Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt Gingrich: On Education

I was at the NCSS conference in DC when I caught a quick blip on the TV  featuring a comment that emerged from the Republican campaign trail.  Newt Gingrich was quoted saying that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.”  OK...what?  What did he just imply about poor kids?  Was he trying to say something else?  Was this taken out of context?

Whatever the response from a usually unapologetic Gingrich the problem that becomes evident is that discussing sensitive issues as they relate to education is a challenge.  It is hard to have honest dialogue on real issues without coming off as insensitive or even acting that way.   Was Newt trying to plant his flag among the far right and appeal to the Republican base in advance of the meaningful primaries or does his statement represent what he actually believes?  Did he give what he said much thought? Was this just poor judgment?  Should that matter?  

The answer to the last question is yes since he has emerged as a contender for the Republican nod for President.  While I can only speculate on some of these questions closer analysis might offer up some insights.

Like most issues one can more easily comprehend the educational debate by grouping people into two main schools of thought.  The abridged version is that those on the right want a system that will put/return the US to the top by providing workers to fuel our global economy.  They mostly like buzzwords like accountability and testing.  Some of them even seem to favor the dismantling of public education, privatization or seek revenues back from public education either through private school vouchers or refunds to parents who homeschool.

Those on the left work hard to lay claim to the moral high ground as defenders of education and our children.  Historically they have aligned with the education lobby and listed the issue toward the top of their platform.  But then as now are open to the criticism they have little grasp of what and how to make things better(can be said of both parties).   "Democrats for Education" could anyone oppose such an organization?   So the left and right like to butt heads on education but obviously both want what they think is best for our kids.  But they want votes too. 

So this simplified analysis leaves out the reality that the Dems and the GOP in DC sound an awful lot alike if you listen to their policies.  Currently favor seems to lie with painting our schools as awful and in need of major change.    I have little faith in either party and neither one has or is able to articulate a sensible education policy on a statewide or national level.  As long as ambiguous "reform" if featured towards the top of any list of ideas it is general enough to garner public support.  Back to Newt.  He is emerging as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President in 2012.  That may change tomorrow but for now what he thinks about education matters.  

I looked for a little more context to those comments from Newt.    Most politicians(and most people to be honest) only pay lip service to the importance of education and have little grasp of the complexity of the  issues involved. But the public is at fault too as the level of awareness on the impact of important policies is sorely lacking.  Politicians instead rely on lobbies and advisers for positions.  The public buys into their rhetoric.  There are exceptions.  So I was seeking affirmation that Newt had actually given some thought to an important campaign issue and didn't just stick his foot in his mouth when I looked a little deeper.  

So Newt said what he said.   But he has said a great deal more about education.  I recall when he said "America's High Schools were obsolete" and he also added in that September 2007 that "we should pay kids for taking hard classes".  I respectfully disagreed at the time and still do.   He has sponsored a Constitutional Amendment on school prayer.  Newt has an established record on education but the public and media tend to focu more on one liners and what candidates say in public.  which is often reduced to the shortest possible soundbite.

Since this is the case it is always good practice to read the full remarks of politicians as painful as that may be. In this case doing so reveals he stays pretty right but his comments jump around.   I agree with some things, not sure about others and there is plenty that worries me about what he has said in the past and what he says below. 

This is something that no liberal wants to deal with… Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid. You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model…. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising….  You go out and talk to people, as I do, you go out and talk to people who are really successful in one generation. They all started their first job between nine and 14 years of age. They all were either selling newspapers, going door to door, they were doing something, they were washing cars….  They all learned how to make money at a very early age… What do we say to poor kids in poor neighborhoods? Don’t do it. Remember all that stuff about don’t get a hamburger flipping job? The worst possible advice you could give to poor children. Get any job that teaches you to show up on Monday. Get any job that teaches you to stay all day even if you are in a fight with your girlfriend. The whole process of making work worthwhile is central.

School Choice in an important Republican plank
Protest Opposing Charter Schools
I looked up The Gingrich Education Plan.  On his website, it shows where he stands and I think it at the least shares some other policies Gingrich has formulated.(my thoughts follow in blue italics)

  • Empower parents to pick the right school for their child.  Parents had the right to choose the school that is best for their child, and should never be trapped in a failing school against their will. Yeah...not so much.  That "Failing school" thing ins tricky.  School choice in theory sounds good, in practice it often stinks.  Doesn't fix  the problems and might help some kids but not others.   Look at current practices to see shortfalls. 
  • Institute a Pell Grant-style system for Kindergarten through 12th Grade. Per-pupil school district funding should go into each child’s backpack, and follow them to the school their parents wish to attend. Parents who home school their children should receive a tax credit or be allowed to keep the Pell Grant.  On principle this is just a bad idea.  Why not just tax people with school age kids?   So much for schools being a community resource adding and a source of strength. Parents should be able to do what they want with their kids...but honestly...can most folks afford to homeschool?
  • Require transparency and accountability about achievement. Each state must set a rigorous standard that allows every student everywhere to master the skills they will need to be competitive, and develop a process for grading the effectiveness of every schoolThank you "Arne".  Accountability has meant only one thing, ...testing.  I guess I was naive in thinking that local communities should have autonomy on many things.  No doubt federal and State bureaucrats far removed from schools know what is best with their extensive experience.(sarcasm)
  • Implement a “no limits” charter system about no.  Charters might help but that is just a bad idea.   Do they let everyone in?  Carters are free from the choking regulations of normal public schools.  The deal was better outcomes for more freedom.  Still vague outcomes at the best, worse at least.   Some limits are in place for a reason. 
  • All of the money allocated for student education goes directly to the school.  Could not agree more.  Stop sending it to Pearson, private companies or anyone else who doesn't work in a building with the kids. 
  • The school manages its own staff, whereby it is exempt from laws regarding tenure, and need not unionize.   The last century saw the creation of some laws were actually well thought out and serve a purpose.  Many of these include labor laws.    Remove the same protection for politicians, doctors, lawyers, banks and all other areas an then we'll talk.  Academia in particular has some protections that serve a very valid reason.   If schools are held accountable for graduation rates and you teach seniors...just imagine when you fail a student and the principal asks you to reconsider.  Novice, experienced and master teacher?  Nah..they are all the same.  Just widgets.  
  • The school defines its own curriculum, in line with the state standards and assessments.  Students in charters are not exempt from state assessments.  The schools are not exempt from reporting requirements, nor should they be.  Sounds harmless enough.
  • State law allows the school to “franchise” its model without limitation.  That means they need not apply for a new school every time they can build a new one.  If they have the demand, they must be able to serve it.  Don't franchise tags make money?  Any public funds divert to private hands where huge profits are involved become suspect very quickly.   "Public schools are a public trust that should remain free from private, corporate and political enterprise or agendas"
  • The state has NO CAPS on the number of charter schools that can be approved, and the process for approving charter schools is smooth and efficient.  Once again before you board up all the traditional schools maybe give some thought to the research about whether charters are any better. 
  • Establish a pay for performance system.  States and school governing boards should lift all existing prohibitions that prevent a principal from evaluating teachers based in part on student achievement.  Do the same for other professions and see how they react.  We don't choose our kids and we shouldn't.   Who would want to teach at risk kids in school?  The idea that we will work harder or be more effective if paid more is not only stupid but contrary to research. 
  • Welcome business talent in our communities into the classroom. Every state should open their systems up to part-time teachers so that retired physicists, neighborhood pharmacists, or local accountants could teach one or two hours a day and bring knowledge to the classroom, and business-like adult expectations to the students.  And programs like Teach For America should be encouraged and not limited.  So much for treating teaching like a profession.  Why not just hire a bunch of temps each year to staff our schools.   That'll save money and that's all that really matters here right?   There is a place for some of the things suggested here and TFA is a great example.  But it is far from THE answer and those that present them a such are either foolish or misguided.  We are dealing with young people.  Dropping people without the right preparation in a room to work with young people might just be the worst idea on the list.  I've seen it in action.  It can be ugly. Teaching is a profession.   Knowing Math ans Knowing kids are both important.  Which one matters more?  On any given day I am a teacher, coach, grief counselor, mentor, security officer, friend, club sponsor, mediator, club advisor, disciplinarian among other things.  Teacher is not what you are , it is who you are. 
  • Restore American history and values into the classroom. America is a learned civilization and every American, including immigrants, should learn American history and the principles of American self-government, productivity and prosperity. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Every student must learn to read and much of what they read should reinforce American civilization.  I've said before stay away from Jefferson.  He lived 2 miles from me.  Maybe reconsider the overfocus on Math and Reading to the neglect other subjects.  The traditional view of American History tends to be written top down and the way immigrants are singled out here is telling. "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of the due degree of liberty"-TJ  "Reinforce" is an interesting choice as well.  I have little use for any fact where there is  100% agreement.  So much for a more multicultural approach. 
  • Protect the rights of home-schooled children by ensuring they have the same access to taxpayer funded, extra-curricular educational opportunities as any public school student. Tougher one.  I am a coach and it has pros and cons.  My gut says no, my heart says yes.  I always think of the athletic programs as an extension of  school's classrooms.  With the exception that participation is a privilege.  That changes things.  Will they be held to the same behavioral/academic standards?  Far as I know kids taken out of a school can mean less per capita state and fed funding, so how does letting them then benefit from facility and coaching etc make sense?  Would private schools allow them in?  But we want what's best for kids and I am assuming their parents pay taxes.  Most communities offer sports of some kind.  Kids can learn more important lessons about life on the field or court than in any classroom.   I just get nervous that not ever saying "no" has consequences.  Should we institute a no cut approach as well? 
  • Encourage states to think outside outdated boundaries of education. States have developed very innovative models:
  • Individualized, 24/7 learning should be universally available online, with the Florida Virtual School (over 120,000 students for K-12) as a model.  Yep, more money for the private companies and not the school.  They'll keep kids interests ahead of profits...right?
  • Shrink the federal Department of Education and return power to states and communities. The Department's only role will be to collect research and data, and help find new and innovative approaches to then be adopted voluntarily at the local level.  (applause)

1 comment:

  1. Amen! Parents had better start waking up to the Republican party's charter school agenda before it's too late. Education first? I don't think so. Check out what your legislature is up to, ask them where their research is, check out the tax returns of existing charter schools - follow the money! No one is going to do this for you.