Column #9, posted 1/11/00

Politicians Don't Get It, Do They?

So, I was listening to the democratic presidential candidates debate (well, actually I was watching the NFL Playoffs but there was a set nearby with closed captioning) when there was an education question:

Q. If elected president, what would you do that would result in improved learning for all students in public school classrooms? Senator?

The first thing that is astounding is the question itself. Why should we expect a politician to understand anything at all about education and why do we think they can help? More importantly, why is this suddenly a presidential debate issue? How is it that all of a sudden the collective consciousness is so concerned with education? While I was pondering these issues, I was astounded to hear (well, see) the candidates' answers.

MR. BRADLEY Well, first of all, what I would do is look at education a
little more broadly. I think we should have a strong federal commitment to education. I think it should begin at birth and extend for a lifetime and be available for everyone. So I think we need a major investment in early education and early child care. I would get kids ready to learn by doubling the slots in Head Start.

Wow! This is truly impressive. First he claims that the reason kids are doing poorly in school is that they aren't prepared. There isn't enough school! That's the ticket! While I was gagging over that response, there was more.

I would then propose adding 600,000 great new teachers to the public schools of this country over the next decade. I would increase dramatically the number of after-school programs that are available to children in this country between the hours of 3:00 and 8:00, which is when most of the juvenile crime takes place.

In addition to more school in life, the day has to be longer, too! Then there is the crime issue. Now we know what school is really for, to keep the little buggers off the streets. But, the really cool part is the first line above. He wants to add a lot more teachers. OK, more teachers couldn't hurt, but 600,000 would hardly affect student-teacher ratios. Most of all, I like the "great new teachers" line. See, the real problem in the schools is that the teachers suck. (In fact this was echoed the very next day by the secretary of education who said almost exactly that.) These guys don't get it, do they? I get letters regularly from great teachers who are being manhandled by the system and aren't going to last long. Great teachers have trouble surviving the system you politicians have created, Bill.

The teachers aren't the problem. Nobody who is really smart and really cares about education would want to subjugate themselves to the increasing insanity about standards and testing. You don't need good teachers if all you want is drill and practice for tests.

But I think there are other things, too, that are relevant to education. I think when a child arrives at the first grade and hasn't had any health care and is sick, a good health care insurance is education policy as well. I think last year when 800,000 kids took a gun to school that sensible gun control is good education policy as well.

You've gotta love politicians. One second the question is education and the next second the answer is health care. Yes, Bill, some kids indeed are hungry and can't learn. The vast majority of the kids have eaten.

So you can look at education in terms of where people live their lives, and that's the way I look at it, or you can look at it as if it's some bureaucratic box that says education is unrelated to everything else we do in our lives. I think it's a different perspective on how we view education in this country. I have the perspective of life and I think the vice president has the perspective that it's a box called education.

Actually, Bill, education isn't a box, and it is also not our whole lives. The question was about school, Bill. The government is screwing up school by any number of methods that I have been complaining about in these columns. I see you have no answers at all, Bill. Let's see how Al did:

Q. Mr. Vice President?

MR. GORE Well, you're right that I've made it my top priority for investing in the future. And I'm proud to have the support of the Iowa teachers for this plan and for my candidacy.

In fact, I came here to Iowa . . . and presented a comprehensive plan for education reform. And here's what it has. It has a plan to turn around every failing school, a proposal that is not in Senator Bradley's proposal…It will reduce the size of each class so that teachers have more one-on-one time to spend with their students. It is designed to provide universal preschool all across the United States for every child and every family all across our nation. It is designed to put new resources, not just technical assistance for the community college buildings, but new resources in the form of a national tuition savings plan and a 401-J for lifelong learning to pay the tuition for those who want to go to college and their families don't have the income. . . .

OK. Let's see if I get this. The problem with the schools is that teachers don't have enough time to spend with their students so we need more teachers. Isn't that exactly what Bill just said? Plus, we need more school early on. Isn't that what Bill just said? Oh, you are also worried about people who can't afford college. That's nice, Al. What about the schools, Al?

And finally, I want to connect every classroom and library to the Internet and give the teachers the training they need in the new technologies.

Oh, the Internet again. The solution to all of mankind's ills. Surely school would be so much better if the libraries were better connected. What about the fact that we are boring the kids to death with irrelevant stuff they need to memorize to pass tests that are of no import at all? What about that? What about that we are now making teaching impossible by taking away the freedom to discuss ideas because they won't be on the test? What about that? Back to Bill:

MR. BRADLEY You know, when I was growing up in that small town in Missouri, I went to public school: public grade school, public high school. My mother was a public school teacher, my aunt was a public school teacher. I'm committed to public education.

The most important thing that we can do to improve public education in this country in the next decade is to make sure that there's a great teacher in every classroom. We have to be focused in order to achieve these things. We can spread our interest over the horizon, but if we're focused, we can get a great new teacher in every public school classroom in this country and that is what's important.

And that was it. Back to the teachers suck. No discussion of the real issues, but then, who would expect otherwise?

Actually I am more concerned with the question I raised at the beginning. Why is education on everyone's minds all of a sudden?

The answer is rather complex. We set up test score mania and we got caught up in it. We can't admit that the tests are irrelevant and that the curriculum is irrelevant despite the fact that every kid and many teachers understand this perfectly. Most adults couldn't pass the tests we expect our kids to pass and the kids can't pass them the next week after cramming for them. We just can't seem to stop thinking that these tests matter and so politicians, who love easy answers, have glommed onto pointing out how bad scores are. Since they don't know enough to know that these tests never were worth a hill of beans in the first place, they declared a crisis and declared themselves aware of how to win the crisis by cramming more into everyone's head so that test scores could improve. What if everyone in the whole country scored perfect scores on math SATs? How would this matter? Would we all be happier, or better informed, or more capable of living sane and rational lives? Would we become better voters, or better parents, or even better at business? I don't think so.

The Internet may well have to be the answer. The only way to make curricular change in this country would be to put high quality courses on the net. These courses are coming, Al and Bill. The question is about quality. How good will these courses be? They could be great if the government started to invest serious money in making them great.

I refer the reader to a white paper I wrote (funded by the Department of Education--which actually has many sensible people in it) for a discussion of what I think the future actually holds.

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