09/28/2012 04:57 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

A Layman's Guide to School Reform

While the Chicago teacher's strike has brought public education to the forefront of the presidential campaign, it barely received more than lip service at the conventions just a few weeks ago.

That's because both parties' positions on public school reform mark a distinction without a difference. They believe public schools have failed to close the "racial achievement gap" that persists among black students. It is the "civil rights" issue of our age according to them.

If you had to boil down the position of the critics into a slogan, it would be "to save the children break the union."

And the punditocracy has piled on. So far the editorialists and talk show hosts have universally condemned the strike as a union "shakedown." Both Chicago papers called the strike unnecessary. The Chicago Tribune exhorted Mayor Rahm Emanuel not to back down.

Now it's not unusual for mass movements that include disparate forces to coalesce around a single idea that is palatable to all concerned. But the very real ideological and policy divide that separates Democrats and Republicans on how the country should be run on the eve of this presidential election demand a look at just what is being masked.

So it might be useful to briefly examine another political movement in another time and place to put education reform in perspective.

When Commodore Perry "opened" Japan after 250 years of self-imposed isolation and ended the Shogun's "closed country" policy, Japan was convulsed. Some say Japan suffered a kind of collective nervous breakdown.

It was as if martians had landed in New York. They saw technologies like steamboats, trains, and telegraph that mesmerized and terrorized them simultaneously.

The response to all of this was to blame the shogunal government for failing to protect the realm from these barbarians. A movement to restore a boy emperor, a ceremonial figure, to direct rule of Japan after centuries of being governed by a shogun took hold.

The rallying cry was "revere the Emperor and repel the barbarian."

At first the samurai who advanced the cause were truly reactionary. They wanted the country closed to the outside world once again and their perception of an imperial institution restored.

But as the movement progressed and gained strength, others realized that there was no going back. Japan had to modernize. So a movement that contained very different agendas rallied around the same slogan and the person of the emperor.

I would suggest that something like this is taking place in the facile attempt to address the seemingly intractable problems facing the underclass in our urban centers today.

For Democrats, who have held political power in the cities for more than half a century, blaming teachers and their unions gets them off the hook for decades of bad public policy, billions of squandered taxpayer dollars, and nothing to show for it but skyrocketing out of wedlock births, high unemployment, drop-out rates and gang related homicides.

They've been exhausted by the failed Great Society albatross hanging around their necks.

Republicans fear that talking about cultural issues and race is a no-win proposition. They want no part of the culture wars. They've decided that championing privatization and the introduction of the business model is an easy out. Why talk about societal and family breakdown when you can play the accountant whose only concern is the bottom line.

I doubt that they believe that providing free "choice" for an underclass that have been making bad choices for their entire lives over the span of generations will be transformative if only they had a menu of schools to choose from. All the vouchers and charters in the world won't create stable caring families. Neither free-market capitalism nor a cornucopia of social welfare programs is the answer.

Nor can they find the prospect of establishing a permanent inquisition that fails and then closes schools on a regular basis an attractive or sustainable public policy.

But they do know that charter schools that screen out the uneducable will show results that they can trumpet. If in the end large numbers of students who are allowed to hang out in New York's public schools until the age of 21 with nothing to show for it, vanish from the scene that much sooner, what's the harm?

If you're going to spend all this government money on education then why not make a profit at it?

Two years ago Nathan Glazer took a look at black America in an article that appeared in the American Interest. It hardly made a ripple. It should have caused a tsunami.

Glazer used the occasion of Barack Obama's first year in office to reflect on the 45th anniversary of the Moynihan Report on The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

That report, it will be remembered, became famous (in some quarters, notorious) for raising the issue of the weakness of the black family, as indicated by a high and rising percentage of out-of-wedlock births, and its relation to poor economic prospects for black men and a host of problems for black youths.

Unfortunately, it is clear that Moynihan's prognosis of steadily deteriorating outcomes among young black men was stunningly accurate, to an even greater extent than he realized at the time.

Not one neighborhood in Chicago [that was] more than 40 percent black in 1970 became predominantly white by 2000, fully 30 years later. By contrast, a large number of white neighborhoods turned black... The polar extremes (all-black and all-white neighborhoods) remained dominant patterns. Neighborhoods, tended to stay in the same poverty category or move to a higher poverty category over time- gentrification was quite rare...whether in Chicago or in the United States as a whole.

This is but a snapshot of Glazer's incisive analysis. Yet it speaks volumes about the reformers who've staked out a position that claims test performance that is tied to teacher evaluation need not account for these kinds of sociological conditions and variables.

William Sanders, one of the father's of value added evaluation, believes that once you establish a student's baseline, a competent teacher should be able to make a year's progress without regard to the personal baggage they might bring with them.

In my view, only a cynic, a charlatan, or a fool, would suggest that Glazer's observations have no bearing on the racial achievement gap. The silence of Democrats and Republicans on this issue is deafening.