There is new news in the continuing saga that is American public education. The New York Times recently did several articles about school officials kicking, pressuring, oozing and generally forcing high-school students out of their institutions. The motive is to get rid of the poor performers who drag down their schools’ success statistics. Schools with poor numbers are punished under George Bush’s Texas-style education law.
The Times reported that in New York, more than 55,000 high-school students were given the boot during the 2000-1 school year. At some schools, more students are kicked out than graduate in a single year.
This practice can’t be blamed on the city’s corrupt and dilapidated school system; it goes on everywhere. The reactions to this information were predictable. Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein came through with the customary formulaic blarney. “The problem of what’s happening to the students is a tragedy,” he said. “The goal is for students to graduate in four years, but we’ve got to stop giving the signal that we’re giving up on students who don’t do that.” Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said that “we need to correct [this] problem, we need to fix it as soon as possible …. We need schools to offer as many program options as possible. We’re very serious about this.”
Translated into everyday language, what Deputy Mayor Walcott is telling us is: “There’s not a goddamn thing that the Mayor or I will do about this, because there is nothing we can do except re-arrange the organizational chart again.” We might wish that officials like Mr. Walcott would level with us from time to time, but you can’t blame them for not doing it. All they would get for their trouble is a furor leading to their own demise. They know that not only is the money lacking for corrective action, but that the public atmosphere won’t allow doing what would need to be done. And we haven’t even addressed such obstacles as the teachers’ union.
As predictable as dull quotes by highly placed individuals is legal action. Just as you would expect, a lawsuit has been filed against the Department of Education in federal district court in Brooklyn arguing that since young persons are entitled by statute to stay in school until 21 years of age, the educators should stop tossing them out because they’re poor students or frequently tardy or lazy or whatever. Jack B. Weinstein, the judge in the case, has ordered that letters be sent out advising the kickees of their rights. Mr. Weinstein, who has a deserved reputation as a fine man and a fine judge, has been on this particular golf course before: Thirty-four years ago, he heard an almost identical case. He did his best then, but, with no shame on his attempt, his best obviously didn’t begin to be good enough.
After decades of litigation, we should have long since disabused ourselves of the notion that there is a law court anywhere in the United States able to write out a decree that will raise educational standards. Courts can right wrongs to individuals or even classes of individuals, but they cannot repair broken social institutions.
Legislatures can, if they will. Thanks to Congress and the President, we have the No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately, it seems that the way to see that no child is left behind is to kick that child out-something schools and school systems have a strong incentive to do when their income depends upon their statistical showing. If, for whatever reason, you can’t teach the pupils, manipulate the numbers. Pushing out students who will mess up a school’s statistics is just one way to cook the statistical books. Teaching to the test and cheating on tests are now common enough, so we cannot say if the schools are more successful in putting knowledge in their students or in juggling their numbers.
In times past, it was presumed that only some-perhaps not even half-of a generation’s youngsters would complete high school. In our era, where egalitarian goo is used to camouflage unequal facts, it must appear as if everybody’s getting a basic minimum when they are not and cannot.
Given the situation classroom by classroom, we aren’t going to be educating a larger fraction of the teenage population anytime soon. We don’t have the teachers-that is, we don’t have enough teachers willing to stay in school and teach. The Wall Street Journal recently made the point by noting that in 1987-88, the number of new teachers exceeded the number of those who left by 3 percent. But by 1999-2000, teaching dropouts and retirees exceeded the number of new teachers by 23 percent. How long can we go on losing tens of thousands of teachers every year?
Teaching is extremely difficult work: The better you do it, the longer the hours and the more the energy you must devote to it. Say what they will in Washington or in the states about education-and a lot is said-but nobody is doing anything to keep good teachers. Instead, government sets numerical standards and proceeds as though teaching the young were an industrial process. Tests, statistics and some form of brutal quality control are the norm for conducting education.
That approach is cheaper: The more difficult the student, the more expensive it is to reach him or her. It costs far less to quietly ease the hard-to-teach out of school and off the statistical tables than to tackle the job of redeeming the academically recalcitrant. The price tag for teaching the nation’s youth as individual persons would rival that of a war.
War is merely this year’s excuse for not spending the necessary moneys. If you want to see the real reason, take a drive outside any large city and look at the McMansions that scar every countryside. The disposable wealth of the nation is owned and controlled by the rich, and they are going to spend it on their large, ugly houses and the rest of their gaudy claptrap.
Whether or not having millions of low-skilled, difficult-to-employ adults roaming about is cheaper in the long run, the school story is not going to change. Children and youth will continue to be handled as industrial raw material, and those who don’t make it-well, they are factory waste.