Flypaper

Liam Julian

Barack Obama said today that our currently segregated schools create and prolong achievement gaps. He compared them to segregated schools 50 years ago. These ideas are patently false--segregated schools circa 1960 are not, for a pile of reasons, analogous to the naturally, racially separated schools that exist today. To keep blurring this distinction doesn't get anyone "beyond race"; it merely misrepresents a complicated issue by eliding the facts and history of public-school desegregation. And it neglects to acknowledge the fine work being done in some of the most educationally separated settings.

The Mississippi Board of Education wants superintendents to be held accountable for student learning, the Clarion-Ledger reports. Supes in underperforming districts would be removed after two years, even if they were elected by the public. (Yes, some southern states still elect local superintendents.) Unfortunately voters don't appear to put student achievement high on their priority lists when voting for education officials--at least in the case of school boards--so this tonic is more than appropriate. Fair is fair: if educators are to be held accountable, their bosses should be too.

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Liam, you're right to question whether Catholic schools are necessarily better than public schools or public charter schools. Of course not; there are great Catholic schools, and lousy ones, and everything in between, just as is the case for the other sectors. But where there are strong Catholic schools--particularly those serving non-Catholic poor kids--it's a tragedy to see them going away. Could their buildings be sold to charter schools? Sure. Could those schools be excellent? You bet. But is it harder to start excellent new schools than to maintain excellent schools that already exist? By a mile.* That's why great Catholic schools are worth the fighting for--and worth paying for too.

*Do I sound like Margaret Spellings, answering my own questions? Absolutely.

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Gadfly Studios

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced a pilot plan to let some states "differentiate" between really bad schools and mediocre ones--i.e., those that fail just one or two of their subgroups instead of all of them. In exchange for a pressure valve on the so-so schools, states must agree to crack the whip on the most egregious offenders. Is this a well-calculated adjustment or a ham-fisted over-correction? Fordham's own Michael Petrilli tells Fordham's own Christina Hentges what he thinks about it in this week's Fordham Factor.

httpv://youtube.com/watch?v=4adGOEGpBQM

According to Inside Higher Ed, Luke Wilson will star in an upcoming film that producer Brendan McDonald says will "lampoon the tenure process" in colleges and universities.

Tenure 2: Back to K-12 would make a great sequel.

Mike, I agree that holding superintendents accountable for the performance of their schools is entirely appropriate, but as with any new law, the devil will prove to be in the details. The Commercial Dispatch reports that school performance will be based on the state's accountability system; that's not terribly encouraging in a state that earned a D+ from Fordham for its state standards. And what about a superintendent whose district shows great improvement for two straight years, yet still rates "underperforming"? The proposed law appears to be a blunt instrument applied to a complicated problem, especially considering that two years is barely time to implement changes, much less see the results show up in testing. Finally, we can't forget that superintendent turnover is already a problem, with the average tenure lasting just a handful of years, and that should give us education reformers pause: change is hard to sustain without consistent leadership. Let's hope this law works as intended, weeding out those superintendents who do little to help kids, and that it doesn't exacerbate the leadership shortage found in too many school systems today.

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Liam Julian

Mike, I may agree with your point that Catholic schools should receive public funding. But it doesn't look likely that they will, on any grand scale, in the near future, especially if come January 2009 both the White House and Congress are run by a party more friendly to public-school teachers' unions and more hostile to choice. And even where voucher programs exist--Milwaukee, for example--several Catholic schools that receive vouchers have closed despite boosting their enrollments. The Catholic schools' troubles can't be remedied by public funding alone, it seems.

But you haven't answered the main question: Why the big push from education-policy groups to save Catholic schools, in particular? Is the assumption that all Catholic schools are superior to their k-12 public-school, or public charter-school, counterparts? And is the assumption that closed Catholic schools cannot be replaced by high-quality charter-school alternatives?

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Liam asks "if urban Catholic schools can't compete with charter schools, why do they deserve special help?"

But Liam, charter schools are free for the families who choose them, while, outside of the handful of cities with voucher programs, Catholic schools ain't. If we could find a way for both charter schools and Catholic schools to receive public support, then I'd say yes, let the best schools win. Until then, somebody needs to give deserving Catholic schools a lift. And if the Pope isn't willing, how can we expect Uncle Sam to volunteer?

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Over at The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson wonders why Barack Obama is so worried about teaching students about oppression. He quotes a recent "news source":

He said schools should do a better job of teaching all students African-American history "because that's part of American history," as well as women's struggle for equality, the history of unions, the role of Hispanics in U.S. and other matters that he suggested aren't given enough attention.

"I want us to have a broad-based history" taught in schools, he said, even including more on "the Holocaust as well as other issues of oppression" around the world.

Perhaps Senator Obama missed the news stories about a recent poll of high school students, asking them to name the "most famous" Americans in history, presidents excluded. Here's the list of the top ten, with the percentage who voted for each:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.: 67%
  2. Rosa Parks: 60%
  3. Harriet Tubman: 44%
  4. Susan B. Anthony: 34%
  5. Benjamin Franklin: 29%
  6. Amelia Earhart: 25%
  7. Oprah Winfrey: 22%
  8. Marilyn Monroe: 19%
  9. Thomas Edison: 18%
  10. Albert Einstein: 16%

Looks like schools are already doing a decent job teaching some of these "underrepresented" groups, after all....

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