This Saturday A Nation at Risk turns twenty-five.

As with most birthdays after one's twenty-first, the occasion is bittersweet. As Fordham president Checker Finn reflects in today's Education Gadfly, the lessons of A Nation at Risk, despite the report's landmark status for sounding "an overdue and much-needed alarum," still struggle to be heard over the din of misguided deniers. That's a shame, he says, for the "biggest single reason, I believe, that America's education reform efforts of the past quarter century have yielded such meager returns is that we haven't given them our all."

Indeed, the country's general failure to absorb A Nation at Risk has been the source of many a frustration for Checker:

A Nation at Risk

Gadfly Studios

Mike and Christina discuss Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's latest round of changes to No Child Left Behind.


You have to hand it to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her team: they are hardly dawdling during these last months of the Administration. On Tuesday, they announced a massive set of regulatory changes to No Child Left Behind that incorporates many of the "pilot programs" and reauthorization proposals that the Bush Team (and others) have floated over the past year.

Still, while Spellings put forth much that's laudable and sensible, upon close inspection there's less than meets the eye. This is particularly true when it comes to the law's interventions for schools found to be "in need of improvement." The problems with the law's current "cascade of sanctions" are multiple and legendary, but Spellings's new regulations don't provide the overhauls necessary to right the ship.

Take the lethargic efforts of many school districts to advertise the law's "free tutoring" opportunities. The proposed regulations would make a number of small and useful changes. For example, districts could spend federal money on marketing and outreach activities and charge that spending to the 20 percent of their Title I funds that they are supposed to allocate toward tutoring and school choice. Districts would also have to notify parents of their choice options at least 14 days before the start of the school year, and publish a description of their efforts to inform parents of these opportunities. Plus, before moving the tutoring dollars to something else (which is allowed under the law if not enough parents...

Liam Julian

Mike tells me (as he runs out the door to catch a flight) that he's already answered my question about standards and tests thusly:

Particularly if all schools work toward common statewide academic standards, and thus have some degree of sameness when it comes to the content of what kids are learning, allowing them to differentiate when it comes to their approaches to discipline, school culture, the celebration of holidays, extra-curricular activities, etc., doesn't seem like such a tragedy. And if my wife and I, as parents, don't like the trendy, eco-friendly, ultra-PC ethos of my local Takoma Park school (we have another 4 ?? years to decide), then we can always, well, move.

Maybe. Wouldn't segmented schools, though, want freedom to innovate in all areas (i.e., standards, curriculum), and not only the tangential stuff? I wonder if the lines Mike draws are possible to maintain.

Liam Julian

The obvious rejoinder to Mike's post is that when people cluster in "communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs and in the end, politics," they also cluster among people of the same race and socioeconomic status.

The impulse to seek out those similar to oneself isn't new, but today's society offers people many more methods by which to act on it. Marketers know this. Chris Anderson writes in his book The Long Tail, "If the twentieth-century entertainment industry was about hits, the twenty-first will be equally about niches." Successful companies are producing less of more, that is, to appeal to the clustered masses.

Some will say the drawbacks of racially or socioeconomically homogenous classrooms, classrooms that Mike rightly calls undesirable, far outweigh the benefits of schools where pupils parents agree on "what good education looks like." Maybe. But as long as adults like to send their kids to close-to-home schools (they do), and as long as they live near others like them (they do), individual schools will be racially and socioeconomically uniform.

The Thernstroms (among others) convincingly document that this isn't as bad as it seems. The alternatives, which all depend on busing, are far worse, in no small part because they shift schools' focuses away from learning. Clustered schools, by contrast, could focus even more attention on learning. Mike writes, "As geographic sorting occurs, neighborhood public schools will have the same ability to customize themselves to fit the values...

Liam Julian

One of Thomas Sowell's points, that college education is being watered down because too many people are obtaining it, is a fine one. He notes that "education is not a Good Thing categorically in unlimited amounts, for people of all levels of ability, interest, and willingness to work." This is one reason why k-12's current "college or nothing" structure is a failure, and why so many 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who are not willing to work toward college, and who have no other educational routes open to them, drop out of high school. (It's not popular to say, but common sense helps us realize that if the almost-adult student likes fixing cars and hates poetry, one does him no service??through repeated floggings of Marlowe.) ??????

Sowell writes:

Those who are not serious--which includes a remarkably large number of students, even at good colleges--would have to back off and go face the realities of the adult world in the job market. But not as many jobs would be able to require college degrees if such degrees were no longer so readily available at someone else's expense.

His last sentence is a wounded antelope for the China-and-India crowd, which will instinctively pounce. They reflexively remind us that Americans compete not only with themselves but with (you know) the college-educated Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Malagasy. Partly true, as always. But that U.S. education credentials are worth less each year is undeniable--and employers know it. As we push unqualified people into college,...

Yesterday, on the Wall Street Journal's expanded opinion pages, Alan Ehrenhalt reviewed Bill Bishop's new book, The Big Sort. Its thesis:

As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs and in the end, politics.

Both men are concerned about this trend, representing as they think it does a decline in interaction among people of differing views. I see the results of this trend where I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, known as the Berkeley of the Washington, D.C., region. (In October 2004, a college kid in a DNC t-shirt almost fainted when he asked me to donate to "get that bum out of office" and I told him I was actually in the Bush Administration. "I haven't even come across another Republican," he replied.)

And I agree that this development isn't great for civic discourse or, ultimately, our democracy. But it might not be so bad for our schools. After all, one of the primary motivations of the school choice movement (which I support) is the ability for parents to sort themselves into schools that match their own personal beliefs about what good education looks like. More conservative parents can get a back-to-basics school and more progressive parents can get something more along the Montessori model. Nobody has to compromise...

Anticipating tomorrow's White House summit on inner-city children and faith-based schools, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett turns in a solid defense (and cites Fordham's latest report) of Catholic schools over at National Review Online.

Gadfly Studios

Marvin's and Mike's mothers coordinated on the phone last night before laying out their sons' outfits. (Click the photo for a bigger version.)

Separated at birth?

Liam Julian

Principal Jana Fields knows that No Child Left Behind looks at school test-score data by subgroup. She knows that the scores of black students are evaluated separately from those of white students, that the scores of Asian students and those??of Hispanic students are gathered in their own, specific cluster.

So, she thought, I should gather in their own specific cluster all the actual black students at my school and pump them up by telling them that their exam grades are worse than those of their white peers.

According to the Sacramento Bee, some parents disagreed:

"To me that was outright blatant discrimination by race," said Marie Townsend, an African American mother whose daughter Mikalah attended the meeting. "If you have a group of students that are struggling, don't you think all the whites and Asians and Hispanics who are struggling would benefit from that assembly?"

Yes, one would think so. But in our race-obsessed schools, it seems that any type of racial segregation is okay, as long as it's done with the kid's interests in mind.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's time our public schools got past race.