THE BLOG

Conservatives Don't Really Care About Improving Education

05/02/2014 09:48 am ET | Updated Jul 02, 2014

Given that it is an election year and polls show people support a greater commitment to education, conservative media outlets have devoted more time than usual to discussing how to improve educational achievement.

A good example of this is a recent Detroit News editorial piece that focuses on data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The report indicates that Michigan ranks in the bottom third of all states when it comes to graduation rates. While graduation rates are an easy to understand number it is a very blunt instrument if you are attempting to advocate for significant change. It also offers little in the way of analysis for how prepared these students are to participate in the work force.

Having said that, if Detroit News editors believe graduation rates provide an important window into our educational system then it should be noted that the 80 percent graduation rate the US hit in the 2011-12 school year was a record number. Never before in the history of this country have we graduated this many students.

The problem is that the editorial never acknowledges this reality. Rather than recognizing that the system as it was constructed over the past few years represents the pinnacle of educational achievement as far as graduation rate is concerned, the piece suggests these consistently improving numbers prove that there should be an "urgency to rapidly reform Michigan's education system."

The disconnect between reality and this errant conservative talking point that the article attempts to pass off as feasible is astounding. But even that pales in comparison to how the editors choose to end the piece. Having already set up the false meme that Michigan's education is broken and failing despite the fact that their own data suggests otherwise the authors go on to offer a solution to this manufactured crisis.

"Lawmakers are currently weighing a series of reforms aimed at improving school and teacher accountability and quality. Other states that have implemented similar measures, including Florida and Tennessee, are pushing ahead of Michigan in student performance."

"Teacher accountability" has been a very important buzzword over the past few years, even making it into President Obama's "Race to the top" initiative. The data on the success of these measures are spotty at best. But that doesn't stop advocates from pretending they are the panacea of student achievement. While it is true that states like Florida and Tennessee have implemented teacher accountability and have seen some improvement their "pushing ahead of Michigan" is questionable as is the insinuation that of the litany of changes RTTT requires -- teacher accountability is responsible for any portion of these minor improvements.

Again, given that graduation rate, according to the authors of this editorial, represents the impetus for "a series of reforms," then it should be noted that Tennessee saw less growth over the past year than Michigan while Florida still lags behind Michigan on overall graduation rate. Also, if anecdotal evidence is all that is required it should be pointed out that Alaska, a state that did not participate in RTTT or implement any teacher accountability measures, increased their graduation rate by more than double that of Florida and nine times as much as Tennessee.

The problem here seems to be that the authors had an opinion and decided to look for data to support their opinion. While that may be great for the editorial pages it is an awful way to make policy. Instead of talking about middling states and their modest gains Michigan would be far better off examining the states that are already successful and model their behavior. To put it another way, NFL teams don't adopt the strategy of the teams that didn't make the playoffs, they mimic the Super Bowl champion. Maybe this will show that the best states incorporate teacher accountability standards or maybe it won't, but believing something works and having data prove that something works are two very different things.

Of course as a conservative news source it is a weird position to argue that what our education system needs is more government rules and regulations. Doesn't this stifle creativity? Do people really think that Lansing politicians have a better understanding of how to educate your children than you and your locally elected school board do?

Beyond that, most teachers spend years learning, being tested and getting on the job training before they ever get a job. They also already get observed, reviewed and participate in continuous learning programs. Their skills have confirmed numerous times. Ironically the teachers who are least likely to go through this rigorous training process, which conservatives seem to believe is paramount to "fixing" education, teach at charter schools.

The controversial EAA, championed by Governor Rick Snyder, relies on Teach for America teachers which according many education professionals and participants leaves educators woefully unprepared. Asking current teachers to meet new ridged standards while simultaneously advocating for educators who have no chance of meeting these standards is astoundingly hypocritical.

Additionally where is the personal responsibility that conservatives often demand? Shouldn't students and parents be held accountable for their actions? Unlike the data on teacher accountability there are reports that show making students responsible for their own progress and increased parent involvement actually impact student achievement.

No one is suggesting that we can't improve educational outcomes but pretending that a severely biased reading of an immaterial report somehow confirms the need for highly suspect partisan solutions could be the best example of where our school systems really do need to improve.