Education at a Crossroads: Part II

If Betsy DeVos is confirmed, the stranglehold of the teachers' unions on the education of millions of students will be in jeopardy.

By Thomas Sowell Published on February 6, 2017

One of the painful realities of our time is that most public schools in most low-income, inner-city neighborhoods produce educational outcomes that are far below the outcomes in other neighborhoods, and especially in more affluent neighborhoods.

Attempts to assign blame are too numerous to name, much less explore. But as someone who has, for more than 40 years, been researching those particular minority schools that have been successful, I am struck both by their success and by how varied are the ways that success has been achieved.

In doing research for a 1976 article, “Patterns of Black Excellence,” I discovered that the educational methods used to educate low-income, minority children in successful schools ranged from very traditional and strict methods in some parochial schools to very different approaches in other schools.

A Success Story

One of the most successful schools I visited was in an aging building in a rundown ghetto neighborhood in New York, where a friend told me that I was “brave” — he meant foolhardy — to park a car.

After a day spent observing the classes, and later examining the statistics on their outstanding performances on various tests, I was moved to the verge of tears as I left. Why couldn’t this be done in many other schools?

Instead of being given a guided tour of the school, as happens in too many other places, the principal simply walked with me down the corridors on each floor, and let me decide which classroom door I wanted to open and go in.

Wherever we went in, the class in progress was clearly one where children were learning, were well-behaved, and were saying intelligent things in plain English. They were doing work that was either at their grade level or somewhat above their grade level.

Yet most of these kids looked like kids you can see in any ghetto across the country. Most were from families whose incomes were low enough for their children to qualify for free or subsidized lunches in school.

After a day spent observing the classes, and later examining the statistics on their outstanding performances on various tests, I was moved to the verge of tears as I left. Why couldn’t this be done in many other schools?

Educators Working Outside the Box

One reason was that this principal did not follow the rigid dogmas imposed by the educational establishment, but used whatever ways of teaching produced good results. That makes waves. There were attempts to get him removed as principal.

Nor was he the only successful educator to come under fire from the educational establishment.

In California, high school teacher Jaime Escalante taught calculus so successfully in a predominantly Latino school that, at one time, something like one-fourth of all Latino students who passed the AP Calculus test — in the entire country — came from the school where he taught.

Like other highly successful educators, especially in places where failure is the norm, Escalante was controversial within the education establishment. The teachers’ union demanded that his large math class be reduced in size. He ended up leaving that high school to go teach elsewhere.

When Marva Collins was a public school teacher who came to work early to help some of her students, and who used teaching methods that differed from what education schools and education bureaucrats prescribed, she likewise came under fire.

She left and created her own school in a Chicago black neighborhood. This was done with little money and initially with old textbooks discarded by the public school system. Her success was striking enough for her to be offered an opportunity to be nominated to be Secretary of Education.

After much soul-searching, Marva Collins declined the offer. It was probably just as well. She could run her own school in Chicago as she wished. In Washington, the political jungle was another story.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Betsy DeVos, who has for more than 20 years been promoting parental choice in the schools their children attend, has come under heavy fire from the educational establishment.

If she becomes Secretary of Education, the stranglehold of the teachers’ unions and the educational bureaucracy on the education of millions of students will be in jeopardy. If her nomination is rejected, millions of children from low-income, inner-city families will lose a chance to escape a painfully failing system.

 

 

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is www.tsowell.com.

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  • Kevin Quillen

    the stranglehold of the liberals must be broken so schools can become centers of learning, both knowledge and morals. As it is now they are primarily indoctrination centers into materialism, humanism, and globalism. I believe it was John Adams,(I could be mistaken but it was one of the founding fathers) who said that the purpose of public education was so that students could learn to read the Bible so they would grow up to be good citizens. Why would learning the Bible be important? Because the founders put the ultimate power in the peoples hands, jury nullification. Only people of strong character and moral fiber could use this power properly to prevent tyranny. Why do you think it is not allowed to be spoken of by judges nowadays? Next time you get jury duty ask the judge about it and see what happens.

    • Bezukhov

      What to with those students who refuse to read the Bible, or accept it as the truth?

      • Kevin Quillen

        it is the foundation of the teaching. What about kids who do not like math? Let them out of it? There is your answer.

        • Bezukhov

          Math we can agree upon. Religious persuasions, not so much. Whose interpretation of said Bible will have pride of place? Baptists? Catholics? Mormons?
          I was skeptical of this little scheme at first, but oh the drama of watching the various Christian denominations tearing each other apart to get their special version of Christianity taught on the public dime promises to be hilarious. I’m going to make some pop corn.

  • jimshaw54

    I worked as a substitute teacher in a Jr. High school for several years. One day I was substituting for a math teacher when one of the students asked me if I knew how to do one of their math problems. I invited the student to come up to the black board and began to show him how to do the problem. I could tell that he wasn’t “getting” it, so I thought of another way to show him how to work the problem. As I was showing him another way to approach the math problem I saw that most of the children were paying attention as well. And then one student raised his hand and said, “I wish our regular teacher would teach us like this”. I never forgot those words.
    All I did was use a different approach to show how to solve the problem, which apparently their teacher did not do. This is exactly the approach that the most successful teachers use when teaching. Unfortunately too many teachers do not, including some I had when I was a struggling student.

  • EXTREMELY VALID POINT QUOTE “One reason was that this principal did not follow the rigid dogmas
    imposed by the educational establishment, but used whatever ways of
    teaching produced good results. That makes waves. There were attempts to
    get him removed as principal.”

    There are two issues. One is discipline. One is the way teachers are allowed to teach, viz., if they can teach according to their talents and according to traditional methods OR are forced to use federally mandated methods. Locally, and probably true in other places, if the teachers discipline the children in unacceptable ways, that opens the teacher up to a lawsuit or discipline (lack of promotion or firing). As for teaching methods, if a teacher teaches traditional math, for example, instead of Common Core, that can open the teacher up to discipline if there is a “pop” “surprise” visit from upper-level administration to the class. The traditional methods of teaching that have worked have been removed. Schools have become hotbeds of political indoctrination that is producing an uneducated population unable to work at a high paying job or hold their corrupt, political masters accountable because they simply won’t understand anything. I’ve been in classes where 7th graders cannot write, read, or calculate. If asked, “What is 20 divided by 4?”, the reply is, “Let me get a calculator.”

    • steve51

      Hi Cheryl, great post! Do you remember the Chancellor for the DCPS, Michelle Rhee? She was the democrat sacrificed at the ‘alter’ of the ‘teachers unions’ in 2010! They did for the betterment of the kids…….. of course.
      You certainly seem to have, wisely I might add, a great interest in this most important topic! For me, school choice is absolutely paramount for the best education we can give our kids. I personally would like to see the END of the DOE. It is the worst bureaucracy at the national level…….. by far!
      For more on this, check out: “District of Columbia public Schools”! They hated this woman to her core. Maybe she was doing something right, something they wanted NO part of.
      Here in Ft. Wayne, Ind. we have school choice. Parochial, charter, magnet, private, you name it, we have it. The wonderful aspects are a better education at 50 to 60% of the cost!
      God bless you & yours! {;~)

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