Paul Farhi turns in a “5 myths” piece about education for The Washington Post. It’s a mixed bag and a lot of strawmen that miss some opportunities to actually look at complicated questions. But a few of the “myths” deserve more discussion.
In particular Farhi cites the modestly rising high school graduation rates and SAT/ACT scores as evidence that the idea that are schools are failing is a myth. He also cites international comparisons, and I tend to agree with that point. But the status dropout numbers Farhi uses understate the problem because they don’t count some populations. Besides, we have better numbers because states are finally starting to count actual students. The good news? High School graduation rates are up. The bad news? Only to 75 percent overall and less for minorities (64 percent for Hispanics and 62 percent for African-Americans). More stunning, the college completion rate for low-income students is 8 percent by age 24. 8 percent. Farhi’s of course free to argue, as he implicitly does, that such an outcome is OK. I’d like to think he doesn’t have too much company. He also points out that low-income and English-language learners struggle but fails to note that minority kids lag behind (on NAEP for example) regardless of whether they’re in urban or suburban (or rural) school districts. More textured take on that myth: Depends how you define “failure” but there are a lot of kids – in all types of American communities – facing some long odds.
Farhi also takes on the myth that “billionaires know best.” I don’t know anyone who agrees with that but the discussion does open the door to a important issue. He writes, “There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give. But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.” Really? What exactly is a string? Does Farhi just give money to charities blind with no concern about what they use it for? I don’t. If you care about hunger, for instance, you give to charitable organizations working on that issue. Likewise if you care about clean water, bike lanes, or the arts you do the same. And Farhi doesn’t have to go far to learn about this. He might want to check with the Washington Post’s publisher, who is an active philanthropist, to see if he targets his money or just sends it out shotgun style. Or he could just check out the scholarships the Post offers to students, they have strings, too. The point is that all charitable giving has strings attached, no one writes a blank check. The closest thing to a blank check is arguably the annual MacArthur grants but even there the recipients have gone through a rigorous selection and diligence process prior to the award – call that a front-end string. Today’s grantmakers don’t have it all figured out, to be sure, but the idea that you should just give money without any direction for or attention to what it’s going to be used for is disproven by a lot of experience in this sector.
The other “myths” such as “charter schools are the answer” and “more effective teachers are the answer” would be more accurate statements if “one” were substituted for “the.” Otherwise these are myths looking for myth makers.
Update: Luke Kohlmoos has more.