Sunday, November 30, 2008

Obama, Hypocrisy, and Sidwell Friends School

While I don't agree with everything Jonah Goldberg says in this opinion piece, it makes for good reading:

Hypocrisy is an overblown sin. Better to be a hypocrite who occasionally violates his principles than a villain who never does...

The Obamas will send their two daughters to the expensive private school, Sidwell Friends. Yes, that makes him something of a hypocrite because he is a vocal opponent of giving poor kids anything like the same option.

But you know what? Who cares? Personally, I would think less of the Obamas if they sent their kids to bad schools out of some ideological principle. Parents' first obligation is to do right by their own kids.

As I've said before, I don't fault the Obamas for sending their kids to private school. Even though they don't support school choice except for people like themselves who can afford it, I believe they should be able to send their kids wherever they can.

The good stuff in the article, though, comes when Goldberg discusses why the Obamas chose a private school.

Michelle Rhee, D.C.'s heroic school chancellor, in her 17 months on the job has already made meaningful improvements. But that's grading on an enormous curve. The Post recently reported that on observing a bad teacher in a classroom, Rhee complained to the principal. "Would you put your grandchild in that class?" she asked.

"If that's the standard," replied the defensive principal, "we don't have any effective teachers in my school."

OK, the schools are bad. But why don't the politicians do anything about it and just send their kids elsewhere?

The main reason politicians adopt a policy of malign neglect: teachers unions, arguably the single worst mainstream institution in our country today. No group has a stronger or better organized stranglehold on a political party than they do. No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good...

The Democratic Party continues to tolerate this sort of thing because public school teachers continue to be reliably liberal voters. And their unions cut big checks.

Thus endeth the lesson.


Anonymous said...

OK, the schools are bad. But why don't the politicians do anything about it and just send their kids elsewhere?

Because public education is a political, not an educational, institution and with the inherent difficulty of measuring whether education's occurring the political grows at the cost of the educational. There's no counter-balance to the demands of the unions and the irresponsible independence of the public education governance bodies, i.e. school boards.

That last requires a bit of expansion.

The demands of the teacher's unions are well known and understandable - good teacher, bad teacher, it doesn't matter to the union. But the independence of school boards is a more subtle factor in the descent of public education.

Once every year or two the voting public gets to choose among candidates, provided the seats are contested, that'll have some degree of influence over policy in the district and, hopefully, the policy enacted will, over time, bias the atmosphere of the district towards a high quality education.

Not exactly the sort of mechanism that ensures that poor decisions get nipped in the bud and poor practices don't survive their initial implementation.

In fact, I'd place most of the blame for the current state of public education squarely on the shoulders of the school board political structure. The contribution of the teacher's unions to that situation being more a function of the inherent abdication of responsibility built into the school board structure then to the inherent power of teacher's unions.

Unknown said...

Of course people are going to claim hypocrisy for Obama, but I am not one of them. There are not only educational concerns but security concerns as well. The Secret Service can easily close and control an private school like Sidwell Friends than a supposed public school. First, there is experience at Sidwell and second, you don't get the same complaints of armed men and women around campus that you could get at a public school. If a Sidwell parent doesn't like the Secret Service around, they can move their kid, DCPS parents don't have the same ability.

I do agree with the previous commenter that education reform is a political problem rather than an educational one.

Law and Order Teacher said...

Your point is well-taken. It's kind of like the baseball players and their salaries, would we turn down millions if someone is stupid enought to give it to us? Unions will take what their governing body will allow. It's particularly appalling when it is on the public dime. School boards don't govern, they rubber stamp the superintendent's agenda. Being on the school board is sort of like being in the PTA. It's about being involved. The state school boards have the real power because they set curriculum. That's why I've opted out of the NEA. Rod Paige was right, it's a terrorist organization without the weaponry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Law and Order Teacher but the point I'm getting at is that it's the structure of public education that creates the opportunities for the sorts of misbehavior you're complaining about, and plenty you haven't mentioned. It's not so much a matter of "stupid" but a matter of a situation in which "stupid" goes largely unpunished.

To get back to the post, of course Obama, as a public servant's a hypocrite by sending his kids to an expensive, exclusive school like Sidwell but Goldberg and I are in agree-ance when he shrugs and says "so what?"

If Obama were to bend to ideological complaints about his hypocrisy then I'd know one of two things: either he's a liar who'll do what's right for his kids but claim to send them off to the same sort of rotten schools that most D.C. kids are consigned too or he's a scary ideologue who's willing to sacrifice his kids to demonstrate ideological purity. That sort of hypocrisy's understandable, even laudable in a bass-ackward kind of way.

What's interesting to me is how the debate swirls around the central question without actually touching on it.

The reason Sidwell's as good as it is is because the parents who pay the tuition won't have it any other way and Sidwell can't ignore them. Were the Sidwell administration to ignore parental concerns and blithely go off in pursuit of exciting, cutting-edge edu-fads like so much of public education, when the dismal returns started to trickle in parents would find a school more attuned to their concerns and by withdrawing their kids from Sidwell bring about the school's collapse solving the problem.

However, the people who run Sidwell aren't likely to be stupider then me so can see that inevitable outcome. The prospect of the organizational equivalent of being hung wonderfully concentrates the attention of all dependent on the organization's survival so as to make them deaf to the siren call of the edu-fads that afflict public education.

So the central question the debate swirls around without much touching on the question is the importance of parental choice in education.

Good little monopolists know without having to be told that customers are best kept powerless and ignorant and the public education system finds itself in the enviable position of having powerless and ignorant customers. So issues like which school the new president and first lady will decide to send their children is most unwelcome since it underscores on a very public stage one of the core shortcomings of public education.

To respond to some of what you wrote, the unions aren't the cause of the problems that afflict public education although they contribute to the problems. Unions are parasites like mosquitoes and you don't get rid of mosquitoes by swatting them. You change their environment so they're no longer viable and they simply disappear.

That's what is, and has been, occurring in the auto industry. The UAW is withering as the environment changes due to the entry of real competition in the automobile industry and the teacher's unions will wither when the monopoly that the public education system is begins to wither.

Barry Garelick said...

Apart from the public vs private issues in all of this, Sidwell Friends uses a very bad math program in the lower school called Investigations in Number, Data and Space

This is discussed in more detail here.