Why Can’t We Ask the Hard Questions About Education?

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Retired teacher Mary Hudson recently wrote a damning exposé based on her experiences in the New York City public school system. Hudson taught in three different public high schools and her observations from those years lead her to implicate the students and a “go along to get along” attitude among administrators for persistently poor educational performance.

Put simply, administrators are unwilling to set high educational and behavioral standards for fear of having to confront underperforming and disruptive students. They have few implements their toolbox to permit such confrontation. As a result, students feel diminished and take advantage of lax standards to dismiss the educational aspect of school. Peer pressure and even physical intimidation deter the few students who are interested in learning and effectively this turns schooltime into social time. Administrators respond by treating classes like day care, often to the chagrin of teachers.

This is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” epitomized.

The net result is a student body hostile to direction, discipline, and learning. This problem is exacerbated by the “social justice” and politically correct mindset that makes discipline, both behavioral and educational, subject to racial quotas. (Woe to the teacher or administrator who suspends or expels “too high” a proportion of students of a certain race.)

The “elephant in the room”—one that is politically impermissible to cite—is that among the black students, the majority come from single-parent households often lacking in the discipline needed to send children to school with the proper example. The question of why so many black babies (75 percent or more) are likely to be born out of wedlock is a subject for another day, but it is a fact. So is the difficult-to-overcome pull of public assistance for many of these single mothers. This environment simply is not conducive to keeping kids in line as they reach their teenage years.

Is this too much of a generalization? Probably not, especially in analyzing big-city public education. There is a clear counterexample, however, in these large cities: charter schools. Many of them have waiting lists and lotteries and are widely viewed as a ticket out of the dismal cycle of public non-education.

What is almost universally true is that unlike traditional public schools, charter schools—which are public schools operated by private or nonprofit companies—formulate their expectations for kids without regard to race or economic status.

Charter schools do not tolerate excessive disruption; students who transgress repeatedly can be disciplined or expelled. This is in stark contrast to Hudson’s observations and analysis. Her schools were marked by chaos and fear. It is no coincidence that charters in big cities generally outperform traditional public schools, although we do recognize that there is selection at work: The smarter kids with more highly motivated parents are certainly more likely to end up at charter schools than to languish at a poorly performing traditional public school.

We find inexplicable the almost robotic support of the public-school constituency for the very system that perpetuates the status quo Hudson describes. The most common explanation is the influence of the teachers’ unions, which do not always seem to have concern for the students so much as with the economic interests of the teachers. Given the specifics of their demands and the ongoing and unhealthy symbiotic relationship between unions and politics, it is hard to argue against that or to see a way out.

But there is more than that at play.

As we mentioned earlier, the twisted ethic of what is considered “social justice” plays a very big role. The typically Democratic Party administrations that run inner cities have staked out a posture of social justice that cannot distinguish between racial discrimination in regulating opportunity and any (sad but real) racial imbalance in school kids’ behavior and academic performance. The entire concept of equal outcomes as social justice is flawed at its core. It continues through college, where underqualified students admitted through preferences are often stigmatized and unsuccessful.

Public schools don’t need more limitations on discipline or quotas on class composition. Instead, they need to separate out those students unwilling or unable to focus on education and make every reasonable attempt to help them change their ways, but without disrupting the committed learners. The struggling students’ peers cannot remediate them and it is wrong to expect it of them.

We do not profess to know what to do with the intractable, incorrigible cases, but allowing them to drag others down is not the answer. Charter schools understand this and act accordingly. When coupled with higher expectations, that is a huge part of their success.

If our society can’t raise these issues and attempt to find solutions for them, our public education is condemned to remain in the current state of mediocrity, or worse. This country deserves better, and it is the liberal politicians who run most big cities and their school systems who must take the lead and introduce the needed intellectual discipline into the miasma of social pseudo-justice and political correctness that engulfs our youth.

Photo Credit: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

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About Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.