Most of the fights in education today are about three things: money, money, and money. The legislative and policy arguments, be they over charter school funding or teachers’ pensions, inevitably revolve around budgets.
I think the more interesting debate is over what to teach. Every time I meet a parent I eventually pose this question: what should your child learn? When they graduate high school, what should they know that would make you say: “Yes! I got my money’s worth out of the school system.”
The answers vary. In the mad rush of raising children, school can become like a black hole their kids disappear in from September to May. It’s a place they go to, come back from, and do homework for. At some point they have to figure out what to do when they leave it.
So the number one answer parents usually give me is that school should prepare their children to get into and graduate from a good college.
Fair enough. While the jury deliberates over the value of a college degree compared to its cost, it is still a ticket to higher earnings over a lifetime. Rarely do I hear my personal opinion: the purpose of the American education system is, first and foremost, to make good American citizens. Making them productive citizens is a secondary goal, and preparing them for college – a distant third.
Of course it’s great if they are productive, which I will define as making a lot of money. But a person can make $40,000 a year and still be productive. They will still pay taxes, own a home, buy things that keep the economy going, etc. But this is only an economic consideration. Surely there are more important things than money?
There are, and everyone admits to this truth. It is harder to put into practice, though, because parents are vaguely suspicious of idealism. It doesn’t pay the bills. Find something that does before you commit yourself to a lifetime of ideas.
This is always sound advice, but when we speak of idealism in this case we’re not talking about particularly grandiose goals. We mean all Americans should be able to discharge the duties of their citizenship.
This is why our country’s birth was such a landmark event – it was a swan dive into an unknown pool of idealism. The idea that you are born with rights that no government, no person, no earthly institution can take away from you is, in a nutshell, our founding principle. Natural law. We take it for granted today, but what a truly revolutionary concept it was at a time when the world was ruled (or usually misruled) by tyrants, kings, emperors, sultans, and thugs. Every American parent, regardless of political persuasion, surely agrees with this. Most assume it is taught to their children at some point in their academic career.
Think again. Of course, there is the obligatory lip service to America’s liberal ideals (i.e. – government of the people, by the people, and for the people), but these receive much less energy and passion than the catalog of America’s sins. The Constitution is portrayed as a dry, lifeless document, noteworthy for the fact that slaves were counted as only three-fifths the value of a free man. The fact that it was a masterpiece of compromise forged by people who understood human nature and were desperate to come up with one, just one, experiment in self-rule before they died is rarely emphasized.
Part of the problem is the way civics is taught. It is often presented in a vacuum with no contrasting idea. To know how good we have it, we have to know how bad everyone else had it. This comparative approach necessarily means criticizing other systems and ways of life. There is nothing racist or imperialistic in this approach. It is how judgment is taught.
But the very word “judgment” is often a pejorative now, which leads to the other part of the problem: the great unease which academia (K-12 and college) displays toward American exceptionalism.
We are firm believers in American exceptionalism, but we don’t teach it because we want our students to thumb their noses at the rest of the world. Rather, we want them to see what has failed in other times and places so they realize the advantages of our system. If they don’t learn that, how will they have the will and passion to preserve, protect, and defend it?
To that end, we often combine our civics units with those from our “How Not To Do It” file. This includes excerpts from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Donald Wood’s memoir of apartheid South Africa, Asking for Trouble and, of course, that masterpiece of Dystopia – 1984.
We don’t use these examples to say, “See what idiots they were!” We present them in this spirit: “Be careful, this could happen to you too.”
Dean Acheson once said that the United States, by default, had become the “locomotive at the head of mankind.” The only guarantee of peace, he thought, was the “continued moral, military, and economic power of the United States.”
Maintaining this power is a big responsibility. Our young people are definitely up to the task, but we can’t just expect them to figure it out on their own. They must be taught to meet this 240-year-old responsibility for self-government.
Unless, of course, we prefer Winston Smith’s life to the one we have now.
Last week I wrote about failure and its often-circuitous route to success. I mentioned the struggle for growth that my publishing business experienced, but we had another example a few years ago that was much more profound in its impact.
We make no secret of the fact that as an organization we support education reform. In its current definition, this basically means supporting more charter schools. Only a few reformers have gone so far as to advocate full voucher programs, where parents are basically refunded their property taxes to use for any educational purpose they wish.
In 2015 Nevada officially earned the title of the nation’s most radical reformer when its State Legislature approved a full-scale voucher program. Arizona and Florida had adopted some of the same measures but limited their vouchers to special education kids, Native Americans, or the children of active-duty military parents.
Not Nevada. It opened the floodgates and said, “Come one, come all.” Didn’t matter what color your skin was or how much money you made – if you wanted a voucher for your child, you got one. This essentially put $7,000 in your pocket to pay for private school, religious school, or specialized tutoring services (like ours).
In short, it was the real deal. No fine print, no exceptions. That it was passed at all was a minor miracle, but Governor Brian Sandoval signed the Education Savings Account (ESA) bill into law in May of 2015.
Needless to say, we were very excited. This represented a HUGE opportunity for us. We could compete with public, private, and parochial schools for taxpayer dollars – a true free market. We sprang into action. I immediately started the ball rolling to get our Nevada business license ($1,500), registered agent ($250), and upgrade to our liability insurance required by the law ($350). I made several trips to Carson City and Las Vegas to speak with the Treasurer’s Office (they were in charge of vendor registration) and to start interviewing part-time instructors to teach our curriculum in Vegas and Reno.
No sooner had the ink dried on the law, however, than the usual suspects began to threaten lawsuits. The ACLU and Nevada teachers’ union immediately asked for an injunction to stop the law’s implementation. It was granted within two months. No worries, we thought, either the injunction will be dismissed or the law will be referred to the State Supreme Court. We counted on a favorable ruling from the justices in Carson City, and so continued with our preparations to begin operating in the state as soon as they rendered a verdict.
The Nevada Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2016, putting it on a “fast-track”, which meant the case would probably be heard that summer. If worse came to worst, we were also confident that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would come out in our favor too since it had ruled (narrowly) in a Cleveland voucher case that State Legislatures had the last word on education policy. It is a state issue, funded mostly by state income and local property taxes, to be decided by each state's duly elected representatives.
Our confidence was justified. In October 2016 the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of vouchers. The law was legal and constitutional – hallelujah!
Not so fast. The next month elections to the State Legislature were held and Democrats won control of the Assembly and the Senate. They immediately repealed the law. No more vouchers. After hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars, we came away with nothing. It was all for naught.
But maybe we did get one thing from it – the wisdom that comes from bitter experience. And here’s what we learned. For one thing, the law did have a major weakness – it did not specifically serve the poor. The CEO of MGM Resorts makes about $7.5 million a year in total compensation. If he has school-age kids, he would be getting the same amount of voucher money from the State of Nevada as one of his housekeepers, who makes about $29,000 a year. If both their kids went to Bishop Gorman (generally regarded as the finest high school in the state at a cost of $12,700 a year), the CEO could easily write a check for the difference between his voucher and the total tuition cost. The housekeeper, on the other hand, would need to come up with an extra $5,000.
Not so easy for her to do. So in retrospect, maybe the lawmakers should have included a salary cap? For example: no one with an annual household income above $50,000 would be eligible for a voucher. This might have been an easier pill to swallow for conservative or reform-minded Democrats who were open to some kind of relief measure for kids stuck in Nevada’s lousy public schools (they generally share the label for “nation’s worst” with Mississippi and New Mexico).
Naturally, opponents of vouchers were ecstatic and went back to playing the only string they have left on their banjo: give us more money. But more money for what? What makes them think more money will do anything other than reinforce failure?
Granted, the law wasn’t perfect, but we were ready to show what we could do; ready to provide our services to anyone who needed them. In fact, we had made the worst schools in Las Vegas our priority. Put us in coach!
Instead, before we could even receive the kickoff, the referee blew his whistle and sent us back to the locker rooms. We never even got a chance to prove ourselves.
And P.S. – canceling my Nevada business license cost another $150. I wonder if the ACLU will pay for that?
When we started our own literacy program in 2011, we wanted to prove that we could take a small number of students, get big gains from them, and thus drive up overall test scores. We’ve now done this on a grade, school, and district level. In the midst of this success, it’s important to talk about failure. Yes, failure, because we’ve had plenty of that too.
Somebody once told me, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” If that’s true, then I must have been exerting maximum effort in high school because my career there was only notable for its complete lack of achievement! In fact, my senior year I was voted "Most Likely to End Up In a Foreign Jail." (kidding, of course - although that almost happened my first day in Africa).
More to the point, I think this advice was given in the spirit of a coach I once had who used to make a distinction between errors of commission and errors of omission. He said he would never fault us for mistakes we made while trying, only the mistakes we made by not trying.
I think this is true. The more you attempt, the more you are bound to fail because no one has a 100% success rate. My first business failure took place shortly after starting my first business – an online publishing company. I started it in grad school because of sticker shock at the cost of my textbooks. Everything at that time was trending towards online solutions – online banking, online video, online advertising.
Online textbooks seemed like a natural progression, so I started a business for college professors that would take the book chapters, articles, and videos they assigned in their classes and organize them on a web page. They could update the syllabus in real time and the cost to their students was half of what they paid at the bookstore.
A solution that was cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient – a recipe for success, right?
Wrong. What I failed to see is that college professors had no incentive to switch to online textbooks. Contrary to their reputation as progressive thinkers, they really are hidebound traditionalists when it comes to prerogatives like tenure, merit pay, and…selling their own books at university bookstores.
The privilege of assigning their own work is something professors take very seriously. Allowing us to publish this material and thereby hijack the royalties they would otherwise earn was never in the cards. Even those who didn’t write their own textbooks proved to be unmoved by the idea because…well, they just weren’t moved.
Never underestimate the power of inertia. Many frustrated entrepreneurs I talk to blame “conditions” – the business cycle, the market, regulation, investors, etc. Some even accuse their customers of lacking sophistication or intelligence.
It’s a bad sign when you start blaming customers for your failures, so always remember that even the best idea faces an uphill struggle simply because it is new and disruptive. It’s not so much that everyone is conspiring against you, it’s that the status quo is called that for a reason. It’s comfortable. It’s something everyone is used to. It is embodied in the phrase: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Well, vacuum tubes weren’t broken, but they were replaced by microprocessors. Landline telephones worked just fine, but cell phones marginalized them. Lots of people enjoy print newspapers, but they have been overtaken by online content.
Why some innovations succeed and others fail is one of the mysteries of the universe. Timing has a lot to do with it. The first fax machine was shown at the New York City World’s Fair in 1964 but didn’t become widely used until 30 years later. Anyone who invested heavily in fax machines in 1964 would have been wiped out. It just wasn’t their time.
And it really isn’t the time for online textbooks either. The company I started sixteen years ago has exactly two customers. They seem to enjoy its convenience, and their students certainly like the cheaper price tag, but I would not call a business with two customers a success. After a few years, I had to cut bait and move on to something else.
That something else turned into Mile High Education Services. Success can come in a very roundabout way.