Late for Class

Recently, columnist Ben Stein wrote:

…suddenly it dawned on me. It will be worse about EVERYTHING. Too much of the younger generation has minimal education. Minimal decent work attitudes (generally, not always). Minimal ability to get along with others. The nation’s intellectual capital, self-discipline capital, is vanishing. That’s a catastrophe. That’s it for the USA. Gar-nicht, as my sister would say. When the middle aged who have decent abilities leave the scene, good night nurse. Too sad to dwell upon…

That’s it for the USA? Not likely. Stein projects the present into the future, a standard erroneous practice among forecasters. Contrarily, socionomics ( tells us that when a trend in social behavior reaches enough of an extreme to generate a wide emotional reaction, the trend is ending and reality is headed in the opposite direction.

There is no question that public education is a mess. A recent documentary points out that many public high schools in urban communities are dropout factories, with low graduation rates and low levels of academic proficiency among students that do graduate. Public policy in education has been grossly ineffective in addressing the problems since the sixties. Why?

It’s not too hard to sort out. The eighties were nuts.  Narcissism and self indulgence were rampant in the culture, along with (to be polite about it), a relaxation in personal responsibility. Predictably, this opened the door for power grabs at the public trough. The school system was no exception. What began as a sixties effort to improve the lot of underpaid teachers devolved in the eighties to a union-driven grab of political power.

Over time, unions consolidated their power and  became entrenched, resistent to change, and more passionate about their own interests than the outcomes in schools. A resulting unwieldy load of work rules hamstrung principals, prevented them from firing tenured bad teachers, restricted the number of hours teachers can be on the job, and made it very difficult to discipline unruly students.

The last one particularly galls me. My high school principle once delivered five serious whacks to my behind with his paddle. This was some fifty years ago, of course. I no longer remember the infraction, but I’m sure the paddling was richly deserved.

High schoolers in the eighties experienced the system’s dysfunction first hand. The thoughtful among them now agitate for a better deal for their own children. One result has been the tremendous growth of home schooling. One and a half million children are being home schooled in the US this year.

Charter schools, which receive public funding but are not obligated to follow state mandated work rules for their teachers, are an attempt by communities to create a school culture that maximizes student motivation by emphasizing high expectations, academic rigor, discipline, and relationships with caring adults. Most teachers, by a 68 percent to 21 percent margin, say schools would be better for students if principals and teachers had more control and flexibility about work rules and school duties.[15]( (Duffett, Ann; Farkas, Steve (2008). Waiting to be Won Over: Teachers Speak on the Profession, Unions, and Reform)

Thus far, the charter school movement has had uneven results. To date, 12.5% of the over 5000 charter schools founded in the United States have closed for reasons including academic, financial, and managerial problems, and occasionally consolidation or district interference ( b Allen, Jeanne (March 2009). “Accountability Lies at the Heart of Charter School Success”.). However, in spite of the obvious growing pains, charter schools continue to be regarded as a viable alternative in many school districts around the country.

One of the most impressive charter programs is KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program). KIPP began in 1994 when teachers Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg completed their Teach For America commitment and launched a program for fifth graders in a public school in inner-city Houston, Texas. Feinberg developed KIPP Academy Houston into a charter school, while Levin went on to establish KIPP Academy New York in the South Bronx.

The schools operate on the principle that there are no shortcuts: outstanding educators, more time in school, a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, and a strong culture of achievement and support will help educationally underserved students develop the knowledge, skills, and character needed to succeed in top quality high schools, colleges, and in the competitive world beyond. The sustained record of student achievement in Kipp schools is astonishing. Graduation rates of over 90%, and similar rates of college graduation afterwards are the norm. There are now 99 kipp schools in educationally underserved communities throughout the country, with more being planned.

The seeds of change have been sown. Education in America will be much better in future years than in the recent past.


 The imperative for drastically improving public education is well understood, and teachers themselves (see above) are in the vanguard for change.

But broad based change will take a long time. The struggle is taking place during a deflationary bear market which is severely crimping  revenues for schools. The biggest cost for the systems going forward is pensions, and unfunded pension liabilities are soaring, even now. By the time the market bottoms, some five years from now, it is doubtful that those pensions will even exist. The unions can be expected to put up an epic fight to keep the benefits, exacerbating the contentiousness of the situation.

What we know is neither parents nor teachers are satisfied with the quality of public education today. What we do not know is which side will be the one to give ground on the financial issues. That, I believe, is where the battle must be fought.




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