22 April 2004

Left Behind

The "No Child Left Behind" program reflects considerable economic ignorance to go along with its substantial political cynicism. On the one hand, it ignores the concept of the diminishing incremental return. As the focus changes from "as many as superhumanly possible" to "absolutely everyone," the additional human and financial costs per student of helping those least able to meet arbitrary standards (usually set by people who have no idea of what they're doing, either in what or how they are measuring) will vastly exceed the costs per student of meeting other children's needs to fulfill their potential. As usual, so-called "talented and gifted" programs will be the first to go—not the football team. (Aside: at the local Division I university, the head coach makes more money than the three highest-paid professors. Combined. And he was 1-10 last year.)

On the other hand, one of the assumptions behind NCLB is that resources available to public education will not grow relatively, thus requiring triage for the conditions specified in NCLB. This seems remarkably short-sighted. What NCLB essentially does is say that "you don't have enough resources to do your mandated tasks, so we're going to tell you what your priorities must be instead of considering allocating more resources." In the meantime, we're busy giving dubious tax breaks to secondary commodities trading activity when the representative volume of that activity exceeds the value of the underlying commodities, and various other questionable priorities based on special interests.

Perhaps this is unavoidable. American public education is extremely hostile to high achievement; one need only realize that all of the teachers are college graduates, many with graduate degrees, but virtually none of the teachers still in the classroom ten years after beginning were themselves true "high achievers" before college. Just how many National Merit Scholars, to use one imprecise measure, end up as career classroom teachers? Without that perspective, the soldiers in the trenches simply don't know what it takes to "educate" the "talented and gifted". Or even accurately identify them.

The sum of this idiocy and disdain will be a completely disaffected generation of artists and writers in fifteen years. In their late twenties and early thirties, they'll still remember middle school and high school—without much fondness. Assuming, that is, that they were ever able to develop their skills to a level adequate to compete with those from elite schools that did provide some support. The disdain expressed for their needs will, in many (and perhaps even most) instances, result in art and literature that reflects disdain for others.

Wait a minute; we've already got that. Those in the public education system between the late 1960s and early 1980s are reflecting exactly that result.