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28th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 28, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Two weeks ago, the United States Department of Education released a study that cut to the core of conservative and liberal education orthodoxy. Released on a Friday, so as to be consigned to Saturday coverage, the report demonstrates that there is little, if any gap between student performance at public and private schools.

Private and religious schools do perform better than public schools. But when adjusted by breaking out the performance of children of similar racial and economic backgrounds, the advantage evaporates.

Secretary Spellings is defensive, insisting that the timing of the release was not deliberate. In fact, once the liberals stop crowing about the report, now used to bash the administration, they will come to realize that it also debunks what they themselves have to offer.

The presumption is that if there is no difference in performance between public and private schools, the argument for vouchers and charter schools evaporates. These “free market” solutions are popular with moderates and conservatives.

The free market should promote a competitive environment in which better schools drive out lower performing ones. But the education “market” isn’t a free market. The monopoly which must be broken is not, as many conservatives argue, the “government schools.” Rather it is the larger K-12 educational establishment that includes both public and private schools. At the center of that establishment are the nation’s schools that train teachers and gives legitimacy to the pedagogical theories that drive classroom practice.

Private schools, buying into the same education school monopoly as the public schools, are no longer better. By and large, they now offer the same pedagogy as their public school counterparts. Overwhelmingly, these are the methodologies that have driven down the performance of American students for decades.

I have criticized the New York City Department of Education for adopting a rigid adherence to these practices, which include whole language reading instruction, math, and other “feel good” approaches to teaching. But give city parents a $25,000 check to send their children to Gotham’s “independent” schools — the ones that rich folks fight to get their children into — and what will they get? Whole language and constructivist math. So it is no surprise to me that the federal study suggests that they will do no better at Fieldston or Dalton then they would at P.S. 42.

Until conservatives and moderates realize that as long as most schools offer the same failed teaching strategies, there is no free market for vouchers or tax credits to promote. Many of the charter schools established thus far, which should offer competitive educational strategies, mirror the progressivism of the public schools.

Liberals should take no comfort in all this, because the federal study also contains news for them. At the center of liberal educational orthodoxy is the idea that the poor are being victimized by under-funded public schools. If there is no performance gap between public and the “elitist” private schools (where many liberals send their children), then the “Savage Inequalities” argument about school funding also evaporates. Despite the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, there is evidence that money doesn’t make schools better. Just look at the schools of Marin County, California, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Bridgehampton, New York. These are systems with a Niagara Falls of funding getting Sahara Desert test scores.

While I understand the zeal with which the teachers’ unions pursue the argument new money could go to increasing their ranks and raising their salaries, this is dangerous. As the state bankrupts itself, further crushing the taxpayers, it will be teachers who will be blamed for the failure of the educational monopoly.

The administration fell into a trap when it included in the No Child Left Behind law requirements that teachers must be “qualified.” Who determines which teachers are qualified? It is the schools of education, intent on preserving their monopoly.

Chancellor Klein fought the Microsoft Corporation as a monopoly that dominated the software industry. Say what you will about Microsoft, it is a force in the economy.

Yet Mr. Klein, a tiger when it came to cracking down on Microsoft, is a pussycat when it comes to promoting the education school monopoly. Not only has he institutionalized its pedagogy, but he has also funneled millions in “professional” development contracts to them.

This is an advantage that he withheld from one of the education schools’ few competitors, the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Rather than dismiss the federal study, proponents of the free market educational agenda should use it as an opportunity to look deeper into the education crisis. Once the monopoly is broken, market concepts such as vouchers and charters can make a difference.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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