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When It Comes to Education Reform, Which Political Party Is the Stupid Party?

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The Republican Party is going through an identity crisis. They can't figure out if they are very smart or very stupid. In this regard they resemble the "wise men of Chelm," who inhabited the fabled Jewish town that, according to the Yivo Institute Encyclopedia, "spawned hundreds of tales describing outlandish naïveté and stupidity."

We know about this affliction from Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal himself. Jindal exhorted his fellow Republicans to stop being the "stupid" party in the keynote speech delivered at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting this past January.

Listen to any conservative talk show host and they'll regularly remind their audience that the Republicans are the party of ideas and that their books consistently top the best-seller charts. But for some undiagnosed reason they've managed to win only two of the past six presidential elections.

This crisis of confidence is so profound that Charles Blow, Bill Keller, and Paul Krugman of the New York Times' punditocray felt compelled to offer advice on how to restore the Republican Party to good health.

You know it must be a crisis when America's paper of record known for its consistently anti-Republican editorializing rides to the rescue.

So Doctors Keller, Krugman, and Blow weighed in with their prescriptions for the Republican patient over the course of four days in August with 3,000 words of advice.

Perhaps they fear that a world devoid of stupid, insensitive Republicans would put an end to their Punch and Judy show, which happens to be the longest-running show on Broadway. They must know that the Times editorial page would be a very boring place if they didn't have Republicans to hit over the head on a daily basis.

They all see a backlash to education reform, especially the resistance to high stakes testing and the nation-wide introduction of the Common Core curriculum being engineered by the philistine faction of the Republican Party as symptomatic of what ails the Grand Old Party.

For Bill Keller, the burgeoning movement to "kill what is arguably the most serious educational reform of our lifetime" is being engineered by the "usual right-wing suspects," Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin among them. The opposition to the Common Core is "overwhelmingly from the right," he avers, and a rather paranoid right at that.

Although conservatives like William Bennett, former secretary of education, and Governor Mike Huckabee, steadfastly support the reforms, Keller has cast this debate in Manichean terms.

The forces of Light composed almost exclusively of members of the progressive left are locked in mortal pedagogical combat with the Republican right wing for the very survival of the American education system.

Dr. Krugman felt obligated to add an apercu or two to Keller's column and weighed in with his diagnosis the next day. Jindal had it right about the state of his party, but Krugman didn't think Jindal was all that bright in any case.

He opined that the opposition to the Common Core was rooted in the right wing's paranoid belief that Common Core was a national left-wing indoctrination program that would interfere with their agenda, which is to indoctrinate students with their own right-wing ideology!

And that, gentle reader, is how we got the birth of the blues, according to the Times' resident Nobel laureate.

I was given some good advice many years ago that when it comes to questions about your health you should always get three opinions. So last but not least we will hear from Charles Blow.

According to Dr. Blow, the authoritative Broad Foundation places America close to the bottom of the academic performance list of industrialized countries grades K-12.

He relies on Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way to buttress his argument. The kids of South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand know far more math than ours do, whether they come from privileged backgrounds or not.

If you were the average reader of the Times who has nothing to do with public education, it all seems plausible. But is any of it true?

I'd like to offer other possibilities that might explain the causes of the Republican education malaise.

Ronald Reagan, for many the transcendent Republican president of the 20th century, wanted to get rid of the Department of Education altogether. When Reagan took office the department was only three years old when he made a national speech calling for its abolition.

The response from Senator Ted Kennedy, according to Jeffrey Lord, who worked in the Reagan White House was: "This is government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich."

Reagan's proposal went nowhere, because while he was transcendent, he wasn't transformational in the way FDR was. In fact, Reagan left no political heirs in positions of power, and the onset of Alzheimer's precluded exercising his status of party elder statesman.

Instead a Bush dynasty of sorts proceeded with an agenda that took Reaganism apart brick by brick with hardly a whimper coming from conservatives. It would be a "thousand points of light" rather than voodoo economics that would act as the nation's loadstar.

Of course nobody dared repudiate Reagan, he was too popular a figure to do that. But the paving of the road to No Child Left Behind and a Department of Education budget that now tops $68 billion began with Reagan's vice president and successor George H.W. Bush.

It was Bush 41 who called a conference of governors together to address America's education crisis in 1989 and let them know that federal education dollars would henceforth be tied to student "outputs." The handwriting was on the wall; test results would drive federal assistance from now on.

A principled opposition to what has become a massive ham-fisted intrusion into the traditional (and constitutional) role of the states in supervising education is hardly the work of a right-wing cabal.

Those of us who toil in the classroom have been subjected to wave after wave of reforms under No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top without any consideration of how the schoolhouse has been impacted.

That's why more than 1,550 principals in New York State signed a petition opposing an unproven and unworkable teacher evaluation system that was being imposed on them by John King, the State Commissioner of Education, in order qualify for federal Race To The Top dollars.

So I would argue that the opposition to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and high-stakes testing has everything to do with the unprecedented incompetence at these attempts at reform rather than the ostensible worth of their content.

At the behest of private philanthropies, the government has managed to impose reform after reform emanating out of the Department of Education in much the same manner as a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat. Where the rabbits come from and where they wind up is of no relevance.

There is a palpable sense of foreboding that can be found among teachers who don't believe that the ruling elites and arbiters of opinion really want any of these reforms to work out either, because these elites believe that public education as we know it has no place in 21st century America, and that top down management is preferable to the clumsy workings of democratically run school boards.

They are forever comparing America to much smaller homogeneous societies like Finland, South Korea, and Japan, which is like comparing the amount of water you displace when you get into your bathtub with the amount of water a Nimitz class aircraft carrier displaces at sea.

America has always been a polyglot nation of immigrants since its inception. It is always faced with the task of assimilating and Americanizing waves of newcomers who neither read nor write English, and are often illiterate in their native language. In this sense America is incomparable.

Given this task no Common Core testing baseline can ever be established with the massive waves of newcomers who attend New York's public schools for example.

Instead of a "crisis in the classroom," I would suggest that we are confronting a crisis of leadership.

Charles Murray captures this devolution of an elite that is no longer rooted in the soil of everyday American life:

"Tocqueville, when explaining why the American system ensured that a despot could never successfully divide Americans against each other, wrote that 'local freedom . . . perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.' That's not true any more. Our propensities do sever us, and the new upper class shows no inclination to reach out across the widening divide."

And if they are not rooted in the soil of everyday life they are a leadership that resembles hydroponic plants rooted in nothing but the floating world of their own lifestyle.

The incompetence is everywhere to be seen in almost every facet of life wherever the government touches us. Whether it's implementing health care, education reforms, or a low level analyst revealing the entire national security budget, no amount of treasure seems to guarantee that anything works anymore.

When New York City's test scores were recalibrated, demonstrating that close to a decade of reform, reorganization, and massive school closings amounted to nothing, the mayor just looked the public in the eye and claimed success.

When a new grading system was designed to ensure that teachers and administrators didn't fudge the test results broke down, the newspapers mostly treated it as a non-event. The fact that thousands of teachers sat around doing nothing at grading centers for days was of no great moment. And so no heads rolled and no one took responsibility or was held responsible.

Now that the Common Score test scores, arbitrarily set to guarantee low results, have been unveiled, the same responsible people have told the public in Orwellian terms that bad is actually good. At least that's what Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, maintained in a recent op-ed.

This all reminds me of scene from a Pink Panther movie when Inspector Clouseau leans back on a couch unaware that there is no back to recline against and winds up flipping backward, only to jump up and declare "I planned it that way!"

The reality is that it's not simply that the Republicans are stupid and inept. The crisis is that bipartisan stupidity and incompetence reigns supreme.