Sunday, January 11, 2009

Of chicken salad and kindergarten

In a previous discussion of elite contempt for Sarah Palin, I derogated President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative:
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."
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.
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'!"

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.
Assuming that I am even moderately competent as a teacher, I think you would agree, Steve, that on this end-of-the-year test, my class of 20 handpicked geniuses would substantially outperform your class of 20 culls and rejects. And by this hypothetical experiment we would have proven scientifically what the ordinary American knows by common sense: You can't make chicken salad from chicken manure.

(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.


  1. the Lake Woebegone utopia

    I'd settle for the "all the women are beautiful" part, myself.

  2. However "moldable" children may be, they are not infinitely moldable

    Oh, silly me -- I foolishly responded to the actual words in your original post.

    If what you say at great and tedious length here is what you originally meant, you should have made yourself clear in the first place.

  3. "culls and rejects" I like that. I really like to think that a teacher thinks of the children entrusted to his care as "culls and rejects."


    Of course kids have different personalities and different aptitudes. No one ever said they didn't. And of course kids from different kinds of families will receive differential amounts of help or harm to overcome their particular difficulties or to enhance their particular skills. Literally *no one makes the argument* that children in a multi racial, multi class society aren't going to come to school differentially prepared and with different needs.

    All *progressives* ask for, and all that conservatives refuse, is to try to use taxpayer money to best educate each and every child. Absurdly, conservative attempts to tear down public schools with charter schools and vouchers doesn't for one moment disturb the *taxpayer* origins of money or the *governmental* part of the educational system, its just a kind of sleight of hand taking money from all the taxpayers and trying to corral it for the benefit of the few who can work the system. Lets call them, I don't know, "education hustlers?"

    Kids need teaching. Citizens need teaching. And they need good teaching. We see the results every day when the "culls and rejects" from other industrialized countries do better on tests than our own kids. Because they have a better public education system.


  4. We see the results every day when the "culls and rejects" from other industrialized countries do better on tests than our own kids. Because they have a better public education system.

    Umm, most of the countries that do better than we do also spend much less on education than we do (i.e., Asian countries). Countries that tend to spend as much or more than we do, do about equal or worse (i.e., European countries). The main reason that Asian countries do so well, quite frankly, is that they have strict environments with high expectations for students, something we don't have the stomach for here. So, spend all you want, complain about those who support vouchers, whatever. "Progressives" will never improve education because the only answer they have to any question involving education is to "spend more money".

  5. "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."

    And the problem is that most parents will grant this common sense truism in principle; every single one will fight like demons when it is specifically applied.

    You don't need to be delusional to note that there is a logical and rhetorical gap between the statement "There are inherent limits to what can be done in the classroom," and the statement, "I can do no more for your child," in terms of the former proving the truth of the latter in any one case.

    The NCLB Act may well simply be an attempt to enshrine in law a requirement that no teacher can use the general truth of finite malleability as an excuse to stop expending effort on any specific child or group of children. The law is not a statement of human perfectibility; it is a requirement that teachers are not allowed to stint their efforts on the excuse of human imperfectibility.