Monday, July 10, 2006

Michael Barone's Soft Public Ed.

I just finished reading Hard America Soft America by Michael Barone, who is a senior writer for the U.S. News and World Report. Barone is also a contributor to Fox News. If you are guessing from that that he is a tad conservative and that he is probably not a fan of public education, you are two for two.

Barone says that there is a hard America and a soft America. Hard America consists of things like the business world and the work force and our military. Barone argues that they have become hard because of competition and accountability, and they make life better for all Americans. Soft America consists of things like our welfare system and, of course, public education. Barone argues that they are soft because of the lack of competition and accountability.

Barone says that all of these institutions have gone through various periods of softness and hardness. He says that although education went through a period of hardening after Sputnik and there have been some signs of hardening recently (vouchers and NCLB), education has been the most persistently soft. In fact one of the main points of his book is that the United States produces 18-year-olds who are very soft, and 30-year-olds who are very hard.

I actually agree with Barone that public education could use some hardening, but his analysis of the subject showed that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Barone says that public education began to get much softer in the late sixties and early seventies, and he blames this almost entirely on “progressive” educators. I will admit that schools tried some ridiculous things during that period, but Barone doesn’t say a word about the court decisions that have done more than anything else to make it difficult for those of us in public education to be “hard.”

In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard traces those decisions and their effects on public education. It started in 1969 when the Supreme Court sided with five students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands as a protest against the Vietnam War. The Court said, “Students don’t check their rights at the front door.” Then, when some students were suspended for a lunchroom disturbance, the Court ruled that education was a student’s property right that could not be taken away without due process of law. Next, the Court ruled that a school official could be sued for violating a student’s due process rights if the official knew or should have known he was doing so. As Howard says, “For teachers, exercising judgment as to the right thing to do was replaced by a preoccupation with how any decision might affect students rights.” He says that the Court’s declaration that education is a property right has done more damage to public education over the last 40 years than anything else. He’s right, but Barone totally misses this.

Barone makes it clear that he thinks the number of high school kids who work during the school years is a bad thing, but he credits this with some “hardening” of our students. At the same time, he completely ignores the effects of high school athletics and other extra-curricular activities. You would think that Barone would love this area of American life, but he says absolutely nothing about it. The kids have to compete for spots on teams, and the teams have to compete with each other. Coaches can be hired and fired at the whim of their employers, and there is no tenure or seniority. I want Barone to know that I will match the toughness and character of the kids I’ve coached and coached against during the last 32 years with that of 18-year-olds from any other nation. And I will definitely take them over somebody flipping burgers at MacDonald’s.

Although I agree with Barone that public education could use some “hardening,” he takes a much dimmer view of the institution than I do. I’ll bet that shocks you! In an effort to make his point, Barone uses a quote by a so-called expert that is one of the most stupid statements I’ve ever read or heard. Paul Peterson is, according to Barone, an educational scholar. Peterson says, “Students are walking away from public schools, choosing other ways of getting the apparent equivalent of a diploma (GED certificates). They seem to understand, better than anyone else, that the American schoolhouse is badly in need of repair.”

In my book and in the presentations I give, I often ridicule so-called education experts, who preach to us from their ivory towers, because so many of them have no clue about what actual school classrooms and actual students are really like. Peterson’s idiotic statement is a classic example of that. If he truly believes that kids who drop out of school and then decide to try to earn GEDs do so because they understand something better than the rest of us, he has been in that ivory tower way too long.

Barone’s book is not all bad, however, and I found it an interesting read. He dedicates the book to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (my all time favorite senator) and his wife, and he gives us a good look at a conservative’s view of America. Best of all, despite his personal view of American education, he unwittingly makes a case that we are doing a fantastic job. I will explain how he does that when I do my post on PESPD’s Myth #10. I’ll bet you can’t wait!


Blogger DCS said...

No, I can't wait! And, yes, education has had its moments of softness. Oh, my gosh. I actually agree with you! LOL

Seriously, nice post.

7/11/2006 2:56 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Enjoyed your discussion of Barone's book. I have linked to his column several times over at my place and look forward to your next myth.

I'm having a small celebration over at my place. Hope you'll come and particiate. :)

7/11/2006 9:49 PM  
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