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Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele

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MSNBC's Education Nation Meant Nothing

Posted: 10/11/10 12:01 PM ET

Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them. After a rocky start earlier this decade typical of many new schools, Mr. Canada's two charter schools, featured as unqualified successes in "Waiting for 'Superman,' " the new documentary, again hit choppy waters this summer, when New York State made its exams harder to pass.

A drop-off occurred, in spite of private donations that keep class sizes small, allow for an extended school day and an 11-month school year, and offer students incentives for good performance like trips to the Galápagos Islands or Disney World.

In its nonstop promotion of its self-congratulatory Education Nation -- how the United States is dropping like a stone in international rankings of student math and science literacy, how high school graduation rates are plummeting -- particular for minorities, and how we must be aware of these things and act now, or else American will cease to be a leader among nations -- NBC and MSNBC acted as boosters for government policy. This policy is the Obama Administration, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan one that comprises eliminating teacher union prerogatives such as tenure, providing seed-funding for schools and districts to make extra efforts to pursue excellence, charter schools, and encouraging parents to be more involved in their children's educations.

But, during its education week, Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie, on MSNBC's The Daily Rundown, presented the ubiquitous Duncan with some obvious doubts about this whole enterprise. Guthrie questioned whether such confabs lead to actual useful change, and asked what concrete results Education Nation produced. For his part, Todd expressed the logical paradox of the endeavor -- referencing supposedly promising education "experiments" (like charter schools), he asked how it is we have been calling for educational reform and improvement for 25 years (what about 50? -- since Sputnik was launched in 1957, spurring alarm at America's lack of scientific preparedness), and yet we're still experimenting?

Answer: Because producing better students requires more fundamental changes than are accessible to educational reform efforts.*

So, do you get the idea the whole thing is eyewash? Here are five reasons it is:

Colin Powell, along with wife Alma, interviewed on Morning Joe during the week-long educational marathon, discussed how in many inner cities, children aren't getting educated because they live in fear of violence. What proposals address this situation?

Why will parents -- particularly parents in increasingly fractured inner-city homes (where the number of unmarried and single parents continues to grow) -- suddenly heed the call to become involved with their children's schools?

The earnest appeal for greater scientific literacy is made in a nation where leading political figures and pundits actively challenge evolution in favor of biblical accounts of creation, and there is more parental pressure to return prayer to schools and to teach creationism than to improve science curricula (including former teacher and cable's most popular commentator, Bill O'Reilly, and MSNBC's own Pat Buchanan).

Although Duncan brags about special funding for educational initiatives, (a) school expenditures have climbed rapidly during the same period that educational outcomes have crumbled, (b) the most money is already spent in school districts with the worst results (e.g., the District of Columbia), (c) D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee responds when asked about (b) that the system is broken in a way money can't fix -- so why are people slobbering over Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark (NJ) public schools‎ -- a system embarked on a decades-long eclipse, (d) the United States already spends far more per student than the 20 plus nations ranked above it in science and math school performance, (e) financially strapped states can't afford to maintain even current levels of school support, no matter how many special programs Obama and Duncan devise (re-raising Todd's question about why we expect to be able to do better noodling with education today than when funding was abundant).

The experiments being promoted -- charter schools and other initiatives like those enacted in New York under highly regarded School Chancellor Joel Klein, who is frequently interviewed for his expertise -- have already demonstrated their limits, if not their failure, like that signaled by this recent (September 23) New York Times headline: City Reports Nearly Fivefold Increase in Students Repeating a Grade.

So, you're optimistic about America, the Education Nation?

Reference: One pundit who got it exactly right is New York Times political humorist Gail Collins.

*This news report from the September 27th Times is par for the course: "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade breaking down big schools into small academies (it has since switched strategies, focusing more on instruction)."