Monday, June 10, 2002

The Limits of Education

For nearly two centuries, western society has placed many of its bets on educational opportunity – and for good reason. Where there is educational opportunity, people succeed and society benefits as a consequence. The absence of education enlarges the prospect for human failure, the likelihood of human waste. Since education is – or can be – transforming, bringing light where there is darkness and hope where there is despair, how better to confront the failure and darkness resulting from social collapse than by empowering educators and schools to transform society by giving them the Herculean responsibility to confront the destructive forces which permeate the lives of too many children?

Because we place our bets and hopes on educators and schools, when they fail we demand change and it scarcely matters whether the failure arises from their innate limitations as teachers and institutions or from powerful forces outside of the school doors that severely limit what schools are able to accomplish. Because a significant measure of failure now comes with the territory called elementary and high school education, calls for reform are a permanent aspect of the educational landscape. There apparently is no better way to demonstrate concern about children than to insist on the changing of the bureaucratic guard.

Mayor Bloomberg now has his turn at bat. He has achieved a goal that eluded his predecessors and gained limited control over New York’s massive public school system. His control is limited because he will have to confront powerful inertial and bureaucratic forces and make compromises and because much of what determines the success of the educational enterprise is beyond his reach. I expect that down the road there will be new reports of failure and new demands for change.

Yet, his achievement is impressive, capping an impressive opening period as mayor. There will be improvements. In a year or so, we will be rid of the local school boards, the putrefying relics of a well-intentioned experiment in community control that was from the outset captured and sabotaged by opportunists, hacks and even out and out crooks.

If the Mayor has his way, the symbol of bureaucratic waste known as 110 Livingston Street will be sold and replaced by the once great symbol of political corruption, the renovated Tweed Courthouse in back of City Hall. Hopefully, thousands of functionaries will be retired or given real work to do.

School Chancellor Harold Levy, a good man in a perhaps impossible job, is already a lame duck, the latest sacrificial lamb to occupy the office. He will presumably be succeeded by a newly proclaimed miracle worker who not long after accepting the position will wonder why he or she was so foolish to take the job. Like baseball managers, school superintendents are hired to be fired. Does it occur to those who have their long knives out that if for more than a generation nearly every top educational administrator in New York and other major cities has failed, the fault must be in the system and not in the persons?

Many identify inadequate funding as the reason for educational failure, this despite the enormous funds lavished on public schools. The argument is that fiscal parsimony has resulted in good teachers not coming and necessary educational enhancements not being provided. The money argument is convenient because it provides a simplistic explanation for a complicated story and also because to an extent it is true, the extent being that teachers – by which I mean those who are in classrooms and not the large number who are not – deserve to be better paid. This admitted, salaries will scarcely affect teacher recruitment patterns, a truth that has been evident ever since teachers unionized and faculty pay and benefits were substantially increased.

If it is fair to insist that schools be adequately financed, it is equally fair to insist that the funds that are provided be used properly. This is the backbone of the Mayor’s insistence on City Hall control. The question is whether Mr. Bloomberg will have the leverage and the backbone to undertake the internal reforms that save money, thereby adding to what is available in the classroom.

The bureaucracy is an obvious target, especially the number of functionaries who do not teach or manage. More critically, there is a powerful need to take a hard look at special education, as sacred a cow as there is anywhere in the educational domain. After we acknowledge the moral and social obligation to attempt to educate all children to the best of their ability, there is a corollary obligation to look hard at the equally moral issue of whether it is right to provide so much more per child in special education than what is being allocated for ordinary, often packed, classrooms. For all of the sermonizing about special education, some of it is a scam and too much of it consists of people with a virtually non-existent student load being paid significantly more than what teachers who spend the entire day in classrooms are paid.

For all of the good work accomplished by some in special education, there is a culture of opportunism throughout this sub-world. There are quickie degrees that produce pseudo experts with little skill who are overpaid to do very little and who accomplish even less.

Let’s hope that Mr. Bloomberg will challenge this world. Let’s hope, as well, that expectations will not be too high as to what school reform can accomplish. What most ails our schools and limits their effectiveness are pathologies that overwhelm too many children, either at home or on the street. Classroom educators are doing a reasonably good job, especially in view of the difficulties they face. If we want to improve our schools the place to begin is by combating the drug culture, sexual promiscuity and the ordinary coruscating impact of what is called contemporary culture, in short, by counteracting values and lifestyles that undermine the best that schools offer.