The weird ideological inversion of the school reform debate
At one of our excellent sub-blogs, Alex Knapp makes this commonsensical point:
We live in a country where Creationists can run for President without being laughed out of the room, homeopathy is seen as real medicine, millions of people buy into “The Secret” that wishing for something hard enough makes it real, and the cast of the Jersey Shore is rich.
Until that changes, I find it hard to believe that we’ll be able to improve education outcomes significantly no matter how radically we reform the education system. Kids aren’t dumb. Why bother to acquire knowledge when it’s manifestly unimportant to do so in our culture?
Elsewhere, Kevin Drum raises a similar objection: School reform, he says, just can’t overcome preexisting socio-economic disparities.
You know who else makes this sort of argument? Every so often, National Review’s John Derbyshire will grumpily note that we have very little to show for the massive amount of money that gets spent on public education. Culture, parenting, and the heritability of intelligence do more to determine achievement than public schools ever will.
People may identify and rank different factors as important to childhood development, but these objections share a certain conservative logic. Some disparities – from socio-economic status to parenting to genetics – simply can’t be rectified by the public school system. As citizens, we just have to grin and bear it.
I’m actually sympathetic to this point of view. I think modern conservatism often loses its way by indulging in a brand of superficial managerialism – perhaps best exemplified by Newt Gingrich – that holds any number of intractable problems can be cured by sufficiently bold and decisive reforms.
But consider the implications of this thinking. I’m not the first person to point out that the logic of predetermined educational outcomes means we should be spending a whole lot less on public schools.
Moreover, liberals’ sudden enthusiasm for talking about the importance of culture, parenting, class, or whatever highlights another problem with the status quo. If liberal opposition to school reform is truly driven by a belief that our money would be better spent elsewhere – and not by the importance of protecting a favored political constituency (teachers and teachers’ unions) – I’m willing to listen to their ideas for redirecting federal education dollars. But until then, these arguments strike me as an opportunistic way to dodge public school accountability.
UPDATE: To be fair, Drum does suggest reinvesting K-12 funding in intensive early childhood education.