It’s a little known fact that there’s actually one issue that Democrats and Republicans are surprisingly aligned on. It also happens to be the issue on which both parties are singularly stupid.
That issue? Education.
The last time our federal government said anything sensible about education, I believe we were starting cars with hand cranks. That’s a problem for me because I wasn’t even born then. By the time I was born, we’d gotten used to cars that wouldn’t even have started if you’d had a hand crank, especially if you were already late for work. It’s also bad because public education is for me what Twitter is for Donald Trump: it’s how I connect, it’s my way to reach people, and it’s how I threaten anyone making fun of my hair that they’ll be deported to “Ghina.”
When it comes to presidents’ views on most issues, I — like most Americans with an internet connection, a half-assed opinion, and a three beer-buzz — can always be counted on for some classic knee-jerk reactions based on my politics. Nothing’s ever in-between for us, is it? Everything’s “the worst ever” (Trump) or “the next Hitler” (Trump) or “the greatest thing ever” (those awesome Joe Biden memes). A candidate’s every utterance can always be characterized as either world-shatteringly dangerous (anything that escapes Trump’s mouth, including his belches, which are usually aimed at minorities), or mind-numbingly sensical and long overdue (Hillary Clinton’s call to lower college tuition from “absofuckinglutely absurd” to “affordable by the non-private jet-owning crowd”).
But when it comes to candidates’ views on education policies? I’ve got nothing. I’m either completely in the dark (the only thing clear about Trump’s education policy when he was running was that he badly needed one for himself), or cynical enough that I sound like one of those cranks who’s starting to get more of his news from the Ron Paul Institute. “What difference does it make?” I ask, throwing up my hands. “They’re all the same on schools — terrible.”
And when it comes to education, they usually are.
Take my political hero, Barack Obama. On most measures of qualification, such as “ability to speak basic English,” it didn’t seem hard to prove that Obama was light years ahead of George W. Bush. Whenever Bush was speaking extemporaneously, most of us sort of reverted into second-grade dad on School Presentation Night mode: we were just crossing our fingers and hoping for complete sentences / he wouldn’t totally embarrass us (the United States of America). And yet when it came to education, Obama’s election — which coincided with my own venture into the teaching profession — changed almost nothing substantial about Bush’s spectacularly silly education bill, No Child Left Behind.
The No Child Left Behind reforms — and later those of Race to the Top, Every Student Can Succeed, and Democrats Can Suck Just as Much as Republicans — were basically bureaucratic attempts to advance education by bringing modern business practices — straight from the holy shrine of both Silicon Valley and the “global marketplace” — to bear on reforming our nation’s public schools, which were considered about as well-functioning as dirt. And how could they be considered successful? They hadn’t turned a profit in, like, ever.
The idea behind all of this was simple: American public schools were failing and had no idea what they were doing, and American businesses were thriving and knew exactly what they were doing. I mean, come on, Detroit and Washington, D.C.! Can’t you get a bunch of poor kids from the ghettos who don’t have food or parents to become serious about studying their life science and their social studies? What’s wrong with you? Get it together!
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s new Education Secretary, is the strongest proponent of business and choice-minded reforms that we’ve ever had at the top. Ms. DeVos has spent about as much time in public schools herself as Donald Trump has spent in libraries, and she comes from the sort of tax bracket that disqualifies her from having to consider basic realities, such as “reality.” Ms. DeVos strongly favors privately-run charter schools and she opposes government regulations of these charters. Forget treating schools like businesses — she wants to make them businesses.
The problem with this is simple: Schools are not businesses. Kids are not products. Teachers are not in it for the stock options. Treating them like they are is a misdiagnoses that hides the real problems.
For example: take the idea of employee accountability, a cherished tenet of the business-minded education reformers. Here’s the problem though — in practice, acting like students who don’t perform well on tests are primarily the fault of school employees is stupid, and about as scientific as a one-winged airplane.
Business CEOs are fond of saying that they must hire top quality employees, train them well, and evaluate them. But what if a CEO couldn’t do any of that — because the employees most important in determining the worth of the products didn’t even work for her? That’s the reality of public schools! Who are these important employees who don’t even work for us? Parents.
Think about it: Who’s more influential in a kid’s development — his eleventh grade English teacher who sees him for an average of just over an hour and a half per week over the course of a calendar year, or the parents who raised him and from whom he inherited his values and facial features? It’s common sense — and it’s supported by reams of quantitative data. The greatest indicator of a student’s school success, most teachers will finally admit with a shrug, has always been a child’s parents’ levels of education and income. And by qualitative data: anyone who has taught more than five minutes knows that children of doctors, lawyers, and fellow teachers usually drift into the advanced classes, while children of hate-filled, alcoholic drop-outs usually — sadly — people the bottom rung of the academic ladder.
A pity then that we can’t assess parents on our year performance reports. They certainly have a stronger influence on our students than we educators can ever lay claim to. But those parents don’t work for schools.
And that’s why Ms. DeVos’s reform efforts in Michigan have been decidedly mixed: it’s foolish to insist you can treat the education of children like the manufacturing of computers. You can’t just wave the wand of privatization and suddenly have a bunch of quality schools producing college freshmen in the middle of crime-infested streets. It doesn’t work that way. We’re an organization, but we’re hamstrung.
There’s nothing wrong with schools trying to hold themselves accountable like businesses to ensure they deliver a quality education, but we can’t pretend that they have as much control over what they “produce” as a business does. And we have to keep in mind that education is a fundamental right in America, and a responsibility of our country to provide — a moral imperative — not just another product for the marketplace.
Too many presidents in my lifetime have spouted this same type of business nonsense when it comes to education. I hope that one day that changes and we stop praying to the gods of Gates and Jobs and start getting serious about reforming education.
Consider the following facts. Students have 5.5 hours of instructional time per day at school (subtracting lunch and transition time) — and that’s only for 180 days. Over a full year, kids have just over 2.7 hours of school per day. That’s it?? What are we doing?
When it comes to English class, averaged across a full year, students have just 1.5 hours per week of English on average. That’s less time than I spend folding laundry every week. I repeat: what are we doing??
Maybe it’s time to do something about those numbers?