Now just keep your eye on the three little walnut shells …

In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, President Barack Obama embraced merit pay for teachers, spelling out a vision of education that, The Associated Press reports, “will almost certainly alienate union backers.

“A strategy that ties teacher pay to student performance has for years been anathema to teachers’ unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party,” continued Associated Press writer Philip Elliott. “These unions also are wary of charter schools, nontraditional educational systems that they believe compete with traditional schools for tax dollars.”

But the president spoke favorably of charter schools, saying that where they work, they should be encouraged, and asserting that his proposals could meet heavy resistance in both political parties.

On charter schools, he said the caps instituted by some states on how many are allowed — Nevada limits both the number and the true independence of such schools, de facto — aren’t “good for our children, our economy, or our country. …

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” the president said, delivering the first major speech of his presidency on government schooling. “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children. We cannot afford to let it continue. What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream. …

“We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. …

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” Mr. Obama said. “Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

Wow. “Investment,” it must be noted, is used here as a euphemism for additional federal grants of money seized from taxpayers, or borrowed at interest from the Chinese, or spirited up out of thin air by the Federal Reserve, which must eventually trigger hyper-inflation. If a private party or other lender were to “invest” by funding a child’s private preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school tuition, he or she would normally expect the parents to sign a note indicating when those funds would be paid back at interest, perhaps out of income from the young person’s first job.

Statists respond the taxpayer’s “payback” instead lies in the joy of knowing the child will be able to read and write (as though parents were unable to teach their children these skills in the centuries before the advent of tax-funded schools, and as though my neighbor’s decision to have a sixth child imposes some obligation on me), sometimes adding that at least locking the kid up all day may dissuade him or her from breaking into our homes and stealing our stuff.

(Or do they mean they’ll no longer need to steal our stuff after they all earn their Ph.D.s and land cushy jobs at NASA, figuring orbital vectors for big chunks of Russian drainage pipe? By the same token, our “investment” in NASA is presumably “paid back” when we see glorious news coverage of American astronauts shoehorned for weeks on end into an orbiting piece of Russian drainage pipe called “the international space station.” Gosh, when do the Cardassians and Quark’s dabo girls arrive?)

And “charter schools”? They’re basically a scam to allow parents to believe their kids are attending “something almost like a private prep school,” without losing government control over either the propagandizing of the kids or the money that follows each little butt into its new seat.

The reason it’s important to get our euphemisms straight is that the teachers unions, chameleonlike, have responded to the popularity of the concept of “merit pay” by coming up with their own version, in which entire SCHOOLS receive “merit pay,” thus eliminating the personal incentive to do better should INDIVIDUAL teachers received a raise or bonus for tutoring their children to advance faster than those down the hall.

(Then, even THIS corrupted version of “merit pay” is further warped, as more funds are actually funneled to failing schools, thus rewarding not success, but failure.)

Of course, woven through the new president’s refreshing rhetoric was more talk of spending more billions which the federal government doesn’t have — $5 billion more for higher testing standards, $5 billion to expand Head Start (which shows no impact after four years); money to offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses (why not trained doctors? Why not 65,000?); more money to keep kids away from the unhealthy influence of their free-thinking parents more hours each day, more money to reduce drop-out rates (when the best way to improve achievement is precisely to thin class sizes by ENCOURAGING more quasi-literate 16-year-olds without motivation or talent to remove their earpieces and drop out quickly.)

But as the president himself acknowledged, “As with any public policy, the devil is in the details.”

“Mentoring” can work well when the beginning teacher is allowed to choose his or her own mentor to show him or her how to inspire students, in defiance of the dead hand of a top-heavy administration. It is almost certain to fail when the new teacher is ASSIGNED a toe-the-line, paper-shuffling “mentor” by those very administrators. Which kind of “mentoring” will survive the ingenious entropy of the administrators and the unions, do you suppose?

Much of what Mr. Obama said Tuesday sounds admirable — even a bit daring, advancing (as it seems to) the cause of common sense and real educational achievement, in the face of the self-interest of a powerful Democratic constituency, the teachers unions.

Unfortunately, the new president’s tendency to vocalize the right course of action, and then do the opposite — as when he vows deficit reduction, and the next day embraces a spending bill that awards 8 percent federal raises all round; when he announces an end to “earmarks” and within days signs a $410 billion spending bill chock full of 8,500 of the things; or when he looked the other way last week as Senate Democrats dismantle a modest voucher program that helped hundreds of impoverished minority children escape Washington D.C.’s lousy public schools (oh dear) — requires that we qualify our praise with a word of caution:

It would all be good news … if we could assume he really means it, and is willing to “expend some political capital” to make it so.

And except for the inconvenient fact that compulsory government schools are a completely counterproductive “jobs” program for the most pathetic graduates of our pathetic public colleges; that they have no place in a free society, and that — if we ever expect American educational achievement to recover — they must all be safely dynamited as soon as possible.

2 Comments to “Now just keep your eye on the three little walnut shells …”

  1. Mark Says:

    Hear! Hear! Vin, you show incredible courage in your columns and your bluntness cuts like a knife through the self-righteous, hyporcritical, self-serving public sector babble that engulfs us. The public school system is the single greatest impediment to a free-thinking self-reliant America in my opinion. Someone said that public schools are a jobs program in search of a mission. Makes sense to me. Thanks and keeps up the good work! Mark

  2. terry mac Says:

    About 25 years ago, my wife and I placed our son in a first grade gifted program. He wasn’t quite qualified, we were told; his artwork wasn’t sophisticated enough. Two weeks later, he came home to ask “what is 5-7?” It took all of five minutes for him to grasp negative numbers. A week after that, I reassured him that yes, phones really do use electricity, never mind the teacher. Three weeks into a “gifted” program for which he “wasn’t smart enough”, and he was already further than the “gifted” instructor was able or willing to go. We pulled him out and started homeschooling.

    Today, my daughter is home-schooling her four children. Their reading and math skills are far beyond their years. The oldest is seven years old; he is comfortable with negative numbers, fractions, decimals, cryptanalysis, binary arithmetic, and other matters which are not covered in any first-grade curriculum of which I am aware. When he was five, he and I devised cryptograms and challenged each other to solve them. No government-issue program, even for the “gifted,” can keep up with any halfway-bright child’s insatiable quest for knowledge.

    If you care about the education of your children, withdraw from the government schools. Many, including minorities, have discovered this; the fastest-growing category of home schoolers is minority parents. You can do much better for your child. Don’t let the absence of a teaching degree stop you – it hasn’t prevented hundreds of thousands of parents from doing a great job.

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