Education and The Pursuit of Happiness

This post is the first of what will be a continuing series of posts that examine the relationship of charter schools, vouchers, and choice with freedom and “the pursuit of happiness.” The establishment of charters et al is a probable Gettysburg in the growing civil war between Conservative and Progressive beliefs, and whichever ideology wins this battle may win Civil War II. Although Civil War I “ended” at Appomattox, the resurgence of Confederate views related to states’ rights and white privilege, fueled by the apparent biological predilection of humans for tribalism, are the foundations of the rise in Conservative political influence across our nation and the consequent resistance by Progressives.

Policy-level conversations need to be driven by clarification of the beliefs that drive the pursuit of policy implementation. These conversations are inhibited by (1) Conservatives’ adherence to the demands of the political correctness they outwardly abhor, but which restrains them from expressing their apparent actual motivations, and by (2) Progressives’ apparent inability to identify and communicate in a unified and choherent way what it is they actually believe.

In this blog’s first post, I quoted Wikipedia’s version of a Progressive belief structure:

“…the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.”

The Conservative belief structure might be crafted from the bones of the above:

While the state plays a role in the economic well-being of its citizens, the state should not be responsible for the equitable distribution of wealth or for assisting those that are unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life; rather, the mere promise of equality of opportunity suggested in the Declaration of Independence is sufficient to allow every American “the pursuit happiness” without formal guarantees from the state, and any American unable to engage successfully in “the pursuit of happiness” is solely responsible for his or her own failing.

Education is the battleground for these two foundational beliefs. The Progressive view demands a pre-eminent role for Education because it is seen as the vehicle for providing ALL children the tools needed to pursue happiness. Conservatives highly value Education for their children, but use the smokescreen of suggesting that Conservative motivation for charters et al is to create an opportunity for disadvantaged children to receive a better education than that currently being provided.

The fly in the Progressive ointment is that their usual go-to solution is to throw more money at schools without acknowledging that a critical mass of American Educators chooses to disregard years of research-proven best practices. Progressives throw the money despite the fact that there appears to be no apparent positive correlation between increasing funding and student achievement, provided that kids continue to be taught the way kids were taught twenty or more years ago. Click the link to read about the failure of Progressive policy in Kansas City.

For me, the essential phrase that incorporates the primary purpose of American Education is “Equality of opportunity.” I do not believe this means that every American has the right to experience outcomes equal to every other American, but it does mean that each American should have the same opportunity as every other American to pursue happiness.

Anyone who denies that there are greater barriers to opportunity in some communities than there are in others is either a fool or willfully ignorant. The notion that “the problem with the poor is that they just need to decide not to be poor” is a ludicrous opinion I have heard from Conservatives and which resounded in my head every day that I drove through vast neighborhoods of hard working poor in Philadelphia while representing the Pennsylvania DOE. Knowing that those neighborhoods included 190,000 people in Deep Poverty, over 60,000 of whom were children, I asked myself, “What in God’s name would happen if, one day, all of these people decided not to be poor?”

Even though there are rare instances of poor persons who rise in class due to their own efforts, it is unreasonable to think that an under-educated person with a “spotty” work record will be able to rise in class without a helping hand. In my own experience several years ago, my then wife and I gave a young man we knew $1000 because he was faced with this choice: take his savings and pay his first tuition bill or replace his car’s transmission. If he did not replace the transmission, he would not be able to commute to school. He expressed to us that his dreams were useless in the face of the realities of his life, but our gift revived him. He replaced his transmission, paid for tuition from his paltry savings, and started school, which began his transition from below the poverty line to an M.B.A. and ultimately to an influential position with a high six-figure salary. Without outside help, it is likely his success would never have been achieved.

The example provided is intended to reinforce the importance of providing a helping hand and should not be construed as an endorsement of “welfare.” The “helping hand” that is the focus of this post is Education, and the Progressive view is that government has the responsibility to assure that the barriers in the way of equal opportunity are removed and prevented. Ignorance is the greatest barrier, and Education is needed to overcome it.

Conservatives support charters et al because charter schools and choice create a market-based system of Education that will generate competitive pressures for traditional public schools (TPS) to improve.

A 2001 study, Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts, a report from the National Study of Charter Schools by RPP International, found that school districts changed procedures and programs in response to the presence of charters, but the report does not address whether or not student achievement benefitted from those changes. A more recent and extensive study (2013) by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, National Charter School Study—2013, is an essential read for individuals interested in policy development. Among summary findings were these salient points:

For every student subgroup, learning outcomes for individual students range from outstanding to dismal. By looking at the average learning impacts for each student group, it is possible to compare how the group fares in charter schools compared to how their twins grew in TPS. White students fare worse on average in charter schools than in their local TPS in both reading and math while Asian charter students had weaker growth in math.

At the school level, we find 25 percent of charter schools have stronger growth than their TPS counterparts in reading and 29 percent have stronger growth in math. But 19 percent of charters have weaker growth than TPS in reading and 31 percent have weaker growth in math. When examining growth and achievement together, 32 percent of charter schools have both weak growth and low achievement in reading and 40 percent do in math.

Much of the motivation behind the spread of charter schools is based on the hope of improving educational outcomes for students in poverty. Students in poverty attending charter schools have significantly stronger growth in both reading and math than their counterparts in TPS. Charter students in poverty gain the equivalent of an additional 14 days of learning in reading and 22 more days in math than TPS students in poverty. It should be noted that while these gains are beneficial for charter students … these gains are not large enough to offset the differences between students in poverty and students who are not in poverty.

While some marginal gains have been recognized in some circumstances, a market-based educational system is, by definition, the antithesis of equal opportunity because in market-based systems, there are winners and losers.

The Progressive view is that ALL children should be provided the opportunity to be winners by having access to effective education. Unfortunately, the advantaged Conservatives currently in power do not believe this; otherwise, our educational systems would be expected and required to create schools that replicate the research-based best practices that have been known and disseminated across the Nation for years. Educators en masse have rejected these best practices in favor of teaching in the ways they were taught, and no one in positions of responsibility—Conservative or Progressive—is doing much about it.

Just imagine if medical doctors were only using the pharmaceuticals and procedures that were available twenty years ago, while the rest of the world was using the latest advances in Medicine. As a society we would be outraged, but that is exactly the situation that is facing far too many of the disadvantaged students in our country today, and an unfortunate reality is that the parents of disadvantaged kids are likely unaware of it. Conservatives might be okay with that reality given that, from their perspective, each of us are on our own, but a Progressive should use their appropriate outrage to demand that the state step in and demand that Education apply research-based practices in ALL schools in order to increase the likelihood that ALL students will be better equipped for their individual pursuits of happiness.

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