Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Truth in Education and A Pandora's Box

While I think some of the arguments presented in this piece by Robert Weissberg at American Thinker, Spending Less for Better Education, are a bit simplistic, Weissberg hits on a truth that has so far befuddled education reformers:
The GOP's victories on November 2 have once again raised the call for smaller government, and given soaring budgets and lack of improvement, reducing K-12 education spending is one obvious target. This will not be easy, but there is a sensible strategy.

Begin by recognizing that abolishing any specific program, even clear-cut ineffective boondoggles, is doomed to fail. All have constituencies -- education school professors, benefiting parents, program employees, foundation experts, bureaucratic administrators, plus erstwhile pro-education members of Congress who can readily mobilize to defeat axe-wielders. Scanning the budget line by line to cut waste is a cost-saving dead end. GOP skinflints will be overwhelmed and labeled mean-spirited enemies of "helping the children."

Successful cost-cutting requires satisfying three conditions. First, reductions must improve education, not just make mediocrity less expensive. Second, measures must defeat interests who sustain an expensive, personally lucrative status quo. Finally, cutbacks must create powerful counter-constituencies to resist the inevitable rear-guard action from teachers' unions and all profiting from government's largess.
Weissberg is absolutely correct, the current education constituencies, i.e. the teacher unions and the massive administrative bloat that we have in education is difficult to overcome directly. The secret which Wiessberg presents through one idea is to go around, or under, the education constituencies rather than through them.

Weissberg argues that the best way to reduce costs and improve education quickly is to take all the "bad students" out of the classes. But unlike the disciplinarian crowd, Weissberg suggest sending them packing not as a punishment, but as an opportunity. Weissberg suggests letting any 16 year old kid to drop out with a Lifetime Learning Credit Voucher that can be used with the knucklehead gets some maturity and takes a few lumps in the real world.

The idea has appeal, but fails to address a few problems. Namely that behavioral problems in classrooms arise far before a child turns 16. By the time the kid is 16, then most schools have given up hope on the miscreant. So, while there may be some savings, I am not sure that the savings will be as great as Weissburg thinks.

But while Weissburg sees an upside, and it is a reasonable upside, there is a downside--namely that you now have a bunch of 16-year-old, uneducated, unemployed kids on the street. It may be just a matter of time before our juvenile justice system is swamped with these drop-outs. I am not saying every drop-out will end up a criminal--but the odds certainly seem to stack up that way.

But if we go back to Weissberg's truth in the beginning of his piece, this is where we need to get creative. We need to see more ideas like this--but of course, Weissberg himself opens up the biggest Pandora's box of all--we would have to admit that there are indeed bad students--something that politicians have been loathe to admit.

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