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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Stossel gets Stupid with America

Last Friday after watching the Princess Bride with my daughter my wife and I caught the 2020 Report “Stupid in America” by John Stossel. In a time that calls for a measured sober discussion of the future of education in America, Stossel and company opt for a sensational critique of American public schools. Oh, and they get the thesis wrong—it is not American schools that are the problem; it is that most American schools are too large to meet the educational needs of their students. Oh, and they miss the boat on special education funding. Oh, and…

As with most mainstream media reporting these days, Stossel sounds very corporate. His ideas are those of the business community. For example, Stossel adopts the competition is good mantra for schooling. Of course this assumes that we have equity of access for the lowest performing/poorest students. Otherwise a free market approach to education will further widen the achievement gap. However, we get no discussion about access. We are led to believe that all kids do or will apply to charter schools. Not true, charter school applicants reflect a subset of the population in a given attendance area because these students “opt into” the lottery system. More apathetic parents (bad parents) do not take advantage of these school choice options and dump their kids in the general public schools.

Nevertheless I found the discussion on spending interesting, but not without its flaws. Reducing spending to per-pupil comparison is contrived. I get this per-pupil rhetoric all the time from the Catholic school my daughter attends—“We do a better job with less per-pupil expenditure”. Okay, great, but Catholic schools don’t have to take special need children. Special needs children can cost in excess of $50,000 a year to educate. Of course, these “special” expenditures are folded in to the per-pupil statistics—skewing them. Not a word was spent on this in the Stossel report.

Next, the data on charter schools is somewhat muddy; therefore, any absolute claim is just silly. Let’s be clear, I’m a supporter of charter schools in America, but the data is not definitive, yet. Come on!

Finally, what gives with the Sylvan Learning product placement and endorsement in the middle of the program? I’m referring to the part where “20/20″ sent Dorian to Sylvan, to see if teachers there could teach Dorian to read when the South Carolina public schools failed to. At Sylvan Dorian used computers and workbooks, and he reading went up two grade levels — after just 72 hours of instruction. Please note that 72 hours is the equivalent of 14 weeks of an hour a day class. And please note, that Dorian and those that attend Sylvan Learning Center want to be there. If Sylvan were available to all it would be no surprise that a subset of the population would shrug its shoulders and continue in mediocrity.

Of course his mother, Gena Cain, is thrilled with Dorian’s progress but disappointed with his public schools. “With Sylvan, it’s a huge improvement. And they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re on point. But I can’t say the same for the public schools,” she said. But are they “on point” enough to have Dorian take the test that the kids in New Jersey and Belgium took?

Stossel and company make a case, but it is not as strong as it needs to be. Instead of attacking American education in general, they should have focused on the failure of large schools to maximize academic achievement, instead of opting for sensational programming. Sadly, the future of American Education cannot be reduced to an advertisement for neoliberalist values.

By the way, I believe that the public school system as we know it needs to be dismantled and re-imagined to meet the acceleration of information technology. Simplistic and sensational programs on what’s wrong in Public Schools collapse on their own specious claims. However, from what I’ve read online about this report it appears that Stossel and company are right about one thing, many of the posts represent the “Stupid in America”.

A final note, someone should make a documentary comparing the state of the bathrooms that our students use and the test scores they produce. A news piece like that might facilitate real debate and I’m sure would make riveting television.

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