NCLB was nothing but pandering to soccer moms who sincerely want to believe in a Lake Woebegone world where "all the children are above average."In response, Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog expresses outrage at my skepticism toward "the belief that children are actually moldable beings who can be changed through the efforts of government institutions known as 'schools'!"
The same unconservative belief that informed NCLB -- that human beings are so many lumps of clay who can be magically transformed by the proper government interventions -- has also, when you think about it, informed U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Steve: My dear Aunt Barbara spent decades as a teacher. My cousin is a state educational administrator. Two of my best friends from childhood are married to teachers. My wife works at a school, we have homeschooled our own children, and our 19-year-old daughter is a college sophomore majoring in education. I spent years as an education reporter, and in fact once considered majoring in education myself, taking several classes in the field, including developmental psychology. What I say about education, I say from knowledge, not ignorance.
However "moldable" children may be, they are not infinitely moldable, even if that molding begins at infancy -- an observation I derive from the clear personality differences between my twin sons, who are fraternal rather than identical and yet so closely resemble each other in appearance that, especially in early childhood, it was very hard to tell them apart. Since they were raised in the same home environment and were treated equally (it being impossible to discriminate between two peas in a pod), their basic differences can only be described as innate.
Given how innate differences are manifested in two simultaneous products of the same womb, who have been provided with the same upbringing, how much more can such differences manifest themselves among a disaparate two dozen 5-year-olds reporting for their first kindergarten class? Yes, in a 180-day year of five daily hours in school, each kindergartner is to some extent "molded," but the school's influence is not omnipotent when set against the influence of the child's inborn characteristics and home environment.
Try a thought experiment, Steve:
- Suppose that you and I were both kindergarten teachers at a school where, on a summer day before the start of fall classes, the parents were expected to bring their prospective kindergartners for a daylong registration and orientation session.
- Forty children attend the session, and there will be two classes formed from this group, with you and I each teaching 20 children.
- Further suppose that, as senior teacher, I had the privilege of choosing which 20 children I would teach, with you taking the balance.
- After interviewing the parents and observing their children during the orientation, I choose for my class those 20 children who seem to me to offer the brightest educational prospects, leaving for you the dummies and prospective discipline problems.
- Now, suppose that at the end of the ensuing school year, all of these children were given a standardized test.
(Incidentally, that colorful expression is one I first heard from a high school football coach who used it in the same sense that another coach once told me, "You can't coach a 4.4 forty." Prep coaches are also required to teach academic subjects in most schools, and among the coaches I once dealt with as a small-town sports editor were some top-notch teachers of history and mathematics. Based on extensive off-the-record conversations with these career educators, I can assure you that what is true on the athletic field is true in the classroom. There are limits to what can be accomplished through intstruction, which is what is meant by the chicken salad/chicken manure metaphor.)
When I derogated NCLB as being based on an "unconservative belief," what I meant was that it was based on a counterfactual belief -- a belief inspired by sentiment or ideology, rather than by facts. Every educator, however sincere in his desire to do the best for each of his pupils, understands that there are inherent limits to what can be accomplished in the classroom. It is not controversial to say, "Children differ," but because of the politicization of education, it has become controversial to say that children differ non-randomly in ways that profoundly affect their scholastic achievement, even though every teacher knows that this is true.
If you are friends with an astute kindergarten or first-grade teacher, Steve, you may inquire directly into this matter. Such teachers have told me that, with a high degree of accuracy, they can identify almost immediately those children who are destined for academic excellence. The bright kids simply show up on Day One more ready to learn than their peers, and there is only so much of the variation in outcomes between children that can be attributed to the difference in the quality of instruction.
Facts are sturdy things, as John Adams observed. Leave it to a liberal, however, to be offended by the expression of sturdy fact even when such an expression impugns the policies of President Bush, whom they otherwise excoriate at every opportunity.
Like one of those apologists for Marxism who always distinguishes between the ideal blessings of socialism and the real misery that socialism inevitably produces, Steve contends that the egalitarian fallacy at the root of NCLB was less responsible for the policy's failure than the specifics of how the policy was "actually designed and implemented." That is to say, Steve appears to believe that the objectives of NCLB could be accomplished -- just not by a Republican administration.
Well, good luck with that hypothesis. Let the Obama administration labor with all diligence and sincerity, augmented by federal coercion and our tax dollars, to bring about the Lake Woebegone utopia where all children are above average. It requires only common sense, not expertise or clairvoyance, to predict the result: They will fail to overcome the sturdy facts and, in the end, will be left to make sandwiches of chicken manure.