ignorant enough to accept the lies of her sources that nothing has ever been done to change the "rote memorization" practices of traditional education. Now, she is just being used as a cat's paw to make sure that we continue getting more of the same dumbing-down, fake autonomy, vacuuous "self-esteem," and limitless government funding, all of which furthers the self-interested and politicized agenda of unions, education schools, and the Democratic Party.

As James Freeman says, "If they work so hard, how do they learn so little?" If students are really spending so much time at their studying, and they are so driven by ambitious parents and a general culture of achievment, how do they end up so ignorant, not just in current international comparisons, but in relation to what my generation could learn back in the 50's and 60's, when a great deal of traditional education was still functioning? There is no doubt that it was a culture of achievement. The idea that we still have the same education culture now is ludicrous. Just because Vicki Abeles is, we are told, an amateur and a parent does not mean that she is not part of the disinformation machine of the education Establishment. And she does not look old enough to remember education in the 50's or 60's.

Hard on the heels of Race to Nowhere, we get American Teacher, directed by Vanessa Roth. This is a "Teacher Salary Project" production, based on a book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, Dave Eggers, and Henry Louis Gates [The New Press, 2006]. The extraordinary thesis of the movie, as with the book, is that the problems of American education can be traced back to teachers not being paid enough. In others words, spend more money. Why education was better when teachers were paid much less than they are now, and much less was spent on the schools, is the fatal counterexample to such a thesis. But it is not surprising that the usual suspects should make such an argument, narrated by leftist wingnut Matt Damon. It is just all so transparent that it may inspire more pity than outrage, especially when the approach features the pathos of individual teachers struggling, not just with tragically insufficient pay, but against the Educrats whose actual business, as we have seen, is to destroy education and turn children into ignorant and stupified Democrats.

In 2012 there is a new movie about school reform. This is Won't Back Down -- a fictionalized presentation of conflicts that have been occurring over the "Parent Trigger" law in California, which enables parents, by petition, to force a school district to convert to charter schools. Some of the sponsors and supporters of the law, even though they were Democrats, were purged by Jerry Brown as soon as he became Governor. This division within liberal ranks is evident in the cast of the movie, which involves some notable names in Hollywood -- Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter -- people who probably would not be caught dead associated with conservative causes, but sensible and honest enough to know what has been happening with the schools.

The critical and political response to the movie has sometimes been nasty. But nowhere as nasty as the reality. Two school districts that I know of have been challenged by parents using the law. In each case, the School Boards, with the backing of the Teachers Unions, have fiercely and bitterly fought and stonewalled the parents. One School Board member vowed to resist a court ruling against his District even if he went to jail. Even though many of the parents involved might be illegal aliens, and School Board members themselves Hispanic, one tactic has been to demand that parents appear to verify their signatures with valid ID -- this from people who otherwise call voter ID laws racist. So far, despite a blizzard of negative publicity and multiple adverse court rulings, I believe that the Districts, in one case after several years, have still managed to avoid following the law.

The reviews of the movie have been instructive. Daily Variety said that the movie was a "heavy-handed inspirational drama" that "grossly oversimplifies the issue at hand." This was from people who found no fault in the distortions, dishonesty, or lies in Michael Moore's movies. It isn't like Moore "grossly oversimplied" issues like gun control. We suddenly get these critical scruples when it involves issues to which the reviewer feels some antipathy.

But it is, of course, a disgrace, when poor parents have their children held hostage in terrible schools that have simply become gravy trains for administrators and teachers unions. Another reviewer, at, Alexander Zaitchik, dismisses the movie as a "propaganda flick" -- this is unheard of in Hollywood? And Mr. Zaitchik has worried about this with Michael Moore or Matt Damon? I doubt it. He is worried that the movie attacks teachers unions; but then somebody should be doing that. And he has sniffed out the conspiracy of "corporate and far-right ideological interest groups," which of course are pursuing their evil agenda of freeing children from bad educations. The ultimate problem, evidently, is that this is part of "the education privatization movement." Well, I hope so.

I suspect that for Mr. Zaitchik anything in politics is effectively refuted, for all right thinking persons, if it involves "privatization." Just say the magic word. He, his friends, and most of his readers at probably agree. That doesn't prevent him from being a vicious tool of "interest groups" whose own self-interest trumps all other considerations and who view "education" only as means of political indoctrination -- the only thing, in light of the 2012 election, that it may actually do effectively.

The Alliance for the Separation of School & State

That Hideous Strength

Political Economy


Home Page

Copyright (c) 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Catastrophe of Public Education, Note

The Wall Street Journal reports on 2 September 2010 that in California since 1990 "K-12 education spending has grown by 191% and now consumes more than 40% of the state budget" ["Teachers for Coverups," A14]. The Los Angeles Unified School District spends "almost $30,000 per pupil, yet the high school graduation rate is only 40.6%...," "the second worst among large school districts in the U.S." The LAUSD has for a long time obviously been one of the most terrible Stalinist dinosaurs in the education system of the country. It should be abolished before anything else is done, whether public education is preserved or not.

The point of the actual editorial where we see this is about the American Federation of Teachers protesting the Los Angeles Times for publishing the results of the recent evaluation of teacher effectiveness. The Union obviously doesn't want the public to know that "effectiveness" may be lacking. But this is hardly news, and anyone left with any confidence in the system has not been paying attention for years -- or is one of the interested rent-seekers.

Return to Text