Martin L. Gross and Joseph P. Viteritti have written books that are bookends, two halves of a wholly persuasive account of what’s wrong with America’s schools today and what it would take to put things right. In the process, they raise some interesting questions for donors.
Readers who judge by jacket cover won’t be surprised that Gross’s book contains the now-familiar indictment of public schools for low achievement at ever-increasing prices. But Gross actually asserts a far more provocative thesis: “It is not that ignorance is an unfortunate by-product of a poor education system. Rather, it appears that in contemporary teaching circles it may actually be a goal.”
As Gross sees it, the problem is not simply that our students are failing to learn, but that our teachers are failing to teach—or, to put it even more precisely, that the public education establishment has quietly abandoned the tried-and-true pedagogical aims that prevailed through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, having adopted instead a feel-good, fact-free approach that is more concerned with whether our children are well-adjusted than well-educated.
No longer interested in teaching, disdaining fact-based knowledge as “trivia,” endlessly fascinated by every educational fad and fancy, the people who run our public schools constitute what Gross calls an “unscholarly, anti-intellectual, anti-academic cabal,” who have conspired to transform America’s public schools from the successful educational institutions they once were into “adjunct mental health clinics.”
Gross presses his point with a wealth of depressing detail on the present plight of public schooling in America. How many adults, whose own formal schooling occurred decades ago, know that the Ed School graduate certified to teach math or science to our children took significantly fewer credits in his field than the average bachelor’s degree recipient who majors in math or science? How many people know that nearly half of all public secondary school math teachers are “out-of-field” placements—edu-speak for not having majored in the subject they teach—with one in three junior or high school math teachers having neither majored nor minored in math? For that matter, how many people know that our public classrooms are staffed with teachers drawn from the bottom third of their high school and college graduating classes? Who would have guessed that the C- slackers slumped in the back row would grow up to be our children’s teachers?
As for the education establishment’s willingness to subject our children to fads, witness Gross’s seriocomic account of California’s decade-long experiment with whole language over phonics-based reading instruction. Gross quotes a whole language guru who enthuses that “whole language classrooms liberate pupils to try new things, to invent spellings,. . . to guess at meanings in their spellings, or to read and write imperfectly.”
And read and write imperfectly they do—as in this California 1st grader’s story, quoted by Gross: “If I wd hf mg ics I wd save the bses and one I sav the bes then I wd g thm way the end.” Translation: “If I would have magic beans, I would save the beans. And when I save the beans, then I would give them away. The End.”
To which this reviewer can only say, F anee wun hoo spelz lik that groz up to gt a gud jub, Ide be umayzd.
Gross’s solutions—which include abolishing all of the nation’s 1,200 undergrad schools of education, raising teacher certification tests above the present 9th or 10th grade level and washing out teachers who fail, and regulating the political activity of the teachers unions—are all on point and all woefully beyond reach given the political clout of public teachers unions to frustrate change and preserve the status quo. All, that is, save vouchers, which Gross, “as the product of an older, excellent public education experience. . . reluctantly and regretfully” favors.
Enter political scientist Joseph P. Viteritti, who has combed the cumulative literature on school vouchers and constructed an argument that is both sensible and sensitive—sensitive, in terms of the author’s temperate tone on what is easily the education debate’s most divisive issue, and sensible, in terms of Viteritti’s belief that America’s noble public goal of equality through education may best be reached by private means. “Never wholly owned by either the political right or the political left,” writes Viteritti, “[school] choice can be adopted to advance a variety of policy objectives depending on how it is designed. My goal in this book is to explain how choice might be applied. . . to advance the goal of equality.”
In this way, Viteritti sees the outcome of private school choice—increased educational opportunity, especially for America’s poor and minority children—as consonant with the great expectations raised by Brown v. Board of Education, and dashed by decades of unfortunate experience with forced busing. To sum up Viteritti’s case for vouchers: Out of private choice, public good.
As Viteritti concludes, school choice flows from the same egalitarian spirit that inspires democracy:
[I]f we are to believe that every individual, no matter how humble their existence, is equipped to deal with the complex affairs of governing the state, then it is difficult to deny that each has the capacity to decide which school is most appropriate for their own child. . .. Poor people understand the meaning of educational equality so well because they have been confronted with the realities of inequality for so long. We should let them choose for themselves.
In the polarized arena of education reform, it remains to be seen whether Viteritti’s carefully measured arguments will accomplish more by changing minds on school choice, or whether Gross’s incendiary indictment will do more by goading complacent parents and policymakers to demand better of our public schools. From the donor’s perspective, it’s fair to ask whether it even matters. Indeed, it does—because private donations to K-12 public education tally as much as $6.9 billion a year. If Gross is right, those billions in well-intentioned dollars are underwriting a public education system that—far from failing—may in fact be succeeding in its aim of packing public school children’s heads with the dumbed-down education the system now exalts. If Viterriti is right, philanthropists who care about education as America’s best means of achieving true equality of opportunity ought to be putting their money into private alternatives.
To be sure, $6.9 billion may not seem like much measured against the $350 billion in tax dollars spent each year on public K-12 education. But it would still be enough to fund 1.75 million vouchers pegged at $4,000 a year (the amount provided by Florida’s newly-established voucher program). Considering the way the 10,500 children presently served by the publicly-financed private school choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pensacola, Florida (plus the more than 50,000 privately-financed voucher students sponsored by CEO America programs in 69 cities) have the educational establishment cowering in terror, it would be hard to exaggerate the educational impact of such a multimillion-child, multibillion-dollar effort—as an exit option for kids trapped in failing public schools, and an incentive to push public schools to do better.
All of which leads to the $6.9 billion dollar question: Are the generous souls who provide that annual cash infusion unwitting accomplices in the educational farce that is American public education—or untapped resources in what could be a reform revolution centered on school vouchers?
Daniel McGroarty, author of Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice, is senior director of the White House Writers Group, a public policy communications consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct fellow of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.