Tag Archives: Education

Surrogate Families

Speaking of universal pre-k, John Schwenkler’s latest foray into education policy is also quite good.  I liked this quote from John Heckman, a University of Chicago professor who’s something of an authority on the matter:

” . . . to spend public dollars in such a way as to “try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing,” as he put it in a 2005 interview, is “foolish.”

That sounds about right to me. Universal pre-k will always suffer from comparisons to good parenting.  But I think the correct benchmark for evaluating early childhood education is the learning environment of underprivileged children in the absence of any state intervention. Obviously, there are serious questions about the efficacy of universal pre-k, and I think any proposal should be subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. But comparing the results of early childhood education to a stable, two-parent family sets an unreasonably high bar. The goal of universal pre-k is to alleviate the impact of preexisting socio-economic disparities in the classroom. Recreating the benefits of good parenting through the public school system is something else entirely.


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And another thing

OK, I lied. Before disappearing into the nether, I wanted to flag this excellent point from Ezra Klein:

They deride the “tendency to blame families and society for student performance” as “the equivalent of the quarterback pointing to a porous offensive line.” But a quarterback facing down a porous offensive line…will get sacked. And I say that as a former offensive lineman. Without the time ensured by a talented offensive line, a good quarterback can’t throw. And without the raw skills and developmental leaps ensured by a decent upbringing, even a good teacher cannot teach. As it happens, you need both good quarterbacks and good lineman. Just as you need a focus on social and family factors and on teacher quality. It’s a shame that ,in the contemporary education debate, these things have been set in opposition.

Indeed. To extend an already over-wrought analogy, a superlative quarterback can occasionally overcome poor offensive line play with great poise and a quick release. In much the same way, excellent teaching will salvage a few smart kids’ academic prospects. But crossing your fingers and hoping you’ll draft the next Tom Brady isn’t a particularly good way to go about reviving a bad franchise. Brilliant educators are a bit easier to find than future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but most classrooms are still stuck with teachers who need serious institutional support.

I see (voluntary) universal prekindergarten as a Grand New Party-type approach to systemic poverty. By accepting state intervention at a formative age, we forestall the need for more extensive involvement further down the road. For my own part, I prefer a welfare state that spends intelligently on education and childcare to our current infatuation with incarceration, draconian law enforcement, and the dole.

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Public Schooling

I sympathize with Freddie deBoer’s spirited defense of the American public school system. When my parents moved back to the States, I transferred from a tony private outfit to the local public high school. It was an intimidating experience, but I was pretty complacent about my academic prospects. I assumed that American schools were filled with burn outs, drug dealers, and semi-literate jocks. I planned to coast through on the strength of my ability to write in complete sentences.

Turns out I was dead wrong. There were a lot of smart kids enrolled at the local high school, and the upper-level Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses were pretty damn rigorous. I still managed to coast through (yeah, I was one of those assholes who “tested well”), but the experience left me with a great deal of respect for the scale and efficiency of the American public education system. Granted, a place like Fairfax County can afford to throw a lot of money at the local school board, but the end product was still pretty impressive. West Potomac had it all: academy and shop courses for the kids who weren’t academically inclined; an impressive roster of sports teams and facilities; a wealth of extra-curricular activities, and challenging upper-level classes for college-bound students.

There was one glaring difference between my experience at a private international school and my time at West Potomac, however. As students got older and AP classes got tougher and more numerous, more and more kids dropped out of the honors circuit. By the time senior year rolled around, you were pretty familiar with the type of kid who’d sign up for advanced courses. A striver (or at least a smart slacker), undoubtedly college-bound, probably from a middle-class background. And yes, my fellow APers were overwhelmingly white.

In many respects, my high school could have doubled as a sociological experiment. The school district included both upper-middle class neighborhoods and low-rent housing developments, but every student attended the same extremely well-funded institution. Unsurprisingly, equal access still resulted in dramatically unequal results. The composition of my AP courses reflected this underlying reality.

So yes, I think many American public schools are fine institutions. But it’s difficult to overcome students’ preexisting deficits in social capital. And while vouchers sound attractive, I’m not sure private institutions are equipped to overcome disparities in students’ socio-economic conditions, either. Recently, there’s been some interesting commentary on Finland’s superb public school system. I actually started high school in Finland, and although I was enrolled at an international school, the uniform excellence of Finnish education is pretty obvious to any outside observer. However, a recent influx of immigrants has actually exposed some of the limitations of the Finnish system, as students drawn from different socio-cultural contexts present different educational challenges:

Traditionally, many immigrants in Finland hailed from Russia and Estonia, but with growing refugee communities from Somalia, Turkey, and Iraq (thanks to America’s war there), race and religion are becoming bigger issues. When I visited Helsinki last week as part of a group of American education writers hosted by the Finnish government, I sat in on a special-needs nursery school class with just two students. One little girl was of Turkish descent, the other Somali. Yet the lesson plan revolved entirely around Christmas rituals and songs. Later in the week, while visiting a first-grade classroom, we Americans were greeted with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” in excellent English. The children were charming, but when it comes to the demands of multiculturalism, Finland has a lot to learn.

I’m enough of a small government sympathizer to balk at the prospect of the state becoming a surrogate parent, but one reason I’ve always found the idea of universal pre-kindergarten attractive is because it has the potential to rectify disparities in social capital – basic reading and writing skills, a willingess to participate and pay attention in the classroom etc. – at a formative age, when differences are still miniscule and children are still willing to listen. Obviously, there’s no single answer to education reform, and the socio-economic achievement gap will probably remain as a long as we live in a society that isn’t perfectly egalitarian. But given the danger of systemic, inter-generational poverty and the difficulties we face in assimilating students from a multitude of different backgrounds, I think universal pre-kindergarten is a solution worth pursuing.


Filed under Culture, Education


Andrew Sullivan is at it again:

How anti-intellectual is Sarah Palin?

Ramesh Ponnuru asks the question. He refers to Noam Scheiber’s devastating piece on Palin’s Nixonian hatred of educated elites. But Ponnuru wants more evidence. Here’s one way to look at the question: how has Palin brought up her own kids? Her eldest son is a high-school drop-out. Her eldest daughter has had, so far as one can tell from press reports, very uneven attendance in high school, and no plans for college. Her other daughters seem to spend a lot of time traveling the country with their mom at tax-payers’ expense. I’ve seen them at several rallies with the Palins this fall. Are they not in school?

The least one can say is that none of her children seems to have been brought up thinking that college is something to aspire to. And her new son-in-law just dropped out of high school as well.

Sarah Palin’s own record of several colleges over several years – ending with a degree in sports journalism – tells you a lot. So does her interest in policing the Wasilla library as mayor and using the town’s money for a sports stadium.

If we’re going to criticize Palin for anti-intellectualism, let’s stick to her obnoxious remarks about civilian casualties in Afghanistan or her nonsensical take on anthropogenic global warming. Knocking her kids for skipping school is neither here nor there, and given the fact that her oldest son volunteered for military service in Iraq, I think we should applaud the Palin family for encouraging certain worthy alternatives to college.

Moreover, attending college in modern America has never been a leading indicator of intellectual curiosity. In fact, questioning the benefits of a four year college degree is one of the more persuasive conservative criticisms of higher education to have emerged in recent years (see this recent Cato Unbound discussion). And if I ever become a parent (God forbid!), I hope to have the good sense not to force my children into higher education against their will.

As for Sarah Palin’s own record of educational achievement, I recommend this LA Times article on her college years. Reading it, I was instantly reminded of the hard-working commuter students I knew at school. They didn’t have the luxury of a parental stipend and usually worked a job on the side, and they rarely (if ever) made it out on weekends. But they always attended class (which is more than I ever did), took copious notes, and generally did everything possible to get a damn good return on their investment. Palin may have come from a parochial background, but she evidently cared enough about her intellectual development to work her way through five years of post-secondary schooling. I can’t imagine it came cheap or easy.

And why the hell would Wasilla need a museum, anyway?

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