August 21, 2006

Educational Assumptions

Carroll Andrew Morse

A major debate about education is underway in Rhode Island. The debate is bigger than just a debate about how to fix education; the debate is about the fundamental importance of education.

One side in this great debate (see Julia Steiny or Valerie Forti for examples) begins from the premise that the best way to help people achieve their potential is to provide them with an education. The other side considers this position to be too quaint for the modern world, believing that impersonal societal forces beyond the control of the individual will primarily determine what individuals can achieve. In this view, education is just a bit of window dressing that correlates accidentally to socio-economic status.

For those skeptical that this second view exists in such stark form, I refer you to Peniel Joseph's Washington Post review of Juan Williams' new book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It (h/t Power Line)...

Unlike The Covenant With Black America, a bestselling anthology with concrete proposals for community empowerment, Enough concludes with a flurry of righteous condescension, preaching that youngsters can best avoid poverty by finishing high school, getting a job and postponing marriage and child-bearing until at least 21.
Dr. Joseph's belief that the relationship between education and achievement is overstated has been expressed locally by the Rhode Island union establishment in their education reform document, The Shape of the Starting Line. Starting Line eschews any serious discussion of education reforms -- like public school choice or charter schools -- that could be implemented in relatively short order in favor of advocating for large-scale social spending in non-educational areas, in a rejection of the idea that education reform should focus on education.

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How is it righteous condescension to point out that "youngsters can best avoid poverty by finishing high school, getting a job and postponing marriage and child-bearing until at least 21"? It's just a factual statement.

Posted by: SusanD at August 21, 2006 11:33 PM

What a phenomenal misrepresentation of The Shape of the Starting Line. One of the many points made in Starting Line is the correlation between educational achievement and the socioeconomic status of the student’s parents, and the educational level of the student’s mother. This seems to be in agreement with Williams and in opposition to Joseph, the opposite of what you suggest. The underlying point of Starting Line is that no discussion of education reform is complete without discussing the factors impacting those being educated, both inside and outside of school.

Ms. Forti seems much more interested in union-bashing than in student achievement and never had a role in public education. Ms. Steiny is occasionally on the mark when she discusses education and often underscores many of the underlying issues that Starting Line discusses. Sadly, she too is not immune from the occasional bout of union bashing.

To the extent that public charter schools do not rob resources from the rest of the public school system, there is little to object to as long as evidence of good practice (such as increased achievement when smaller class sizes are implemented) are fairly transferred back to the entire public school system.

Posted by: Bob Walsh at August 22, 2006 10:16 AM


Peniel Joseph says that individual choices aren’t the answer to helping people advance up the socio-economic ladder. That means, unless he is proposing doing nothing, he must believe that some sort of large-scale, centrally planned effort is.

And what does The Shape of the Starting Line say? Well, in the executive summary, it is clear that 5 large-scale, centrally planned, non-educational efforts (raising the minimum wage, expanding government healthcare, etc.) are the recommendations considered to be most important by the authors. When we actually get to some education reform suggestions, the focus is on more money (and not entirely unreasonably, I’ll add, especially in areas like class sizes or infrastructure) for the existing geographic monopoly system, while tools like public choice or vouchers – tools that individual families could use to meet their needs – are completely ignored. (You said more about charter schools in your BLOG comment than Starting Line said in its executive summary).

Thus, taken in their entirety, the set of proposals emphasized (and those ignored) in Starting Line comes down on the side of personal choices being significantly less important than the impersonal, macroscopic structure of society to an individual's achievement. I’ll concede that Dr. Joseph’s position may be an extreme example of this viewpoint, but the difference with Starting Line is a difference of degree, not a difference in concept.

Also, let me add that I believe that the idea expressed in Starting Line that engaging parents is important has mucho merit. If you could find a way to talk about the importance of parents, but without the folk-Marxism, i.e that people are reducible to their socio-economic status, you would almost certainly find some common ground with some of the surly conservatives out there. But, again, this would ultimately mean opening up to the possibility that the best solutions are those which widen the choices available to individuals, an assumption that the authors of the The Shape of the Starting Line seem to have rejected at the outset.

Posted by: Andrew at August 22, 2006 1:46 PM