The Obama Administration's munificence toward state and local public schools ($100 billion in stimulus funds, including a $5 billion slush fund to try to figure out "what works") is bringing out of the woodwork the usual array of miracle workers with cures for whatever ails us educationally.
What's palpably lacking in the Obama Administration's approach to schooling, however, is frank empiricism, wisdom, and humane empathy for all types of children.
Fortunately, America's leading social scientist recently published a short, lucid book of his characteristic judiciousness laying out a roadmap for fundamental reform of schooling: Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. It begins with these words that every parent and teacher deep down know to be true:
"The educational system is living a lie. The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be. No one really believes it, but we approach education's problems as if we did. We are phobic about saying out loud that children differ in their ability to learn the things that schools teach."
Worse, the opinion-setters angrily castigate those who explain the implications of how they behave when it comes to their own children.
"Not only do we hate to say it, we get angry with people who do. We insist that the emperor is wearing clothes, beautiful clothes, and that those who say otherwise are bad people."
The author notes of realism:
"This is not a counsel of despair. The implication is not to stop trying to help, but to stop doing harm. Educational romanticism has imposed immeasurable costs on children and their futures. It pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of educational achievement (e.g., all children should perform at grade level) at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity. We can do much better for children who are below average in academic ability, but only after we get a grip on reality."
The author demonstrates four simple truths and their profound implications:
America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
For example, to give some sense of just where "average" is, the author provides this question from the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress for 8th graders:
Example 1. There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?
(A) 9 (B) 81 (C) 91 (D) 99 (E) 100
Guess what percentage of 8th graders got this one wrong?
And it's actually worse than that, because a sizable fraction of the right responses were likely eenie-meenie-minie-moe guesses.
Most 8th graders can figure out what 10 percent of 90 is. And even more can add 90 and 9. What the majority can't do is put to cognitively analyze the problem and put the steps together.
Once you admit the four simple truths, it's not hard to come up with solutions that will make schooling more effective for most students.
Tracking, for instance. Why humiliate the worst students and bore the best students by clumping them in the same classroom? But tracking has been out of fashion ideologically since the late 1960s, in large part because it tends to lead to racial segregation within schools. Fortunately, it keeps creeping back in under various disguises (witness the proliferation of Advanced Placement classes in this decade.)
Discipline is another perfectly sensible notion that gets lost, in part due to anti-discrimination laws. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest, has a particular problem with enforcing discipline because LA has three essentials for discrimination lawsuits over "disparate impact" in discipline: its own deep pockets, lots of unruly non-Asian minority students, and an extraordinary number of high-powered LA Law-style lawyers constantly trolling for anti-discrimination suits.
Similarly, progressive education's animus against having students memorize the times tables and historical dates is better for teachers (i.e., it's less boring to teach) than it is for students, especially the left half of the bell curve. As the author points out, "memorizing is something that children do much, much better than adults".
Moreover, Real Education is scathing on the myth of "Yale or jail" propagated by the education establishment:
"Worst of all, the current system watches these students approach the age at which they can legally drop out of school and acts as if it wants to push them out, urging them to take more mathematics, language arts, history, and science courses that they don't want to take, so that they can pursue the college chimera."
For example, the rich Gates Foundation put on a full court press a few years ago and persuaded the LAUSD school board to mandate that, to graduate from high school, students must pass not only Algebra I and Geometry, but also Algebra II—a class that is simply beyond a large swathe of humanity's powers of abstract cognition.
For students in the mid-range of academic ability, those who today typically start higher education but wind up years later with tens of thousands of dollars in tuition debts but no four-year degree, the author offers a plan to break up the monopoly of the B.A. degree as a signaling device. (It would also reduce the frantic scramble to get into prestige colleges to acquire a halo effect with future employers.)
The author advocates, modeled on the existing Certified Public Accountants exam, more national certification tests in a wide array of careers. Let students get as much higher education as they need to sit the exam in their chosen career. Then publish their scores for employers to see. Maybe the kid who spent two years working very hard at a community college learned more of relevance to his future employers than a kid who spent four years at Swarthmore.
Or maybe not. But why not have an objective way for employers to find out?
Unfortunately, this wise man's name is Charles Murray. So Real Education has been almost completely ignored in this Era of Obamania. [VDARE.com Note: It received a brief review in the NYT, (Title: Just Leave Them Behind) and a nasty one by Michael J. Feuer [email him]in Issues in Science and Technology, (Title: Danger: Bell Curve Ahead) in which Feuer said that if it weren't for Murray's fame and influence, dating back to Losing Ground, "there would be little reason to dignify the current polemic with a review in a magazine of the National Academy of Sciences."]
A tenuous relationship between Obama and Murray goes back to 1994, the year Murray co-authored with Richard Herrnstein The Bell Curve.
Although Barack Obama has a strong urge toward literary self-expression, his prudential awareness that what he didn't say now couldn't hurt his career later meant that his publications during the 1990s were extraordinarily limited. Although he was editor of the Harvard Law Review, and later employed as a lecturer by the U. of Chicago Law Review, he authored no legal scholarship. Obama wrote obscure columns for the Chicago black newspaper and for the local weekly of Hyde Park, the upscale liberal enclave in which he kept himself ensconced, but they are not on line. (There is of course the massive exception of his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, a tome so interminable in length and slippery in style that few have managed to figure out what Obama was talking about. See my America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's "Story Of Race And Inheritance.)
Unsurprisingly, the subject of Obama's lone foray into national punditry in the 1990s, a commentary on National Public Radio, was so uncontroversial that it couldn't possibly backfire on his ambitions: a denunciation of Charles Murray for co-authoring The Bell Curve.
Fifteen years later, the headline reads as the quintessence of irony
Political Expediency Denounced
Byline: Barack Obama
Showing little evidence of having read the book he excoriated, Obama demanded more government spending on social programs that would benefit his political bases: blacks and social workers He said: "Now, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out that with early intervention such problems can be prevented … In the short run, such ladders of opportunity are going to cost more, not less, than either welfare or affirmative action."
Although the President constantly demands that the best teachers be sent to teach the worst students, in his own much-praised teaching career he made sure to teach only some of the most carefully selected elite students in the world: University of Chicago Law students.
In 1995, Obama became Chairman of the Board of the lavishly funded Chicago Annenberg Challenge, dreamed up by unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers among others, and operation run out of the same floor (perhaps the same office) as Ayers's Small Learning Community educational project. Years later, a careful study of test scores of students showed that Obama and Ayers had wasted about $100 million.
Having failed dismally as a school reformer himself, Obama has hired Mayor Daley's school chief Arne Duncan to run the Department of Education. But Duncan is so handcuffed by the convention wisdom of educational romanticism that he won't accomplish much.
The reason that almost nobody wants to think honestly about schooling is that each of the four truths exhibit "disparate impact" on non-Asian minorities. Once you start thinking hard about the data, you inevitably wind up a crimethinker:
Ability varies. Both between individuals and between races.
Half of the children are below average. And more black and Hispanic children are below average than white and Asian children.
America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. (Relatively few of whom are black or Hispanic.)
Murray largely avoids talking about race in this book. But, in reality, there's no escaping it for him. He'll always be demonized as the co-author of The Bell Curve.
And yet there is a possibility for breaking this vicious cycle of denigration of the best social scientists and the inevitable result of knuckleheaded social policies.
The poisonous cultural atmosphere could be radically improved with a stroke of the President's pen:
Obama could appoint Charles Murray his Senior Advisor on Education!
Obama's Nixon-goes-to-China endorsement of Murray would radically clear the air in our society, undercutting the knee-jerk viciousness routinely directed at social scientists who dare to tell the truth.
Is there any chance Obama would do this?
Consider Obama's appointment of that bête noire of feminists, Larry Summers, to an equivalent role on economic policy. Granted, that's different because Obama—as far as I can tell from his autobiography—doesn't care about feminism at all. (Note how during last year's campaign, Obama revamped his wife's image from $317,000 per year career woman to stay-at-home earth mother.)
In contrast, Obama deeply cares about race, as the subtitle to his autobiography—A Story of Race and Inheritance—suggests. He's risen to the White House as the prime beneficiary of the conventional wisdom about race.
So why would he overturn the reigning dogmas?
Well, there's only reason he would do so: if he actually cares about doing a good job as President.
We shall see.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]