by michael on March 7, 2011

I read an Op Ed in today’s Washington Examiner www.washingtonexaminer.com titled “Sunday Reflection: Now comes the ‘Lower Education Bubble?” It was written by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, founder and editor of Instapundit.com and a law professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

I’ve read Instapundit.com from time to time and have heard Reynolds interviewed on radio programs. Reynolds is a bright guy and tends to see reality in its most unvarnished form. I have great respect for him. His Op Ed begins with a brief address of what he calls the higher education bubble, which, in a nutshell, is a movement toward lower higher education costs because the system is not producing a product—educated students—that can justify the price. Students are learning content that will get them jobs; indeed, many aren’t learning anything at all, at least anything worth learning.

Reynolds then addresses the lower education bubble. His facts, which I assume to be accurate, paint a pernicious picture regarding K – 12 education. One need not take a side in the current Wisconsin teacher union battle in order to acknowledge the accuracy and the seriousness of the issues Reynolds raises. However, for reasons I state after the quotes, I do not place on the teachers as much of the responsibility for the failure of the school systems as does Reynolds, or as much of the responsibility that Reynolds implies.

Here are some key paragraphs.

“But, while the higher education bubble begins to deflate, I think we’re also starting to see the deflation of what might be called a “lower education bubble” – that is, the constant flow of more and more money into K-12 education without any significant degree of buyer resistance, in spite of the often low quality of the education it purchases.

“In fact, Wisconsin spends more money per pupil than any other state in the Midwest. Nonetheless, two-thirds of Wisconsin eighth-graders can’t read proficiently.

“But it gets worse: “The test also showed that the reading abilities of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders had not improved at all between 1998 and 2009, despite a significant inflation-adjusted increase in the amount of money Wisconsin public schools spent per pupil each year. . . . from 1998 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $4,245 in real terms yet did not add a single point to the reading scores of their eighth graders and still could lift only one-third of their eighth graders to at least a ‘proficient’ level in reading.”

“So at the K-12 level, we’ve got an educational system that in many fundamental ways hasn’t changed in 100 years – except, of course, by becoming much less rigorous – but that nonetheless has become vastly more expensive without producing significantly better results.

“Over the longer term – which means, really, the next three to five years at most – straitened circumstances and the need for better education will require more significant change.

“Perhaps there’s still a role for teaching children to sit up straight and form lines, but perhaps not. Certainly the rapidly increasing willingness of parents to try homeschooling, charter schools, online school, and other alternative approaches suggests that a lot of people are unhappy with the status quo.

“But their bigger problem is an industry that hasn’t kept up with the times, and isn’t producing the value it once did. Until that changes, we’re likely to see deflation of the lower education bubble as well as the higher.”

I have a few disagreements with the analysis. I am not persuaded that the role of public education is “to keep up with the times.” I believe the role of public education is the role of all education: to mold and inspire educated, thoughtful people who can make our country stronger and better and to engage in those activities that advance liberty and which thwart tyranny. I do not see the goal of education is uniquely or as even primarily aimed at increasing employment.

However, I do not see education as the exclusive domain of teachers. I attribute the dismal performance of school children in Wisconsin and other states to the lack of parental involvement and support as to the quality of teachers. I sense two trends with parents: one trend is that increasing numbers of parents shrug off the responsibility for educating their children to others, primarily school teachers; and two, increasing numbers of parents do not value education or at least do not value education enough to get involved in the education of their children.

Perhaps one reason parents continuously vote to give schools more money is the consequence of a sense of guilt that they, themselves, are not doing enough with their own children. I don’t know. But I conclude that, with all its flaws and, in some instances, meanness and disregard for students, it’s not all the system’s fault for terrible education outcomes.

More later

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