Jim Manzi, the founder and chairman of Applied Predictive Technologies and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, joins Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis to discuss his new book, Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society (Basic/City Journal).
Among the questions we discuss:
• What do we know?
• Do we know enough to make sweeping social policies?
• What's wrong with experimenting with reforms? What kind of experiments should we be conducting?
• Can scientific research overcome political forces?
• Do top-down reforms ever work?
• Have the education reforms of the past 20 years made a difference?
• Can liberty and technocracy co-exist?
• What's Manzi's problem with Mark Levin?
• And much more!
Music heard in this podcast:
• "Natural Science," Rush
• "She Blinded Me With Science," Thomas Dolby
• "Political Science," Randy Newman
• "Science is Real," They Might Be Giants
• "What's the Matter Here?," 10,000 Maniacs
• "I Don't Know," The Lounge Brigade
Please visit and "like" the Ben and Joel page on Facebook to comment, as well as for updates about the podcast and links to our weekly syndicated column with ScrippsHoward News Service.
Programming note: This episode of "The Ben and Joel Podcast" is Vol. 5, No. 10 for 2012. Once again, Skype behaved strangely. So if you're wondering why Joel sounds like he's speaking in an empty auditorium, that's why.
What a show! Returning to the podcast, possibly for the last time, is Steven F. Hayward, author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, the two-volume Age of Reagan, and other fine books. Hayward has been stirring up trouble on the right lately, first with his essay in the fall issue of the Breakthrough Journal on "Modernizing Conservatism"; then with his recent article at National Review Online and follow-up posts at Powerline comparing Newt Gingrich to Winston Churchill.
We asked Steve to come on the podcast to confess and recant his heresy. Instead, he embraced the charges and doubled-down. Listen and judge for yourself.
(Incidentally, Hayward laid the groundwork for some of this in the second volume of his Age of Reagan. We discussed his assessment of the Reagan Revolution and the present state of the conservative movement on this podcast in 2009.)
Among the questions we discuss:
• Is conservatism failing?
• What, if anything, can replace the Republicans' "starve the beast" strategy?
• Is the welfare state really a "fact of life"?
• What would an ideal tax system look like? How about a progressive consumption tax?
• Can politicians ever stop tinkering with the tax code?
• What can Republican governors teach us?
• Does the United States need a third party?
• Is the gap between left and right unbridgeable?
• And much, much more!
Music heard in this podcast:
• "The Inquisition," Mel Brooks
• "Family Affair," Bobby Hutcherson
• "Heretics," Andrew Bird
• "We Just Disagree," Dave Mason
• "Good King Wencesles," Unknown Artist
Programming note: We've changed the way we identify the episodes. This episode of "The Ben and Joel Podcast" is Vol. 4, No. 8. You might be wondering, whatever happened with Vol. 4, No. 1? Eventually, "lost episodes" become corny clichés.
The timing may not have been expected, but the outcome certainly was: Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, DC’s public school system, announced her resignation this morning. I wrote about Rhee’s impending departure this morning at School Reform News, with comments from policy experts at Reason, the Pacific Research Institute, and the Foundation for Educational Choice. I also published an op-ed in Investor’s Business Dailya couple of weeks ago examining Rhee’s record and likely legacy as a reformer that’s worth revisiting, if I do say so myself.
Was Rhee overhyped? In IBD, I wrote:
Nobody is indispensable, and Superman lives only in comic books…
Rhee’s likely ouster shows the perils of placing the mantle of change in the hands of one person, however capable. Her charisma earned her plenty of fans among reformers—and the lasting enmity of the education establishment. Their money brought down the mayor who appointed her.
That view is echoed in the story today:
“Rhee was overhyped in the sense that reformers need to put broad systemic reforms in place, like the DC charter law, in addition to strong leaders,” says Matt Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. “Rhee lasted approximately the average tenure for an urban superintendent. Leaders come and go, but the struggle for reform goes on.”
But Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, disagreed with Ladner slightly.
“Rhee was not overhyped,” said Forster. “What was overhyped was the whole heroic reformer model that says the system can work as long as we put the right people in charge of it.”
“Now we know that if you ever really do get the right people in charge of it, the unions just pull out all the stops to destroy those people,” he said. “We need to change the system in a way that breaks the unions, and only universal school choice can do that.”
Lisa Snell at the Reason Foundation described Rhee’s tenure in DC as “a cautionary tale” of what happens when a supposedly strong leader attempts to reshape powerful bureaucratic institutions. Reform is sometimes easier said than done. Explained Snell:
“Charter schools are a case in point. While there are many charismatic charter school leaders, these schools still only thrive in states where the laws make it easier to open a charter school.”
Over at Cato’s @ Liberty blog, Adam Schaeffer calls Rhee’s resignation the “least shocking news of the year.”
“No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly,” Schaeffer writes. “It is unreformable.” He goes on to say, “Only systemic reform that creates a market in education will bring sustained, continual improvement.”
Meanwhile, at Heritage’s Foundry, School Reform News contributing editor Lindsey Burke delves into Rhee’s reform legacy:
Since taking office [three] years ago, Rhee has fired hundreds of ineffective teachers and administrators, closed poor-performing schools, and reworked contracts to include performance pay. Not surprisingly, union opposition to Chancellor Rhee’s reforms has been strong.
In the nation’s capital and throughout the country, education unions have worked to thwart attempts to reform the failed status quo, seeing any opening for children to escape monopoly public school systems as a threat to their power. While Washington, D.C. still has a long way to go to improve the school system, Chancellor Rhee has worked to place the well-being of children ahead of the demands of special interest groups such as the education unions.
The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder muses on what the future might have in store for Rhee, and sums up what made her such a lightning rod:
It appeared at times as if Rhee was dismissive of her real audience: the educational bureaucracy. She seemed indifferent at times to the emotions of teachers, parents, and students, most of whom were black and didn’t trust her, initially, because she was just different. This sounds like a small point, but had Rhee kept her disdain for the current system and its leaders to herself, she might have built stronger and more lasting relationships with the constituencies she had to deal with. But Rhee doesn’t self-censor. That’s part of who she is.
It’s worth remembering that the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten wasn’t Rhee’s only opponent. Diane Ravitch, who’s strange intellectual course has been widely documented, criticized, and speculated about, leveled some pointed criticism at Rhee’s management of DC’s schools after last month’s mayoral primary:
Rhee believed that mayoral control gave her the power to work her will and to ignore dissenters or brush them off as defenders of the status quo. Mayoral control bred arrogance and indifference to dialogue. She didn’t need to listen to anyone because she had the mayor’s unquestioning support. Mayoral control made democratic engagement with parents and teachers unnecessary. It became easy for her to disparage them and for the media to treat them as self-interested troublemakers.
… If D.C. had had an independent school board, Rhee would have had to explain her ideas, defend them, and practice the democratic arts of persuasion, conciliation, and consensus-building. We now have an “education reform” movement which believes that democracy is too slow and too often wrong, and their reforms are so important, so self-evident that they cannot be delayed by discussion and debate….
There may be a kernel or two of truth in this. Fact is, Rhee was not an effective communicator of her reform plans. She gave the Washington Teachers Union and the AFT ample ammunition to use against her. Consider it a valuable lesson in politics. But, as Matt Ladner told me earlier, “I suspect that Rhee and her allies and admirers are sadder, wiser and undeterred.” Indeed.
(Cross-posted at Somewhat Reasonable.)
I'm going to start the discussion with religion and spirituality, not because it's the primary reason we homeschool (it isn't) but because it's the reason many (most?) people assume families homeschool their children.
There are a lot of religious reasons to homeschool your children, but the most compelling one for me is that I believe that all education is inherently religious/spiritual. Meaning: Apart from very few subjects (typing perhaps?) you always rely on presuppositions, and those presuppositions are usually tied in some way to one's metaphysics and beliefs about spiritual reality. The idea of delivering some kind of "neutral" secular education is laughable. When you approach subjects like history, language, and science presupposing that the material universe is all there is, you will teach those subjects quite differently than if you presuppose that there is a spiritual realm.
In many subjects, public education is hamstrung by the anti-establishment clause on the one hand, and the inherently religious nature of education on the other. As children grow and their education develops, the material constantly calls out for value judgments. History, for example, is unintelligible if you refuse to acknowledge the religious and political motivations of its actors. How does one teach children about the crusades, the Roman Empire, the Enlightenment, or the wars of the 20th century without expressing SOME kind of moral judgment? Forget ONE, how do you enforce a set of standards for neutrality among THOUSANDS of teachers, knowing that they all come from different backgrounds and carry different spiritual biases?
Some other religious/spiritual reasons we, or other homeschoolers, might choose to keep our children out of the school system:
Also note that spiritual concerns go both ways. If you're an atheist in a district that has decided to teach Intelligent Design in its science curriculum, you might decide to keep your child home. Likewise other faiths.
The parenthetical comment should probably read, "the first in a series that will likely be abandoned about one third of the way through, like everything else I start here," but that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
CRywalt left a comment on one of Ben's education posts that included this drive-by piece of snark:
Bad enough we've got evangelical, conservative Christians homeschooling to avoid their kids' learning about evolution or sexual reproduction.
As an evangelical, conservative Christian (I'm an officer in my church, which is part of the Presbyterian Church in America, one of the more theologically conservative denominations) who, along with my wife, has chosen to homeschool our children, I find it disappointing and a bit offensive that this line is delivered without a twinge of recognition that it is simply repeating a convenient stereotype. It belongs on the trash-heap of stereotypes that include, "women who work are putting their careers before their families," and "people from the South are inbred racists."
In the interest of shedding light on the many reasons parents choose to homeschool these days, I will try to do individual posts on these topics:
Not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily exclusively.
Watch this space...
I have an op-ed in Investor's Business Daily on Thursday making the case for tenure reform and merit pay. I argue that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's veto of a sweeping and ambitious tenure reform bill in the Sunshine State two week's ago has national implications. But so does the bill currently being debated in Colorado.
I also suggest that tenure reform alone isn't enough. You need real choice and competition if you want lasting reform.
I have two -- count 'em, two! -- op-eds in two -- count 'em, two! -- newspapers on Friday on massively important subject of education reform.
The Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register kindly published my commentary on a bill by Illinois State Senator James Meeks that would establish as pilot voucher program in Chicago. Meeks may seem an unlikely champion of school choice, but it turns out this pastor of the largest black church in Chicago's South Side understands that liberating school kids from the status quo is more important than milking contributions from the teachers union:
School choice has been proven to empower parents, help children excel, narrow the achievement gap among poor and minority students, and save taxpayers money. Yet teachers unions, education bureaucrats and their patrons from the White House on down oppose any reform they cannot stifle with red tape and regulation.
But they cannot kill school choice. Against the odds, choice keeps coming back, in the unlikeliest of places.
A voucher program is one step closer to reality in President Barack Obama’s own home state, despite fierce opposition from the powerful Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Meantime, the Sacramento Bee on Friday publishes my take on the first round of Race to the Top funding. I've written about Race to the Top for the Bee in the past. As it turns out, the program is quite a bit lamer -- and more insidious -- than I initially had thought:
Race to the Top was always too good to be true. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan sold the $4.35 billion stimulus program as education reform’s 21st century “moon shot.” But as this week’s announcement of the first two state grant recipients shows, it’s just another expensive sop to the education establishment, no less beholden to politics and bound by bureaucratic red tape.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia made the list of finalists, but only two applicants—Delaware and Tennessee—made the grade. Delaware will receive about $100 million and Tennessee about $500 million to put their comprehensive school reform plans into practice over the next four years.
Cash-strapped states passed over in the first round are scrambling for a piece of the remaining $3.4 billion in Race cash. Any state that lost out should take a close look at not simply what plans passed muster with the Education Department but why those plans succeeded.
Turns out, those plans succeeded by compromising with the unions. More innovative plans that did not win union support did not win...period. The union often wins, though events in Illinois suggest the public is not with the union at all. We'll see.
I have a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal today, taking issue with Karl Rove's column last week on the merits of No Child Left Behind. Needless to say, I'm expecting an exploding "turd blossom" to be sitting on my doorstep any day now.
That's the headline the Boston Herald put on my op-ed, which casts a cold eye on the recent mass-firings at a Rhode Island high school:
It’s true that some schools are so hopeless and the teachers so inept that mass firings and shutdowns are the only solution. But isn’t that for local authorities to decide?
Firing every teacher from a struggling Rhode Island high school is a spectacular display of what passes for accountability in education these days. But the controversial decision by a New England school superintendent has more to do with buckling under unforgiving federal mandates than bucking the status quo and boldly asserting local control.
Kindly read the whole thing.
Author Susan Jacoby, a lively agnostic whose books The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers are worth engaging even if you're inclined to disagree, offers some rather ill-considered ideas for reforming America's schools in the New York Times.
Jacoby begins with the oft-heard lament that American kids are mediocre in math and science compared to their peers in other countries. She takes a poke at President Obama's proposed overhaul of No Child Left Behind and serves up a heaping ladle of scorn for the Texas State Board of Education. "Each of these seemingly unrelated developments," Jacoby writes, "is part of a crazy quilt created by one of America’s most cherished and unexamined traditions: local and state control of public education."
The idea that the American tradition local and state control of public education is "unexamined" should be the first of several clues that Jacoby is writing from terra incognita. But she sallies forth boldly, arguing her view:
Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support to attract smart young people to the teaching profession all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments. So does a financing system that relies heavily on local property taxes and fails to guarantee students in, say, Kansas City the same level of schooling as students in more affluent communities.
It's funny she should mention Kansas City, which is an object lesson in how billions of federal court-ordered dollars simply could not buy an excellent education.
The new proposals being offered by the Obama administration will not significantly change a setup that combines the worst of both worlds: broad federally mandated goals and state manipulation of testing and curriculum. Nationwide testing is useless unless it is based on a curriculum consensus reached by genuine experts in the subjects being taught — yes, the dreaded “elites.” That is how public education is administered in nearly all industrialized nations throughout Europe and Asia, whose students regularly outperform Americans in reading comprehension, science and math.
Jacoby is at best half right. It's true that federally mandated curriculum standards are almost certain to fall prey to political pressures to dumb them down. But she omits a major reason why students in Asia and Europe perform so much better on international tests. It isn't merely that elites are administering the schools; the elites -- or, rather, their children -- are also taking the tests. Those other industrialized nations are fairly unapologetic about separating the intellectually gifted wheat from the more trade-oriented chaff. American schools are much more egalitarian and, therefore, much more mediocre.
Jacoby goes on to offer three tentative steps toward meaningful reform. Rather than answer them myself, I would encourage you to read Kevin Kosar, who thoroughly demolished Jacoby in a post earlier today. Writes Kosar:
The notion that our democratic republic is dependent upon government-operated schools is unproven. Walter Lippmann called out this claim 85 years ago; and reams of political science studies indicates that people seldom vote based on reason or deep knowledge of the issues. Before this country had public schools, it had private schools. When Adams and Jefferson lived, there were few public schools. Yet, the Republic endured. And, it is a fact that a disproportionate percentage of private school graduates end up taking leading roles in public affairs.
Here, an old saw seems appro—one is entitled to one’s own opinion, not one’s own facts. And it should go without saying that newspapers, especially influential ones, should not entrust important subjects to dilettantes.
I have a new op-ed in the Sacramento Bee arguing against the Common Core Standards Initiative, which sounds like a great idea until you realize that President Obama wants to use it as leverage to further centralize education policy.
Here's the gist:
The standards are billed as “voluntary,” but that’s a joke. The Obama administration has already announced plans to make $14 billion in federal Title I funds and another $15 billion in future Race to the Top grants contingent on states adopting the national standards. In short, the standards would be as “voluntary” reporting personal income to the IRS, regulating the drinking age, or maintaining the speed limit. Just try to opt out and see what happens.
The standards are also supposed to be “flexible,” but it’s difficult to see how. The draft reading and math requirements include detailed, year-by-year prescriptions for every child, regardless of ability. A student who struggles with reading, writing, or arithmetic would have an even tougher time keeping up, as teachers would face mounting pressure to cover all the material in federally sanctioned lesson plans.
Of course, that assumes the final standards won’t be homogenized and dumbed down to the point they would be considered “high standards” in name only. Judging by history, that’s probably a bad assumption.
One thing’s for sure: transforming common core standards into a common curriculum would turn an already contentious policy issue into a brawl as bruising and divisive as the fight over health care reform. Where health care is about our bodies, education is about our children’s minds.
Obviously, you should read the whole thing. (Try not to be scared off by the mugshot.)
And while you're at it, check out the new School Reform News Web site at the Heartland Institute. In the coming weeks, we'll be introducing daily content, and weekly interactive and multimedia features, including polls, videos and podcasts.
Update: Cato's Neal McCluskey writes at NRO:
All kids are different. They mature at different rates, have different interests, and face different obstacles. In light of this, it simply makes no sense to try to force them all to learn the same thing at the same pace. It’s something that most conservatives — who recognize the primacy of the individual — fully understand, yet Finn asserts that it’s liberals who oppose a single standard for all.
If that’s so, then why aren’t more liberals supporting widespread school choice — the key to ending special-interest control of education and enabling unique kids to find schools specializing in their needs — the way conservatives are? Oh, right: Because it’s typically liberals who love big, one-size-fits-all government solutions to problems fundamentally rooted in a lack of freedom.
The CCSSI standards might look great on paper. But federally extorted standardization? That’s something conservatives should never embrace.
Meantime, Julie Ponzi at No Left Turns picks up a thread that I think deserves elaboration in a separate piece:
A perceived problem for those advocating on behalf of keeping standards at the state level has been the rancorous and, in many ways, ridiculous fight over history standards in Texas that has produced, in the words of Boychuk, "a politically correct mishmash." Any objective observer of the outcome in Texas would have to concede that their "solution" has been less than wonderful. As Ben says in the comment section under his piece, "including the Declaration of Independence in the social studies standards while excluding Thomas Jefferson is... confusing." It is also stupid and deserving of all the mockery and derision it is getting--however wrong-headed and mean-spirited some of it may be. (One way to avoid being called a fool is to avoid doing foolish things!) But this result is in no way--as left-wing critics eager to score points against the "rubes" in red states might hope--an argument in favor of national standards. It is an argument AGAINST them. Why would we want to nationalize that fiasco of a fight in Texas? For that is exactly what would happen.
More on the Texas textbook controversy soon.
we need an "education" topic pigeonhole around here. imo
" The competition was set up to encourage states to take on reforms supported by the Obama administration. "
Anyone want to tell me how a state with 10% of the population blew this one? WHO ARE THE GRANT-WRITERS RESPONSIBLE? I WANT THEIR PENCILS BROKEN.
Not necessarily because I favor federal funds being taken from states, filtered thru the feds and then generously being returned to us a little at a time. Rather, mostly because you could pluck me out of bed at 3 A.M. and I would be able to write a pretty good grant proposal for federal education funding. These grant-writers are obviously inept.
Present company excepted, sirs!