»  Taki's Magazine

July 21st, 2011

  What Shall We Do With the Kids?


Pretty much everything any politician says about education makes me want to go up to the sayer, grab him by the suit jacket lapels, and shake him forcefully up and down while screaming in his face: "DON'T YOU GET IT? YOU'RE AN INTELLIGENT GUY — WHY CAN'T YOU SEE WHAT'S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOUR NOSE?"

Case in point: Three years ago New York City hired the Rand Corporation to raise the test scores of public-school students by paying cash bonuses to teachers whose classes performed well. More than $56 million in bonuses was handed out.

Results? There weren't any. "Researchers called the experiment a bust," reports the New York Post. You could have knocked Mayor Michael Bloomberg down with a feather. "I would have thought it would have had a bigger effect," he gasped. That was the point where the lapel-grab impulse seized me.

It's not as though this is the first umpteen-million-dollar test-score-raising scheme to fall flat on its face. Just a year ago the same fool Mayor of the same heading-for-bankruptcy city scrapped a different program, "conditional cash transfers." In that one the cash payments — $50 million worth — went not to teachers but to students and parents. The Post again, same article: "Despite the cash, there was little difference in outcomes between the paid students and a control group that didn't get a cent." Oh.

Also last year, Bloomberg got the bad news that his proudest achievement since taking over the city school system was in fact a mirage. He had been boasting about a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap between NAM (non-Asian minority) and other students. "But the latest state math and English tests show that the proficiency gap between minority [sic] and white [sic] students has returned to about the same level as when the mayor arrived." (That quote is from the New York Times.)

Don't they get it? Our schools are perfect! — or at least, highly efficient. There is simply not much improvement to be made. International comparisons tell the story. If you take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores and disaggregate U.S.A. students by race, we are up there near the top. The indispensable Steve Sailer did the grunt work on the PISA reading scores. Our Asians are as good as Asia's Asians — actually better than Koreans or Japanese. Our white kids beat everyone else's white kids except Finland's. Our Hispanics out-scored all eight Latin American countries. Our black kids trounced Trinidad, the blackest nation on the PISA list.

Our schools are fine. They are doing as much as can be done with the young people passing through them, with due allowance for race differences in educability. Test scores are as good as they can be. If there is some way to get students scoring significantly better on tests than America's do, no nation on earth has found that way.

But (you may say) hold on there: Look at dropout rates. For 2009 the overall rate was 8.1 percent — one in twelve. For Hispanic students it was more than double that. Shouldn't we be striving to keep those kids in high school to graduation?

Should we? The other day I had a new roof put on my house by a local firm. They did a good job. At one point in the lead-up negotiations I got chatting in a general way with the guy who owns the firm, a fortyish white American. His story:

I didn't get on with high school, dropped out. Pumped gas and did odd jobs for a couple of years, realized I'd made a mistake. Went to Community College, got my GED. Started the business, built it up …

This high school dropout looks to be doing very well — drives a much nicer car than mine, for sure.

I offer the following hypothesis. Up to the age of 12, all kids need to be in school, learning to read, write and calculate, and hearing about some basic civics. Beyond that point there is a large subgroup of adolescents — I'd estimate it at about thirty percent overall, though it cuts differently by race — for whom schooling is a complete waste of time. They gain nothing from it, and the money and effort spent on teaching them is all money down the toilet.

Furthermore, in their boredom and irritation at being in an environment uncongenial to them, being given tasks that are not interesting to them, they hinder the learning of other kids. Different schools have different proportions of these ineducables. Where the proportion is very high, smart bookish kids are having their lives destroyed.

An acquaintance of mine, a skillful and dedicated professional teacher of biology, moved from the West Coast to New York and took up substitute teaching while he looked around for the house and the permanent job he wanted. One of his gigs was at a school in Syracuse, upstate New York. The place was awful: students just running wild, deafening noise, teachers intimidated and insulted. After a week my friend told the school he'd be quitting at the end of the following week. Midway through that second week a parent showed up, begging my friend to stay on. "My daughter loves biology. She says you're the best teacher she's ever had. Please don't let her down …" My friend quit anyway, but says the recollection of that parent still haunts him.

There are smart, studious kids like that in even the worst schools — probably even in this one. Obliging them to share classrooms with uninterested, disruptive, ineducable peers is criminal.

The fundamental problem here is that we don't know what to do with adolescents. Well, we know what to do with the ones who are bookish and willing to be educated: Sit them in rows of desks and have trained teachers instruct them. We just have no idea what to do with the others. All we have come up with is to subject them to the same environment as the bookish kids. This, see above, leads to massive waste and destroys the chances of some subset of studious, educable youngsters.

Is there an alternative? The education of the educable would be improved if the ineducable were to be just sent home — in fact barred from school premises. But then, of course, they'd be in the streets making mischief. We could corral them in some kind of camps I suppose, but at least two problems would arise:  (1) even under adult supervision, the meek kids would be preyed on by the un-meek, and (2) some portion of the adult supervisors would misbehave with their charges.

A lot of what high-school teachers do is just child-minding; for a lot of youngsters, high schools are just holding pens. Surely there's a better way. How about we repeal the child-labor laws?