There is tension inherent in being a conservative education reformer.
On the one hand, I’m a strident advocate for grand change. For example, my book is about ridding ourselves of traditional urban school districts. I strongly support charters and vouchers. I believe in overhauling teacher evaluation systems and much of the policy architecture they undergird (preparation, credentialing, compensation, tenure, etc.). I’ve written recently about my growing belief that SEAs are outdated.
There is often invisible but incalculable value in institutions and practices that have survived the test of time.
I firmly believe that these reforms are in the best interest of kids, especially disadvantaged boys and girls. But I suspect these views get encouragement from my right-of-center worldview: that government programs are generally clumsy and expensive and often have regrettable and far-reaching unintended consequences; that it’s wise to hold entities accountable for achieving results by using measurable performance indicators that inform consequences; and that markets are generally efficient, nimble, and responsive to consumer needs and create space for the kinds of entrepreneurial activity that generate continuous improvement.
But the other half of my conservatism means I generally believe in preserving things that have been around for a while. As I wrote in this piece about prudent school-closure policies, there is often invisible but incalculable value in institutions and practices that have survived the test of time.
Even if they seem weathered on the outside, below their surfaces can dwell vast, unseen
Well-intentioned policy can do incalculable harm.
Photo by paul goyette
As a college freshman in an introductory sociology class, I was assigned the book There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. This story of two young boys trying to survive one of Chicago’s most impoverished and dangerous housing projects is absolutely heart-wrenching.
I won’t forget the book’s emotional grip, but equally influential to my intellectual development was the policy and political back story that explained how the boys’ toxic surroundings came to be.
Nearly two decades later, I’m still chastened by the book’s central lesson: A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help.
This has been on my mind in recent weeks, as the national school-closure conversation has flared. Much of that conversation is familiar, but one assertion made by critics, namely that school closures destabilize entire neighborhoods, raises a question that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough. And though some might wave it away as irrelevant or worse, the lessons of the Kotlowitz book force me to take it seriously:
Can a bad school be good for a neighborhood?
Might there be compelling civic
President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour has led economists to explain, yet again, how this seemingly benign measure will lead to lost jobs, especially for teenagers. But to my knowledge, nobody has challenged Obama’s core assertion — namely, that a raise is needed to lift full-time workers with children out of poverty. I have good news for the president: These workers have already been lifted out of poverty.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama said,
We know our economy’s stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong.
He’s right that $14,500 is below the poverty line for a family of three (presumably a mother and two children; a family with two full-time workers — a mom and a dad — would earn well above the poverty line). But he seems to forget one of the most significant anti-poverty measures introduced in recent years: the earned-income tax credit. This family of three would be eligible for more than $5,000 from the EITC, putting its total income at almost $20,000 — above the $18,500 poverty threshold (my thanks to anti-poverty guru Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution, who provided these figures).
Nor does that
Most of Obama's education-policy wishlist can't be done successfully in Washington—but can be done in a well-led state.
Photo from Policymic
Maybe Barack Obama should follow the Pope’s example and resign—but then he should run for governor, presumably in Illinois (where he would definitely be an improvement on the last dozen or so)
Because, at least when it comes to education policy, just about everything he wants the federal government to do involves things that can’t be done successfully from Washington but that well-led states can and should do: raise academic standards, evaluate teachers, give kids choices, and more.
His latest passion in this realm is “quality early childhood education for all.” And as post–State of the Union specifics seep from the White House, we see more clearly what he has in mind: a multi-pronged endeavor, including home visits by nurses, programs for poor kids from birth to age three (“Early Head Start”), more Head Start (mostly for three-year-olds), lots more state-sponsored preschool for four-year-olds (subsidized up to twice the poverty line), and full-day Kindergarten for all.
All are plausible undertakings by states. Only one, however, could be satisfactorily carried out by Uncle Sam: a thorough and much-needed makeover of the five-decade-old Head Start program. But that isn’t likely to happen. The retrograde Head Start
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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