Midsummer musings

Muzzling Alfie Kohn is noble work for education reformers, and it's a pity that a misguided Massachusetts judge doesn't get it. Five long years ago, the Bay State's Department of Education threatened to withdraw its funding from an education conference if Kohn were allowed to address it on the topic of standardized testing, which he hates. In the event, Kohn was paid his nontrivial honorarium but not permitted to speak. The ACLU filed suit on "freedom of speech" grounds, and Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel found the other day that indeed Kohn's civil rights had been violated.

The question this poses is whether a government agency that is implementing a particular policy is obliged to pay for critics of that policy to decry it. A decision not to subsidize them is not the same as silencing the critics, who have ample outlets and forums and can easily get paid by the Ford Foundation, FairTest, or the NEA.

Is NIH obliged to pay for vendors of herbal remedies to address cancer conferences? Is the Department of the Interior obliged to pay for advocates of strip-mining Yellowstone to speak at conservation conferences? Is the Marine Corps obliged to pay for pacifists to talk at seminars on weaponry?

A wag of the finger to Judge Zobel. Hurrah for the Massachusetts Department of Education. 

"A victory for education," by Adrian Walker, Boston Globe, August 7, 2006


Teaching science, not theology,
is the proper work of public school science classes, and it's gratifying to see that Kansas voters are again denying the "intelligent design" crowd a majority on the state Board of Education. But it's a close call. Ideological control of that policy body keeps shifting back and forth, mirroring the electorate's split on evolution and a handful of other hot-button issues. Kansas is not the only place in America where Darwin remains the subject of intense controversy. (Ohio is another.) Ordinarily I would say that giving people choices among schools is the surest way to handle such strongly held divisions, but so long as all (public) schools are subject to statewide academic standards and tests, the issue cannot so easily be sidestepped. On balance, the best way to handle it is to teach real science in science class, and to argue contemporary controversies in civics and current affairs classes. In other words, all kids--even in Kansas--should learn about evolution as the keystone of biology; then in another classroom they can examine why some people don't agree with that. Alternatively, as one battle-scarred veteran of the Kansas curriculum wars put it, "Can we just agree [that] God invented Darwin?"

"Moderates recapture Kansas state school board," by David Klepper and Melodee Hall Blobaum, Kansas City Star, August 2, 2006


Universal pre-school
is a good idea that's easy to ruin. A costly, school system-dominated version was recently turned down by California voters and an overreaching, high-priced version was just vetoed by Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, Florida has completed the successful, first-year implementation of a more modest "voluntary pre-K" program for four-year-olds across the state.

This is territory where one must take with several grains of salt any statement that begins with the words "Research shows" or "Research proves." The truth is that remarkably little is known for sure about what sorts of pre-school experiences provide the greatest benefit to which sorts of kids--and much controversy surrounds even the definition and measurement of "benefit."

My own take is this: disadvantaged kids are better prepared to succeed in kindergarten and first grade if they have richer cognitive pre-K experiences than many of them are apt to receive at home, and society ought to provide opportunities for such experiences. But to be worthy of public funding, pre-K programs need to satisfy four requirements: First, They have to be voluntary; it's not the state's job to take 3 or 4 year olds away from parents who would rather keep them home or entrust them to Grandma or a neighbor. Second, they must provide parents with multiple options to choose among, including private and faith-based providers, lest we recreate all the problems associated with public-sector monopolies. Third, they must concentrate on the skills that little kids truly need for school readiness--above all cognitive skills--not just provide child care. Finally, every provider must be rigorously evaluated on the basis of its results--namely, how well its "graduates" do when they reach kindergarten.

Florida's program meets those criteria. As best I can tell, the California and Massachusetts versions did not.

"Romney vetoes universal prekindergarten in state," Boston Globe, August 5, 2006


Teaching "social justice"
in school sounds like a dandy idea until you examine what it really means. Sol Stern's superb essay in the summer issue of City Journal does precisely that--and does so with Stern's customary fearless clarity. Besides skewering Bill Ayers, the former violent revolutionary turned ed school professor, Stern shows how the dubious "social justice" idea is spreading through U.S. colleges of education with the enthusiastic backing of the American Education Research Association and NCATE. What, exactly, is the problem with it? Join Stern as he visits some of the 15-plus New York City "new small high schools that either are explicitly named as social justice schools or whose mission statements declare that their curricula center on social justice concerns." There you will find kids learning to protest and make revolution rather than to read and write and cipher. "Social justice teaching," Stern shows, "is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, grievously harmful to poor children, who start out with a disadvantage. School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes. The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action."

"The Ed Schools' Latest-and Worst-Humbug," by Sol Stern, City Journal, Summer 2006

More By Author