Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 16, 2009


Ralph Z. Hallow, Washington Times - President Obama's blunt but little-noted statement last week that bad teachers need to be fired and that some fellow Democrats resist real change in public schools has jolted educators and education critics alike. 'It was unusual for a Democratic president to say that,' said Cynthia G. Brown, director of education policy for the liberal Center for American Progress. . . Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times that 'President Obama has potentially opened a very important dialogue about real reform and real investment in education. . . Some saw in Mr. Obama's words something they had never seen before: a sitting president of either party, let alone a Democrat, standing up for the first time to the teachers unions, which represent one of the most powerful Democratic interest groups.'

Barack Obama - There are areas like education where some in my party have been too resistant to reform, and have argued only money makes a difference. . . . Both sides are going to have to acknowledge we're going to need more money for new science labs, to pay teachers more effectively, but we're also going to need more reform, which means that we've got to train teachers more effectively, bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively, that we should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom, that we should have high standards.


Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Um, it's "right-wing" only if you classify as "right-wing" everything in opposition to centrist, managerialist, establishment liberalism. By that standard, YOU'RE right-wing, Sam.

You of all people are surely aware that the public educationist establishment is attacked as much from the left as from the right; and as is the case with much of the political thinking in the libertarian, decentralist ghettoes of Main Street America, the "left" and "right" criticisms resemble each other than they resemble the respective members of the centrist corporate establishment claiming to represent the official left and right.

February 16, 2009 10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public schools are solely for the creation of a docile and compliant workforce and an easily deceived populace. They were never about any other goal. If you look into the history of public schooling in the US, it become abundantly clear that school are far more harmful to children then most people can imagine.

Why keep throwing good money after bad on a system that helps perpetuate, and prop up the corrupt political system in this country, and its morally bankrupt leadership? Because schooling is a major industry, and the greedy and corrupt see it as an easy way to get rich.

Public school has nothing to do with education, and everything to do with social control. We would be better off with a whole lot less schooling.

February 17, 2009 11:33 AM  
Anonymous m said...

Public education has a lot of problems that need to be dealt with. It claims that the only issue is money, but it consumes money at a horrendous rate. Much of the increases being soaked into administration. Some states like Florida are so top heavy in administration that more than 50% of the school funds go to administration rather than teaching, physical school plant or student services.

In my own school district there was a recent attempt to build a brand new high school at an enormous cost. There were no claims that the current high school was inadequate in function. Or that the building was falling apart. That there would be more students than the building could reasonably accommodate. That maintenance costs justified a new building. No, none of these. The argument was that the students would feel better about themselves in a newer building. That a new school had been erected in a large town in the next county, and that we had to keep up, or our students would feel "less than." The bond issue for the new school was voted down, and the school administrators voiced prophecies of doom for the entire student population.

Its been 45 years since I was a student in a public school, but there were a lot of bad teachers then who shouldn't have been teaching. From the current group that I run into now and then, there are too many that are clearly not fit to teach. Bad teachers should go. They ruin students. They take the average inquisitive five year old who loves to learn new things, and turn them into sullen dullards of no value to themselves or society.

There are severe problems with the national syllabus. I am most familiar with the continuing degradation of that of mathematics. Over the past several decades it has changed from one in which there was a reasonable course of instruction for most. And while many said they would never use the knowledge, many were also surprised to find they did.

Then came the "new" math in which there was an incredible emphasis on base arithmetic because that was to be the way of computers. Of course now it is a relatively rare programmer who uses binary, octal or hexadecimal in the software. Short sighted nonsense that confused all to many students with something that had little purpose and less effect.

Around the mid60's, the collegiate syllabus changed from teaching calculus, differential equations, statistics and other disciplines in a mixed approach of theory and real world applications to a completely theoretical approach that was of use only to those who were specializing in pure mathematics. My elementary calculus courses were essentially meaningless to me because of this. Fortunately when I took partial differential equations, multiariate analysis, and other higher level math courses, the profs were more senior, and older. They taught these classes with applications to at least some real world problems.

The purely theoretical approach filtered down into a high school level. Kids were stuffed with theory which they could not relate to or use in their own world. Outside of the very few who would go on in pure mathematics few kids understood it. As a result they hated it. It was an artificial structure that was divorced from any reality. As a result I found that very few high school grads, and not many college grads even could work with percentages or fractions. Once I even ran across a microbiologist with an MS who could not make up a simple percentage solution of a reagent.

Other subjects fare as poorly, some worse.

And yes, I know what it is like to teach. At the level of laboratory night classes for non high school grads, through seminars and courses in programing, mathematics, chemistry and medicine for MDs, scientists and technicians.

Money may be the problem in some areas of education today. In some states teachers salaries are not commensurate with the education, intelligence, experience and dedication required. But in other states and areas, teachers can and do make more than their privately employed counterparts of equal experience and education. And for fewer hours and much more vacation time. Sometimes even for the worst of the teachers.

February 17, 2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

What m says resonates strongly with me, based on my own experience.

I strongly suspect that most of the capital renovations that are being funded by the stimulus bill correspond to m's example: replacing buildings that are structurally sound and useful, that could be much more cheaply renovated.

And the reason lies in the mindset of any bureaucracy: bureaucrats prefer to expend resources broadening their domain, rather than taking proper care of their existing domains. You see this in the Pentagon, which constantly seeks new weapons acquisitions and force expansions, while existing forces and weapons are short on training, ammo, fuel and maintenance.

In the publik skools, a good example occurred a few years ago in the neighboring town of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. After the school administration failed to persuade voters to vote for a millage increase for "absolutely essential" expenses, the administration announced it was cancelling a planned purchase of new computers for the school system. Instead, it was adding RAM to existing computers for a similar improvement in performance at a fraction of the cost. Needless to say, if they hadn't had their sugar tit taken away, they wouldn't have been so frugal--why bother, when you're spending other people's money on other people?

The publik skool bureaucracy is a textbook example of the conventional organization Paul Goodman described in People or Personnel: high-overhead, hierarchy, job descriptions and mission statements, cost-plus inflation resulting from perverse incentives to maximize cost with a captive clientele, general rule-bound ossification, etc. The government bureaucracy and the large corporation are very much of the same kind.

As for m's characterization of publik skools that kill curiosity and the love of learning, I heartily concur. Throughout my public "education," I viewed learning as something I was left alone to do in peace when I could get out of the skool's clutches--much as I view genuine, meaningful work as something to be accomplished away from the job.

I recently saw a Hastings store with a sign out front announcing they carried Watership Down and the rest of the summer reading list. Thank God they didn't have summer reading lists in my school back when I was attending. I didn't discover Watership Down until I was about 40, and it's one of my favorite books. If I'd been compelled to read it by a summer reading list, I'd probably hate it to this day.

Schools teach kids that real "learning" is something that takes place at the direction of an authority figure sitting behind a desk. It's the first in many lessons that all the important tasks in life are things assigned to you by authority figures sitting behind desks, and that any self-selected task is to be triviliazed as a "hobby" to kill time when you're not engaged in the important tasks assigned to you by your teacher or employer. It's very much of a piece with the cultural change following the Enclosures and the creation of the factory system, where work became seen as something provided by an "employer" who "hired" you for a "job." We've reached the point where a special term, "self-employed," had to be coined for an anomalous status comparable to that of a free black laborer before the Civil War.

February 17, 2009 3:24 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

P.S. Another example of the bureaucratic mentality occurred in the USSR under Gorbachev. Some industrial branch ministry requested funding in the five-year plan to build another factory. Gorbachev asked, why can't you run two or three shifts at the existing factory. The industrial bureaucrats said, "But we don't have enough workers to run another shift!" Gorbachev's response: "Who's going to staff the new factory, the Holy Spirit?"

They wanted to build the factory because they'd have something shiny and new that increased their prestige--pure and simple. And the publik skool bureaucrats are exactly the same way.

A useful thought experiment: try to figure the cost for twenty or thirty parents to start a cooperative school with their own money, renting a cheap building for classroom space and hiring enough tutors for a total of 35 hours teaching time. Even with modest spending on electives and extracurriculars, it's hard to come up with more than a couple thousand $$ per pupil, compared to the publik skools' spending of 7k or more. The reason is multiple layers of administrative overhead, and the belief that nothing short of custom-designed monumental architecture on the most expensive real estate in town befits the awesome majesty of the "public." We live in an age of cost-plus markup and mandated minimum overhead, buying stuff from public and corporate bureaucracies for several times what they would cost to produce in the informal and household economy.

February 17, 2009 3:31 PM  

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