The day of reckoning has arrived, except for education

President Obama's address to Congress is earning plaudits for its honesty, candor, and can-do/will-do/must-do spirit. Rather than just picking out scapegoats to pin our economic woes on, the President took pains to explain that we're all responsible, that "we managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before." And he announced that the "day of reckoning" has arrived.

Tough talk and tough choices percolated through other parts of the speech as well: health care, foreign affairs, the upcoming budget, and more.

When he turned to education, however, that kind of truth-telling and trading-off of vexing options mostly melted away. Yes, he correctly pointed out that "countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Yes, he punched various poll-test buttons with well-timed mentions of "reform" and "teacher performance," of "innovative programs" and "high standards," of "achievement gaps" and "charter schools."

But the thrust of his education remarks was the historic "investments" (a.k.a. spending) he's directing toward schools and universities--in order to expand early childhood education, make college more affordable, and "prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress."

This is classic Obama, straddling the Democratic divide on education, just as he did so deftly during the campaign, striving to placate both the reformers within the party and the teacher union bosses. As with his approach to "nationalizing" (or, if you prefer, not nationalizing) the banks, he's trying to have it both ways. We already know that in the finance sphere this pushmi-pullyu strategy confuses the markets, mystifies investors, frustrates bankers, and costs taxpayers a bundle. So, too, will it fail in the education domain. Straddles and waffles don't work except in gymnastics and pancake houses. Sooner or later, he's going to have to pick sides on the toughest issues in education. He'll actually have to decide rather than appease. 

If he already has, he didn't let on Tuesday evening. In the course of a generally frank and direct speech, one might expect the President to explain honestly why American education is lagging. It doesn't need "more investments," it needs more "efficiency" and greater productivity--like our health care system. It's no accident that our schools aren't producing enough well-educated graduates; that's because the system has been designed to place the needs of adults over the needs of kids. But saying any of that would put him at odds with the education establishment, which he doesn't appear to want to cross. 

In the spirit of truth-telling, why not talk about our country's misguided obsession with smaller class sizes over the past fifty years, which has made education dramatically costlier and gotten us nothing in return, achievement wise? In that time, our K-12 student population has risen some 50 percent while the teacher corps has tripled. If instead we had simply hired enough teachers to keep pace with enrollments, we would now be paying the average teacher upwards of $100,000. But of course that would mean many fewer dues-paying union members. 

Why not discuss the pension promises we've made to teachers, and how we can't afford them? Why not talk about seniority protections and tenure rules and "last hired, first fired" policies that keep our public schools from laying off ineffective instructors when times get tough?

In other words, for all of the "pain" he's asking Americans to share, where's the pain for the education system? What sacrifices is he asking of the NEA, other than to accept the radical notion that some of its members will get paid more money than others? Sure, his budget will propose scrapping a few little programs, and Congress will ignore him. Then what? When will the "day of reckoning" arrive for our schools?

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama and his Congressional friends are shoveling $100 billion into our faltering public-education system in the name of economic "stimulus." One can readily see why this makes superficial sense from a job-maintenance perspective. American K-12 education may not be good at causing children to learn but it's great at employing adults. Not necessarily employing them productively, mind you, recruiting them effectively, deploying them efficiently, or culling them on the basis of performance. But with three million-plus teachers on the rolls, and about the same number of aides, clerks, bus drivers, and other workers, it's a jobs program extraordinaire.

So if the point is to keep current employees earning paychecks, making mortgage payments, and spending money, propping up America's public schools is a slam dunk sure-fire winner. It's just too bad that, as with the stimulus package as a whole, our children will wind up paying for it. That's because what they need aren't more teachers but better teachers.

If we really wanted to "put children first," we would let our most ineffective teachers go, allow class sizes to rise, and use the savings to pay our best teachers more. In normal times, such an approach would be political suicide, as teacher unions defeat any and all layoffs. But these aren't normal times. With states and districts facing major budget shortfalls, it could be a rare opportunity to trim the least effective workers from those swollen rolls. Then, when the economy recovers and school budgets resume their long-term growth, the new money could be used to enhance teacher quality.

That opportunity is now evaporating, thanks to the "State Fiscal Stabilization Fund," a part of the stimulus that provides about $40 billion to plug school budget holes. Congress should have called it the Status Quo Stabilization Fund, because it locks in place the same old inefficient, ineffective ways. If schools don't jettison burned-out teachers and superfluous staff now, they never will.

So first with the stimulus and then with his address to Congress, President Obama missed opportunities to extract real reforms from the education system. Maybe reform's day is still coming. Or maybe it's already come and gone.

A version of this piece also appeared on National Review Online.

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