Controlling History

May 23, 2010

Much was made in the media over the last week or so about the changes to social studies and history curriculum standards being debated by the Texas State Board of Education. The changes, which were passed Friday, will be in effect applicable to many other states’ education curriculums because of the prominent role in the school-textbook market Texas holds.

Liberals argued that the proposed changes, such as a requirement that students “identify reasons for limiting the power of government; and review the record of human rights abuses of unlimited governments such as the oppression of Christians in Sudan,” represented an attempt by the conservative members on the board to bias textbooks in favor of their ideology. Conservatives asserted that the changes would help correct the imbalance common in textbooks swayed in the past by liberal bias. You can judge for yourself by reading some of the proposed changes here.

Jack Plunkett / AP

Lost in the debate, however, is a critical examination of why such a matter is so controversial. State boards of education, particularly the one in Texas, control what issues, subjects and figures are covered and from what perspective they are presented in a host of public schools. For better or worse, the power to shape a generation of students’ knowledge of our past and perspectives on government institutions is placed in the hands of small, partisan boards. This essentially equates to government controlling the presentation of our history.

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Teacher Merit Pay in Florida: Were There Any Merits?

April 16, 2010

A recently vetoed bill in Florida that would have tied teacher pay to student test performance may have at first glance appeared to introduce something into the public education system that many have criticized it for lacking: an emphasis on results. However, the wisdom of such a significant change may not be so clear.

The Florida Legislature recently passed a bill that would base a large part of teacher pay on their students’ performance on standardized tests. It would also end tenure for new teachers. After much speculation, Florida Governor Charlie Crist vetoed the bill Thursday.

In theory, such a move would have incentivized teachers to make sure their students are achieving academically. In reality, as with many government policies, there may also have been some unintended consequences.

Teachers and other opponents of the merit pay legislation protest in a walk from Lee Middle School to the CTA/OESPA office in Orlando on April 8, 2010. (JACOB LANGSTON, ORLANDO SENTINEL / April 8, 2010)

Since such merit pay would be based on improvement in standardized test scores, the degree to which these tests adequately reflect the knowledge that should be learned by students is of critical importance. Many in Florida have criticized the state’s chief standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), for not necessarily accurately assessing what students have learned. Critics, including teachers’ unions and students, have also argued that focus on such tests gives an incentive to teachers to teach solely to the test, de-emphasizing the students’ overall education. Under the merit-pay bill, the teachers’ pay would have been linked partly to their students’ improvement on the FCAT, further exacerbating the perceived problem with the emphasis placed on the much-maligned test.

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Hillsborough Web Site Gets Transparency Award

March 12, 2010

Kudos to the Web site for Hillsborough County (Florida) Public Schools for being among the 14 Web sites to obtain a perfect score on the Sunshine Review’s “Sunny Awards” — recognizing the most transparent government Web sites in the United States. Sunshine Review is a non-profit organization, and wiki, that reports on transparency in state and local government.

Also, consider this post a break from the cynical as we head into the weekend. At least one government department/agency is doing one thing right.

Stimulating Government

February 23, 2010

A recent story from the St. Petersburg Times attempts to highlight the impact of last year’s stimulus bill on local jobs. It touts as examples of the supposed benefit to jobs all of the following:

  • renovations to a public housing complex
  • more work for companies to construct “affordable” (read: government-subsidized) housing
  • funds to help “teachers keep their jobs”
  • funding of research at the University of South Florida
  • employment at Tampa International Airport and the Tampa Port Authority
  • “kept police officers and firefighters working”

Notice the trend: All of these examples are either government jobs or government projects. The major benefactor: local governments and their employees.

Also, keep in mind that the “funds” used to pay for this “stimulus” represent money no longer available to individuals in the private sector to spend and invest as they see fit. Perhaps the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” should have instead been named the “Increase in Government Employment and Debt Act.”

DC Public School Spending

February 21, 2010

As an addendum of sorts to my post from Thursday on failing teachers, here is an interesting fact from John Stossel on the cost of public education in the Washington, DC public school system:

$26,000 for each student signed up at a DC public school. $28,000 for each student who actually attended. Some might say that’s an unfair number because it includes special education students that the private schools supposedly won’t take. But even if you drop the costs of special education students, DC still spends $23,000 per kid. … Turns out that the average voucher school only charges $6,620 (many are catholic schools.) So they cost a quarter of what public schools do, but still they do better! 

In the DC example, add to examples of failing teachers an entire failing (or at least severely inefficient) school system. To read the entire blog post from Stossel (a correction he made to some stats presented on the last episode of his Fox Business program), click here.

Criticism of Presidential Speeches to School Kids Nothing New

September 8, 2009

It looks like the criticism over presidential speeches to school children is nothing new. It turns out that Democrats criticized the first President Bush for making such a speech back in 1991.

I found this Associated Press report through a Nexis search. The main focus of the criticism was on the cost of the televised speech, but some critics also viewed it as a political move. Sounds eerily familiar to the criticism voiced against President Obama’s recent speech to school kids, doesn’t it? Except, actual Congressional hearings took place over the Bush speech.

The then-Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, defended the speech in a hearing by noting that to let the president “go to a seventh grade classroom and speak to the children of America about the value of education … unless I’m missing something … seems to be exactly what the president ought to be doing.” That also sounds like a familiar defense.

Also of note is that the National Education Association (NEA) criticized Bush for the speech. In another article I found through Nexis, the then-president of the NEA was reported to have said the following:

 … the NEA could not endorse a president who spent $ 26,000 of taxpayer money to televise a speech he recently gave at a Washington D.C. high school “while cutting school lunch funds for the neediest youngsters.”

No criticism of Obama’s speech has come from the NEA. In fact, they have covered it favorably on their site.

Those accusing Obama critics of overly hyping the significance of his speech should remember the way Bush’s critics reacted to a similar speech. Politics is politics. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Obama Spending Cuts = a Drop in the Bucket

May 7, 2009

This article on Obama’s latest budget spending cuts reports that he intends to cut only $17 billion out of a budget that is more than $3 trillion. While some of the programs cut are definitely worth slashing, by my math, that’s a cut of less than one percent. The article says that Obama referred to the cuts as “belt-tightening he likened to that of most Americans in difficult times.” Yeah, a whole one percent. Wow! I’m pretty sure most struggling families right now have cut their spending by a little more than that.

Note also the spending increases he intends to make:

• Plowing $2 billion more into merit-based teacher pay to help failing schools turn around. He would spend $370 million on a successor to the Reading First literacy program, a key element of Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

• Spending an additional $584 million for pandemic flu efforts, on top of the $1.5 billion in emergency money for 2009 that he asked Congress for in the wake of the swine flu outbreak.

• Increasing child nutrition programs by $1 billion, partly to pay for a 20 percent increase in the number of food inspectors.

• Setting up a $1 billion program to develop or rehabilitate housing for the poor.

Way to sacrifice, Mr. President! Never mind the question of if these items are permissable under the Constitution. With fiscal responsibility like this, we should be out of debt by, oh, I don’t know … never!