Jay Greene's Hatchet-job on Public Schools
I finished Jay Greene's Education Myths about a week and a half ago, so I better write about it while it's still relatively fresh in my mind. Greene is a researcher who has conducted a number of studies, and they all seem to be unflattering to public schools and anyone who works in them. In one of his chapters Greene argues that schools aren't performing worse than they used to, so one might think that the book isn't totally one-sided. Public education proponents shouldn't get their hopes up, however. Greene basically uses this chapter to say that public schools never have been any good.
Greene is a professional researcher, and I'm not. I know I'm getting into dangerous territory if I quibble with his methods, but I will say this. Throughout the book, Greene refers to numerous studies and statements that are supportive of public schools, and then he proceeds to tell us they are all wrong. He does this by using studies that came up with contradictory results, usually ones that were conducted by (Guess who?) Jay Greene. This leads me two conclude one of two things. Either researchers are capable of setting up studies in such a way that they can consistently get results to support whatever they wanted to conclude in the first place, or Jay Greene is the greatest researcher who has ever lived, and any researchers who come up with conclusions different from his simply don't know what they are doing.
While Greene's command of facts and figures is impressive, he seems to have no feel for what actually goes on inside classrooms. He constantly presents education as something that is done to or for students, rather than something in which they need to play an active part. Students who learn, do so because of the good job done by the good schools; students who do poorly, do so because of the poor job done by the poor schools. The effect of their neighborhoods and parents on students is downplayed, and the effect that students have on each other in different schools is completely ignored.
Greene paints a horrible picture of public schools. In his last chapter he does say that public teachers are generally good people, but throughout the rest of the book we are presented in a way that borders on insulting. We are portrayed as highly paid people with little talent and motivation, who don't care very much about our students, and who really don't do very much work outside of school hours. Administrators are portrayed as caring mostly about the amount of money they can get ignorant taxpayers to fork over to their schools. I've only worked in two schools during my career, but Greene's portrayal of public schools and the people who work in them simply doesn't square with my own experience. We all know that there are some teachers and administrators like the ones he describes, but the great majority of the ones I've known have been good people who sincerely cared about their students and worked hard.
Greene's overall conclusion is that public schools need more incentives built into them. Although my vision is a lot different than his, I don't completely disagree with him. He endorses merit pay, and I'm not against that, but I think it's difficult to come up with a system that is workable and fair. I certainly wouldn't trust Greene to do it. I actually think a bigger problem is the difficulty that schools have in keeping our best young teachers, and getting rid of some of our worst teachers because of our tenure and seniority systems. Although I think teachers in general are a lot better than Greene does, we do have some who do a lousy job, and they give the rest of us a black eye. I have also seen too many good young teachers let go simply because they didn't have enough seniority.
More than anything else, Greene pushes for the idea of school choice, which of course, includes vouchers. Although he never actually comes out and says this, I assume that he would favor a full-fledged voucher system, and not one just limited to low-income families in troubled school districts. Like other conservatives, Greene talks about how wonderful the market system and competition would be for public schools.
Fine! If they want competition, then let's make the competition fair, because as things are now, it wouldn't be fair. Private schools can dismiss kids who don't behave or don't perform; public schools can't. Greene uses statistics to show that private schools rarely have to use that power, and all I can say to that is, "Of course, they don't!" For one thing, they have the power--and that makes a huge difference, but they are also dealing with a completely different clientele.
Having public schools "compete" under this handicap would be the equivalent of having them try to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. So if Greene and other conservatives truly want competition in K-12 education, then they should begin by pushing to give public schools the same powers in dealing with disruptive and apathetic students that private schools have. After all, doesn't that seem "conservative"? If they're willing to do that, then I'd say, "Bring those private schools on!" But if Greene and his friends are unwilling to do that, then they should stop saying that what they want is competition, and tell us what they're really trying to do.