Issues2004: Education

Issues2004: Education

: My issue with education is that we keep attacking the bottom without pushing the top.

Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative is a fine thing. Kerry doesn’t fight it on his site and vows to go enforce it. Fixing bad schools is vital. Nobody can disagree with that.

I have one complaint about the initiative: its reliance on testing. I say we already depended way too much on on testing, from standardized measures in elementary schools through the dreaded SATs. I know testing doesn’t treat all students fairly or accurately. We all know that teachers and school systems reorder themselves to game the test: they teach the test rather than teach. And the industry that has popped up around gaming the SATs is an offensive waste of money and brainpower. Still, I understand that you can’t measure whether children have been left behind without testing them. So fine.

I also understand the resource and effort put into mainstreaming children with educational difficulties of all sorts. It’s good for those children and good for those around them. I’m not going to be politically incorrect about this. But make no mistake about it: The cost is tremendous. Every extra dollar a district can find goes into extra attention for children with problems of one sort or another.

At the same time, all across the country, we’ve worked so hard to level playing fields that we don’t let the best stand out; it’s damned near politically incorrect in some districts to be smart. In my day, we “tracked” students by ability and I believe that worked well for everyone; it pushed the best to do their best and it didn’t intimidate the rest and allowed them to do their best as well. Tracking is out now.

Well, if fixing bad schools is all we do, and if extra resources mostly go to children with problems, and if we make everyone equal — if we put all this effort into raising the lowest common denominator — then we’ll give short shrift to another important job: We also have to raise the nominator. We have to challenge the best and the brightest. We must nurture genius.

I would have hoped that Bush, as a Republican, as a business President, could have framed this properly: Great education is our best investment. The more we train students to innovate in science and technology and math and the arts (remember that entertainment is a huge industry and gigantic export), the more we inspire them to create, the better chance we have to profit and compete and grow. Education is not just a social issue but a business issue.

So what do we do about that? The problem is that whenever we talk about improving education, it means money. Special programs for children with special needs costs money. Special programs for gifted kids costs money. Funding research costs money. Voters — and talk-show hosts — everywhere complain about that. But teachers still don’t earn much (and that affects the quality of teachers we get). Vicious cycle.

Look at Bush’s plan or Kerry’s and you’ll find lots of proposals for lots of programs. I’m no expert, as I’ve emphasized in all these Issues2004 posts. So I can’t really dig into all their suggestions and say what will work and won’t. But I do know that many of us are frustrated with this vicious cycle; we want better education. I simply think that pushing the top is almost as important and beneficial as fixing the bottom.

Your priorities?