Flypaper

Sixteen-year-old Jim Hennessy is angry. His rights have been violated, as has been his "personal freedom." What's at stake that caused the New York Times to give Jim's story prominent attention? Free speech? Religious expression? Not, it's worse; Darien High School had the audacity to require Jim and his peers to pass a breathalyzer test before entering a school dance.

"What you do off school grounds should be your own business," says Jim.

Um, yeah, Jim, maybe that's true if you stay off school grounds (and then it's your business and your parents' business). But setting sobriety as a prerequisite to school functions is hardly a step toward the Third Reich. Nor is it a panacea; as the local school board chairman admitted to the Times, "It doesn't solve the problem of teenage drinking. But it solves the problem of teenage drinking at school dances."

It's hard to fault Jim entirely, though. He's lived his entire life in the age of student "rights" guaranteed by the Supreme Court, no less (see here). Believing he has the right to attend school dances drunk is just the logical extension of decades of court decisions, you might say. What would help is the Court deciding, a la Clarence Thomas, that minors don't have free speech rights--much less the right to get bombed. I'd drink to that....

The New York Times reports today on the admissions crunch at Ivy League schools. Due to record numbers of applicants, Harvard's acceptance rate this year is down to a new low of 7.1 percent, and other schools are setting their own records as well. Why? The Times speculates, but focuses on demographics:

Many factors contributed to the tightening of the competition at the most selective colleges, admissions deans and high school counselors said, among them demographics. The number of high school graduates in the nation has grown each year over the last decade and a half, though demographers project that the figure will peak this year or next, which might reduce the competition a little.

Other factors were the ease of online applications, expanded financial aid packages, aggressive recruiting of a broader range of young people, and ambitious students' applying to ever more colleges.

I'd bet on that last point--students applying to more and more colleges. Anecdotally speaking, when I applied to colleges 16 years ago, submitting a handful of applications was the norm. Now that seems lazy.

As the International Herald Tribune reported in January, "'There was a time when kids applied to three or four schools, then to six or seven schools, and now, 10 or more is not uncommon,' said John Maguire, a higher education consultant." We're in a vicious cycle, where students need to apply to more schools simply because everyone else is applying to more schools. This effect--if indeed there...

And in other shockers, environmentalists don't like NASCAR and feminists don't like Vegas. Really, is anyone going to take this report by the teachers union-funded Great Lakes Center seriously? Consider this, from its press release:

Should transportation, food and custodial services be provided by employees of school districts, or should those services by outsourced to private companies? Does contracting out these services save the district money and add flexibility? According to a new report that takes an honest look at the evidence, the answer to each of these questions is, "sometimes, but many times not."

Well I'm glad the report took an "honest look." For its next work, we expect the Great Lakes Center to ask, "Should school boards negotiate aggressively with their teachers unions? Sometimes, but many times not."

At least that was my takeaway from from??today's "Editorial Observer" column about Barack Obama's race speech.* Don't worry, the Times thinks I'm racist too, for I opposed the country's old-style welfare system. I may have thought that I disagreed with the way it created dependency among the very people it was designed to help. And I may have believed that I supported welfare reform because it rewarded work and empowered poor people (especially poor women) with a message of hope and responsibility. But no, the Times??paraphrases William Julius William asserting that:

whites rebelled against welfare because they saw it as using their hard-earned taxes to give blacks "medical and legal services that many of them could not afford for their own families."

Yup, I just hated seeing those medical and legal services going to undeserving minorities. Come on!

Then the Times goes on to say, "For all the appeal of America's melting pot, the country's diverse ethnic mix is one main reason for entrenched opposition to public spending on the public good."

Wait a minute. Our country spends over $500 billion per year on our increasingly diverse public education system--more per-pupil than almost any nation on earth. Over the last twenty years, more and more of these dollars have been targeted (along with major reforms like No Child Left Behind) at our most diverse, most needy schools.

Good grief, what kind of mean-spirited nation do the Times editors think they live in?

...

In Sunday's Washington Post, Fordham Institute president Chester E. Finn debunks five of the most common (and harmful) myths pervading debates over No Child Left Behind. Good stuff, and I'm not just saying that because he's my boss.

Jeff Kuhner

Increasing numbers of U.S. Muslims are opting for home schooling. It's a bad idea for one simple reason: They are segregating themselves from mainstream American society. A recent piece in the New York Times on the struggles faced by Pakistani-American girls in Lodi, California, highlights the problems caused by home schooling. Although many Muslim, as well as Christian, Jewish and secular parents view it as a necessary alternative to the social ills plaguing public schools, such as drugs, violence, promiscuity, and the celebration of the hip-hop/celebrity culture (to name just a few), the adverse consequences on their children are very real and usually last a lifetime. The biggest problem is that home schooling by traditionalist religious communities perpetuates the creation of social ghettoes, whereby students are often alienated and disconnected from the larger American culture. It fosters a kind of balkanization that, ultimately, is not good for America or for the students.

Take the case of the Pakistani-American girls profiled in The Times article. Coming from traditional Islamic families, many of the girls were forced to leave public school and study at home. This is because their parents want them to cook and clean for their male relatives and siblings. It was also done to prevent the girls from being exposed to liberating female cultural mores, such as wearing Western clothes and spending free time after school with friends.

"Some men don't like it when you wear American clothes - they don't think it is a...

This Associated Press story reports that the kinder-and-gentler Massachusetts Board of Education is "searching for gentler euphemisms to describe the state's failing schools after educators complained current labels damage teacher morale and student self-esteem." So instead of getting called "underperforming" they might be labeled a "Commonwealth priority."Are they joking? Is this an April Fool's Day joke? One of the primary theories behind standards-and-accountability is to shame schools (and their districts) into taking the tough actions to turn themselves around. Clear labels also alert parents to a problem so they can get involved-or get busy finding another option. It's hard to think of a better way to keep parents in the dark than to call their schools a "priority."

For their next act, maybe the board will suggest that Bear Stearns be labeled a "priority" investment firm. We can remember when the Massachusetts board was a model of toughness and foresight; where are their "priorities" now?

Venture capitalist-cum-school reformer Whitney Tilson comes in for a ribbing at the Education Notes Online blog, at the hands of Norm Scott, whom one New York friend of mine calls ???an anti-UFT lefty who is very smart.??? It's a pretty good piece of satire, but Scott's complaint is an age-old and tired one: everyone thinks they're an education expert because they attended school at one point. We should leave education punditry to the classroom teachers, Scott implies.

As a certified education pundit with limited classroom experience myself, I take umbrage at that assumption, for two reasons. First, the skills required to be a great teacher and to convince policymakers to act are quite divergent; the former takes a sense of humor, the ability to talk to children, perseverance???wait, maybe the skills required are the same. But my second point still stands: what some business types like Tilson can do???and what is difficult for most rank-and-file teachers???is to see the big picture, the forest for the trees. Mrs. Smith might know how to teach reading really well, but that doesn't mean she knows how to set national policy that will make great reading instruction more likely in classrooms nationwide. (Not that Congress has been doing all that great on that front lately either.)

At least half of education reform is about garnering the political will for change, and the rest is about the details of implementation. If the Tilsons of the world can help build political will,...

The New York Times's Samuel Freedman provides a great introduction to the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program???basically a Teach For America for parochial schools. Never heard of it? You're not alone:????

Teach for America has become a virtual brand name on elite college campuses and a coveted item on graduate-school applications and corporate r??sum??s. Programs like [one at Seton Hall] have received far less public acclaim, and yet they are vital to the almost literally lifesaving role that Catholic schools play as an affordable alternative to chronically failing public schools in many low-income areas.

Big funders, including the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation, are said to be looking at targeting future investments toward ???human capital??? initiatives. May I suggest that expanding ACE be on their list?

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Liam Julian
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