Two Thoughts on Education This Week: Robert J. Samuelson Gets It Wrong Department
1) Robert J. Samuelson’s Willful Ignorance: Last month, Dropout Nation took historian Victor Davis Hanson and Washington Examiner columnist Eugene Kane to task for some rather thoughtless positions on the underlying causes of the nation’s educational crisis. This time around, Newsweek and Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson — a favorite of your editor during his high school and college years, and an otherwise eminent economics columnist — makes his own share of mistakes in his latest column analyzing school reform and the 2009 PISA results.
Certainly Samuelson is partly correct that education alone isn’t the only matter weighing down America’s economic growth; school reform will be only one of several solutions that must be taken — along with lowering the nation’s tax and regulation burdens, promoting free trade and dealing with the structural insolvencies of state and local governments — to improve the nation’s long term economic health. But Samuelson wrongly understates the importance of education in an increasingly global economy in which strong math and science skills are needed for even top-paying blue-collar jobs. The fact that the construction sector and the military — both former havens for dropouts — are tightening their own academic requirements.
Samuelson’s biggest mistake lies in his argument that American public education is doing a good job in academic instruction. I know, readers, don’t laugh yet, he’s really serious about this. Forget for a moment that small matter of 1.3 million dropouts every year, the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress data that shows achievement gaps between males and females at every race, ethnic and income level, or even the work by leading education scholars Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek on the nation’s low math performance compared to the rest of the world. Let’s not even mention Education Trust’s recent analysis of results from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
How does Samuelson get to his conclusion? Simple. He simply looks at the results for whites overall and declares that the schools and the kids are alright; basically, if not for those black and Latino kids (which, by the way, will make up the majority of American students by mid-century), we wouldn’t be undertaking all this needless and costly school reform. (Now you can laugh.) This argument shows that Samuelson failed to look at the 35-point gap in reading between males and females, and the fact that just 27 percent of American 15-year-olds score at the highest levels of proficiency on PISA (versus the 32 percent average among all countries whose students took PISA).
Meanwhile, Samuelson’s argument that the problem lies only with parents fails to consider the wide range of data that shows otherwise. More importantly, the argument fails to consider that there are some areas in education which parents just aren’t fully equipped to handle. As the National Council on Teacher Quality notes, 40 percent of all kids will still need reading remediation, no matter how much their parents read at home. The fact that the areas of the brain devoted to reading develop more-slowly in boys than in girls — and thus, explaining why boys fall behind in reading and academics — also means that there will be a need for reading help that parents aren’t going to be able to handle on their own.
The biggest problem with Samuelson’s piece is his argument for why school reform has been a rather slow affair. Until the past decade, most improvement efforts have either fallen apart or had little success because they didn’t address the four critical areas for reforming education: Overhauling how America recruits, trains and compensates teachers (including near-lifetime job protections in the form of tenure, which, unlike in higher education, don’t actually advance any kind of academic freedom and protect laggard teachers from termination); bringing college preparatory and other rigorous curricula to classrooms; expanding school options for families (especially those in urban communities) and engaging families in education beyond field trips and homework. Most of the reform efforts that are now showing success — notably charter schools — have only begun to gain traction in the past decade.
Teacher quality reform efforts, in particular, has only begun to gain traction. One reason: Value-added assessment of student test data only began in the 1980s; it is only in the past decade that value-added (along with the full regimen of standardized tests used in the analysis) have become widely-used among education researchers and some school systems. The other reason: Because it has taken a change in the political climate of education to begin addressing those issues. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 — with its Adequate Yearly Progress breakdowns of school performance by racial, ethnicity and gender — gave education researchers and school reformers the tools they needed to fully analyze the extent of problems within American public education. The research and evidence resulting from this work — including data showing the effects of seniority-based layoffs on teacher quality in the poorest urban schools — has provided the framework for the current solutions being discussed today.
And finally, it has taken the nation’s current economic downturn — and the long-term fiscal problems among states and school districts (in the form of more than $600 billion in teacher pension deficits and unfunded retiree health benefits) — to fully bring the school reform conversation into focus. These conditions have weakened the influence of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — which successfully opposed stalled reforms at the local, state and national level (while striking deals to expand the array of degree- and seniority-based compensation, near-lifetime employment and defined-benefit retiree deals that have driven increases in school spending.
As an admirer of Samuelson, it pains me to tear into his analysis. In fact, I welcome anyone who is interested in what is happening in American public education; we need as many players from outside of the status quo as we can get. But Samuelson is a grown up; he can take it. More importantly, given his previous stab at analyzing school reform, his incorrect analysis needs to come under scrutiny. As I have with Hanson, I invite Samuelson to spend some time reading Dropout Nation and learning more about the systemic problems within American public education.
2) Why Education’s Status Quo Won’t Offer Meaningful Solutions on State Budget Cutting: The dirty secret of life when you are in any status quo is that coming up with solutions to state fiscal crises means acknowledging that you are part of the problem. After all, all problems exist because of human action, especially if it involves state laws, bargaining agreements and other practices for which you have advocated that are contributing to the problem. The other dirty secret: Offering solutions also means hard conversations within your cohort and among your allies about who among you will bear the brunt of any solutions. If you are, say, a union whose rank-and-file include support employees (who are generally easily dispensable), you don’t want to lose the revenue (in the form of dues) that flow from their employment. If you are a university with a graduate school dependent on revenue tied to a group of workers gaining a professional credential in order to achieve pay raises, you will oppose any effort to cut that flow of dollars even if the value of the credential you give out is, at best, overstated.
Combine these self-interests with an underlying philosophical belief that the solution to issues lies with increasing revenue by any means necessary (be it increases in taxes or by siphoning funds from other areas of a government), and you have almost no reason to do anything other than criticize meaningful solutions (when they aren’t complaining about “draconian” cuts that aren’t exactly so).
Keep all this in mind when you read some polemic about budget-cutting from Diane Ravitch or Bruce Baker or the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They have no interest in offering anything meaningful in discussing the current and long-term fiscal problems facing states and school districts.