What happened to school choice?

I’m told it’s the political power of unions. Makes me wonder about all the good teachers trapped in a system without the power to express or carry out their own ideas.

Dr. John Sparks is concerned, too, and we spoke late last week about the problems. Here’s how he expressed it in his latest column for the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College.

In a recent editorial, The Wall Street Journal calls 2011 the “year of school choice.” Parents and the legislators who represent them, particularly in inner-city schools, are tired of waiting for the promised effects of “educational reform” on the public schools their children attend. Therefore, according to the Wall Street Journal, in one form or another, 13 states have passed school-choice legislation, and similar changes are proposed in 28 other states. Such legislation often permits the formation of publicly financed “charter schools,” which are run by new schools boards whose members insist upon an educational environment that will produce real learning.

Despite progress in many places, New York City children, many of them African-American, may not be able to return to charters or start in them anew in the fall due to a lawsuit instituted against the NYC’s Department of Education by what would seem to be a tragically ironic twosome: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

What? That doesn’t make sense. Sparks makes the point, connecting the dots.

One would certainly assume that NYC’s charter program—which would allow parents to withdraw their children from the 22 poor public schools in New York and move them to effective charter or other schools—would be eagerly supported by the NAACP and the UFT. After all, these are schools deemed (by pre-established criteria) to be “failing.” But that is not the case. Why?

Perhaps one could understand the UFT, long an ideological champion of public schools, no matter how poorly they perform, engaging in such a suit, but why the NAACP, in light of its announced commitment to black and Latino youths and their parents? Here is a case where political/ideological dedication to the public-school monopoly is stronger than loyalty to the very people which the NAACP is pledged to help.

Fortunately, NYC parents with children attending or about to enter charter schools in the fall are not committed to this ideological blindness. They simply want the good schooling for their children that educational choice provides, and they are speaking out.

Good for them. In fact, Hooray for them. Outraged parents are telling the UFT their time’s up.

The same could be said to the NAACP. How can an organization supposedly committed to helping blacks and other minority groups climb the educational ladder file a lawsuit to obstruct educational opportunities for what amounts to 7,000 of New York’s most disadvantaged kids? Black parents have a right to be perplexed, frustrated, and outraged by such a stance.

The Economist reports that another parent, Ny Whittaker, whose child attends a Harlem charter school, summarized it well: the “NAACP is on the wrong side of history.”

So is the US Department of Education, at this point. In operation only since 1980, note this part of its original stated mission:

The Department’s mission is: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

Seriously. Each time I’ve brought that up in an interview, someone inevitably expresses incredulous surprise.

Which makes the case for a movement to respect education and equal access to it as the civil rights issue it is.

Abolish the Department of Education

I’m hearing this from more voices now.

The most recent being columnist Dennis Byrne.

Here’s a way for taxpayers to save billions of dollars while improving education:

Get rid of standardized tests. Get rid of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires the tests. Get rid of the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the tests. Free us from having to pay for this pointless extravagance.

This should be especially apparent with allegations of adult cheating (Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere) to boost student test scores to meet idealized benchmarks set by legions of “experts.” Those allegations, of course, require the deployment of more legions of experts to hunt down frightened or fed-up teachers and administrators caught in the gears of this Rube Goldberg contrivance.

You don’t need more studies or tests to know that this whole scheme has done little in the years since it was installed as a national priority to quiet the alarms about American students. But the alarms have become more thunderous, requiring the application of ever more stringent and costly measures. It’s as mindless as Dark Ages bleeding; if bleeding off a pint doesn’t improve the patient, take a quart.

Attention-grabbing, but because it so resembles the truth.

Last week I had Dr. Anthony Bradley as a guest on my radio show and this was the topic of conversation for that ‘closer look’ at inner-city schools and the failure of the bureaucracy of education.

As Congress moves toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the problem is not that the Department of Education is not doing enough but that it suffers from an acute case of what psychologists call “organizational narcissism.” If they really wish to address America’s inner-city public school crisis, federal education officials must look beyond the boundaries of their own agencies and recognize the crucial role of churches.

Steven Churchill, of the Center for Organizational Design, explains that organizations can have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an inflated judgment of their own accomplishments, leading to “an unreal, self-defeating preoccupation with the company’s own image.” For example, even with overwhelming evidence that, other than family support, church involvement is the most consistent predictor of academic success for inner-city children, the organizational narcissism of the education industry prevents it from tapping into the resources of black and Latino churches.

He made many good points, in fact the hour was loaded with them. The ‘War on Poverty’ has failed. Education reform hasn’t improved our public schools and especially inner-city schools, or access to them. Government programs separated from the influence of families and local churches fail. This is proven and easy to see, for anyone who looks.

In “Faith in the Inner City: The Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Dr. Brian Barrett, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, describes the unique contributions black churches play in cultivating successful students in the inner-cities. He observed that “religious socialization reinforces attitudes, outlooks, behaviors, and practices … particularly through individuals’ commitment to and adoption of the goals and expectations of the group” that are conducive to “positive educational outcomes.”  In fact, back in 2009 Barrett reported that for black inner-city youth who reported attending religious services often, the black/white achievement gap “was eliminated.”

Barrett reports that one of the most important advantages of inner-city churches is that they provide “a community where Black students are valued, both for their academic success and, more broadly, as human beings and members of society with promise, with talents to contribute, and from whom success is to be expected.” Churches also affirm inner-city youth as trusted members of a community that celebrates academic success, and the practices that produce it, which overrides the low expectations communicated at school. Additionally, Barrett highlights the ways in which black churches, because they are equipped to deal with families, are effective at sustaining and encouraging parental educational involvement from the heart as well as providing contexts where youth can have regular contact with other adults for role-modeling and mentoring.

The fact that they don’t or won’t see this at the federal level, while layering on more and more federal jobs in the Department of Education, proves Bradley’s point about the ‘organizational narcissim.’ He also adds that those bureaucrats know that with increased involvement of churches, the Department of Education would lose the lock on control they now have. Never mind that it’s dysfunctional.

“When more government programs came the breakdown of the family,” Dr. Bradley told me. “It fostered a culture of irresponsibility. The whole system needs to be radically restructered. It’s not a resource problem. Throwing more dollars into more technology for classrooms isn’t the solution, clearly. We need to ask better questions. Why isn’t the church part of the educational policy for this administration? Black pastors haven’t been invited into the Obama administration Department of Education planning.” He makes this point in his article ‘Inner-city education fails without the church.’

In 2008, President Obama rightly acknowledged that, “There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one.” This is an indisputable truth. What should baffle every American citizen is that the role of inner-city ethnic churches is oddly missing from the Obama administration’s education reform vision.

Faith-based initiatives work when they are tried. School choice and the voucher system do, too. The principle of subsidiarity works.

Dennis Byrne concludes:

It will take nothing less than a revolution by fed-up Americans to break the hold that this cartel has on our children.

Anthony Bradley concluded, on radio, that…

We need a lay movement to be launched. We need paople to operate out of their convictions that this problem must be solved. We need people in the pews to be at school board meetings to put forward new solutions, backed by data, what’s known to work. And that’s new for us as Americans, because we’re used to coming to the aid of people in crisis in other countries. This is in the crisis category, but it’s happening here.

We need a bailout, from government intervention.

Suddenly, an old television public service spot just came to mind. “It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your kids are?”

It’s school time, and the same question applies.

Dropouts and economics

Business and commerce means people, buying and selling. The economy is the conglomerate of how that’s doing. Let’s get back to the people at the heart of it all…

The Wall Street Journal had this big cover story this weekend that could be taken as a lengthy piece about an economic and political crisis in Europe, Portugal especially. But the fact that the piece starts with an anecdote about schooling is key and central. I found this piece most enlightening at least halfway down, right about here:

Education long was an afterthought here…The repressive dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974 had the idea “that people should not have ambition to be something different than what they were,” Mr. Nóvoa says. The result was widespread illiteracy and little formal schooling…

…and a dispirited population of people, for generations. The audacity.

The “shoulds” or “oughts” in our judgments come from what Thomas Aquinas taught as the natural law, though one would need a morally informed education to know that. So the idea “that people should not have ambition to be something different than what they were” is a moral statement, though shaped by the particular ideological framwork of a represeive dictatorship. Trouble is, that dictator misses the point that having the ambition not to be something different but to be just what we are is the noble vocation that builds society. To be just exactly and most perfectly who we were created to be, doing what we are naturally gifted or talented or inspired to do, with training in those skills to help us excell.

But I digress…

Social engineers always need to control information to get their desired results of obedient citizen workers. Trouble is, without education, there’s no work, and that’s what this WSJ piece is about, as it’s playing out in Portugal. The good news is that they’re aware of it, and focusing this attention on it.

But it is a long road. “We have accumulated years and years of ignorant people,” says Belmiro de Azevedo, a billionaire industrialist.

He described the system as calcified. The central administration wields tight control. Curricula are simultaneously undemanding and rigid. Dropout rates are high.

This is another crime against humanity, of a sort not usually framed this way.

A push to evaluate teachers triggered searing strikes and demonstrations in 2008, souring relations between powerful teachers’ unions and the government. The political life of education ministers is measured in months: since the dictatorship ended in 1974, there have been 27.

This reminds me of ‘Waiting for Superman,’ in which a U.S. Lieutenant General (Julius Becton) said that running the D.C. schools was the toughest thing he’d ever done. He resigned in 16 months.

But the WSJ piece gets really interesting when it turns this corner.

In one town, A Dos Cunhados, the local school isn’t run or owned by the government. It is managed by the Catholic Church, in an arrangement that dates to the end of the dictatorship, when the new Portuguese state found it didn’t have enough facilities.

At the school, Externato de Penafirme, as at 90 others with what are called “association contracts,” the state pays a management fee to a private entity, which broadly follows the state curriculum but hires its own teachers…

Instead of being given teachers off a master list, Father Silva and other administrators of these quasi-private schools select their own. They adjust the curriculum, adding, for instance, more religious instruction. They set up teams of teachers responsible for students and try to rope back those prone to dropping out.

“We make an enormous effort to take them all to the end,” says a school administrator, José Mendes. Penafirme’s test scores put it in the top 15% of secondary schools nationwide. It is the best in Torres Vedras.

To their advocates, the privately run schools inject a needed dose of new thinking.

Yes. That’s the key, the turnaround, the ‘Eureka!’ moment in this crisis. And by the end of the story, they’re talking about young people who dropped out of school and realized they were going nowhere without an education. And the good folks in a nonprofit organization who are trying to encourage them back into classrooms.

Marco Monteiro, who is 16, was recently kicked out of his regular school. Bad behavior, he says. He hoped to go back—”I don’t have enough school to find work,” he says—and then maybe get a job in the mall. Project Leadership’s director, António Embaló, complimented him on his mechanical skills.

Might he consider college, perhaps studying engineering?

“It’s never crossed my mind,” Mr. Monteiro says. “I don’t know anyone who went.”

Injecting a needed dose of new thinking. One student, town and country at a time. It’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning.