How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 3

Let me establish something right off the top.

I don’t know State Representative Andrew Brenner of Ohio. I’ve never met the man. I don’t even live in his state. I have nothing against him, personally. He seems like a nice guy, as much as an internet personality is reflective of a real person. Our “relationship” consists of two articles he wrote on education and a twitter feed. He was kind enough to follow me, I reciprocated. I’m just an education nerd finishing up a dual master’s degree here in Texas who is discovering a passion for education reform and education policy.

So when I say that Rep. Brenner “got it wrong” it really boils down to my disagreement with his viewpoint on education and education reform, and recognizing that his views represent other views. I’ve given two reasons why I disagree with him in my first and second posts. Here’s the third, and it’s a philosophical one (but don’t check out on me now, I can keep this easy).

A simple question: in a democracy that requires all students to go to school until a certain age, are those students entitled to a free public education, or a free private education?

Advocates of the school privatization model for education reform are basically arguing that students (and their parents) should “shop” for the best education for their money just like any other product or service. Once they find what they like, they should pay into that particular program and assume that the program will produce an outcome suitable for the student to become a productive and informed citizen. They often point to higher education as an example of how this model can work successfully. Market forces will allow the best educational programs to succeed and the worst to fail.

Here’s the problem with higher education as your standard: higher education assumes (sometimes wrongly) a certain baseline knowledge in its students. Higher education is based on the premise (again, currently wrongly) that the students are already trained as a productive citizen capable of contributing to the common good and public interest. Higher education is supplementary to the education a citizen receives, it is not required. I think that, in education, it against the best interests of the public to allow the weight and influence of corporate dollars to operate as the sole voice and engine for deciding what kids learn, and I think if you privatize education, that’s exactly what will happen.

This brings us back to the fundamental question: do we honestly believe that we can privately decide what will produce the best citizen, or is that a public conversation?

I think that’s a public conversation, guided by federal standards, enforced by the state, and implemented by counties (or cities). I don’t want Dell, Microsoft, or Citi solely setting the agenda for what my child should or should not know. I’m not against school choice. I’m not against competition. I am against oligarchy and plutocracy in a democracy. That thinking runs counter to the whole democratic experiment. I’m concerned that the school choice model will push us further in that direction. School privatization doesn’t solve the real problem(s) in public education and introduces another aggravating factor.

Thank you, Rep. Brenner, for sharing your ideas in a public forum. Thank you for your service in a public office. I fervently hope that as you continue to interact in the public square regarding that you would incorporate ideas from outside of your typical political viewpoint.

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How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 2

In the last blog, I wrote a response to Ohio State Representative Andrew Brenner’s article calling for school reform and equating public education in the United States with socialism. Either his wife, the intern who runs his wife’s twitter account, or Brenner (it’s still a little unclear to me) accused me of misunderstanding the article. That same person also accused me of bad journalism because I responded to the article (because evidently the standard of blogging is that you’re supposed to let the other person know that you disagree with their clear, unambiguous statements before you disagree with them on a blog post).

Before I could ask for clarification of whatever it was that I misunderstood, Brenner wrote a clarifying article. I want to applaud him for backing off of some of the more inflammatory rhetoric that he employed in his previous article (probably to stimulate the conversation) and employ a more reasoned argument for his policy. I anticipate this new article won’t get as much airtime, but it’s the one that deserves the interaction on the mainstream news cycle.

I still respectfully disagree with Brenner for a couple of reasons; I will deal with the first in this post.

Brenner states, “In one of the school districts I represent, my local school district of Olentangy, we spend approximately $9,400 per student.” He also points out, “While the cost per student in our urban schools is roughly twice the per student spending in the schools I represent, they are failing and failing miserably. I don’t think a school district like Youngstown, which spends roughly $20,000 per student and received 2 Ds and 3 Fs on its state report card, should continue to operate in the manner they are now.” Similarly, Brenner notes, “We are spending approximately one-third the cost in most of our rural schools as opposed to our urban, and they too have poverty and drugs. Yet, these rural schools are out performing our urban and many of our suburban schools.”

If I take these three statements at face value and as the truth, then I have to ask: since rural schools are out-performing urban and suburban schools, then how can we duplicate what the rural schools are doing?

Caveat: I don’t live in Ohio, so I can’t speak to the specific practices of Ohio schools. I strongly suspect, though, that Ohio rural schools succeed and out-perform due to community engagement, not because of school choice. Rural schools can do more with less because the schools happen in communities that have a strong history and habit of pulling together to deal with the ills of the community. In his previous article, Brenner pointed out that early “one-room schoolhouses” often took place in houses of worship—Christian churches.

This wasn’t a coincidence. Basic education (reading, writing) occurred in the home, by the parents. After that children went to some kind of school for either vocational training or liberal arts education (generally understood to prepare for citizenship). Christian churches that were the institution most concerned with the public good in this case and so they opened their facilities and resources to allow for the education of the middle and lower classes. If you were wealthy, you hired a tutor or sent your children to (very exclusive) private schools.

It was the efforts and concerns of the community, and one of the institutions in that community that drove the creation of the public school as we know it.

I don’t think the free market is a “magic bullet” to the problem of school reform. It’s not that I disagree with school choice. It’s that I disagree with school choice as the chief means for school reform. I do not think that education is a product. The product (the outcome) is the educated student. Education is what you do to create the product. It is a system of experiences designed to shape the values, drives, and interests of the individual. Using a product-based model will not provide the solution.

Thank you, Rep. Brenner, for taking on the monumental task of education reform in the United States of America. Thank you for attempting a multidisciplinary approach to reform. My hope is that you will broaden your perspective beyond the ideas of Friedman and economics to bring real, positive, change to education.

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How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 1

I tried to resist, but I’m writing this blog in response to an article that Rep. Andrew Brenner of Delaware County, Ohio wrote.

His main issue with our educational system as it stands seems to be that, “our public education system is already a socialist system.(sic) and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” He also believes that school teacher unions are to blame for our current state of affairs, while acknowledging, “Over 40 years ago, public school teachers felt like their ideas were not being listened to, that their pay was inadequate, and that classroom sizes were not appropriate; so they unionized against the bureaucratic machine known as our public education system.”

So in summary, socialism = bad, teachers unions = bad, and therefore socialism + teachers unions = really bad.

His solution is, “to move to a more privatized system,” since, “In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better.” In Rep. Brenner’s article, education is a product that should be bought, sold and traded to the highest bidder. In his view, the free market will force education to be better and to perform better. His perspective of education as product is unsurprising given his background. According to his bio, Rep. Brenner has no formal training in educational policy, theory, or methods. Instead, his training is in business administration, with emphases in marketing and economics. I suspect his knowledge of education as a legislator comes from people who paid to have access to him, and therefore come with an agenda. And yet, he is vice-chair of Ohio’s education committee.

So yes, I think Rep. Brenner got it wrong; because this is my blog, I get to tell you why.

Rep. Brenner stated, “While one room school houses (which were also used in many cases as houses of worship) worked well 100 years ago when most students graduated by the 7th grade, the same system does not work well today.” His implication is that we still operate under the one-room school method. Here’s the problem: I don’t know of one-room school houses that exist in the United States today. While students in primary grades generally stay in one home room, many schools will rotate specialists in and out. For example, my father worked as a science teacher for an elementary school before he retired, and he rotated in and out of teachers’ rooms to handle the science load. I understand that the kids also rotated into other classroom for arts and music education, in spite of the push for cuts in the face of the well-documented benefits of arts education.

In this case, I think Rep. Brenner put forth a straw-man argument, making the case against something that doesn’t actually exist. I would agree with him that we do use certain antiquated philosophies and methods in education. I think, in the realm in which he attempted to argue, the issue is related to our model based on modernist methods in an increasingly post-modern society, and industrial age techniques as we’ve passed (or are passing into) the information age.

So, Rep. Brenner, I applaud your desire to reform education. I hope that you would be more fair with your objections to the current problems so that you can offer a real and effective solution.

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On Religion and Goodness

Last time, I wrote about the false idea of religion and the suppression of innovation and truth, as exemplified by a reconsideration of the Galileo incident. Today, I want to consider another part of the atheistic meta-narrative that I find equally amusing and frustrating. The meta-narrative summarizes as, “nothing good ever came from religion,” and usually has a variant, “all wars came from religion.”

It’s difficult, in the extreme, to defend absolute statements such as these, especially when they involve interpretive elements. If it’s about winning the argument, I’m sure there are all kinds of websites out there that will give you all of the best, most defensible, responses to these. I want to address, instead, the statement behind the statement. Before that, I do want to give a reply to the second statement by suggesting that most (all) wars are usually related to land: control, ownership, and possession of land and the revenue that land generates. Certainly governments use religion as the rallying cry to motivate the masses to action, but when you boil it down it really comes down to land and resources.

In the end, wars happen because of money, or the love of it.

But to my point: the statement behind the statement of good and religion. I think the real question is a question of goodness. The atheist meta-narrative explicitly (and some would say rationally) denies the the concept of God and the necessity of God in connection to the concept of good. The implicit statement follows that we should discard the irrational God concept and embrace the rational concept of goodness.

Irrational = bad, rational = good.

Ironically, most atheists I know would espouse the goodness of medicine and education, putting these forth as examples of the pinnacle of rationality and enlightenment. I usually lean to my atheist associates and point out that both institutions came from religion. Seriously (there’s a reason why there are Baptist, Presbyterian, and/or Methodist hospitals in most North American cities). The western higher education system is based off of monastic education—to train priests—which in turn drew influence from the madrasa. Both birthed out of the (supposedly non-rational) callings put forth by religion inclinations and the (again, non-rational) pursuit of Godliness and (supposedly rational) goodness.

I think that the atheist meta-narrative question is really, “Is religion good?” My obligatory christian answer to that question is, “any man-made construct has inherent flaws because humanity is inherently flawed, but the object of religion is inherently good.” My real answer to that question is, “God is good, man is not.” Religions are systematic and rational, usually making a lot of sense and having a great deal of internal coherence. God, conceptually, is irrational and doesn’t work according to our categories. Actually, I reject the notion of God as a concept being irrational (I leave it to finer philosophical minds than mine to make the God argument but I hear William Lane Craig does a pretty good job), but I would agree that God as a concept fits outside of neat human construct.

Personally, I call that good.

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On Religion and Ignorance

I stumble across atheist rants every now and then, denouncing the evils of religion. Usually I smile in vague amusement and move on, but lately, something about the atheist anti-religious meta-narrative has bothered me. It took me a while to see it, but I think I’ve finally figured out what, exactly, has stuck in my craw.

The meta-narrative goes something like this: (1) those who practice religion/believe in a higher power are uneducated nut-jobs looking for a crutch to get themselves through life, (2) religion has brought nothing but pain and misery to the world, and (3) rational thinking would force people away from ritualistic reliance on revelation; reason should rule the roost (forgive my alliterative indulgence here). Therefore, we should divest ourselves of the fetters of religiosity and embrace the freedom of rationalism.

In short, theism breeds ignorance, but atheism brings enlightenment.

If you pay any attention to history, you probably spot several of the flaws in this line of thinking. To acknowledge the meta-narrative (and by “meta-narrative” I mean “bigger story being told”) truth, the commitment to a particular faith or value system has, at times, choked the pure exploration of knowledge for its own sake. The meta-narrative will point to the story of Galileo for an example of this. In one version of this tale, the evil religious establishment (the Roman Catholic Church) suppresses the truth of the valiant defender of science and truth, against all reasonable observation. Another version of this tale exists: that Galileo, having previously been wrong about the nature of comets while writing in support of the pope, pushed his agenda of changing the nature of scientific inquiry too far by invoking some hot-button political issues of his day. Galileo, in one of his salvos, actually argued against some of the greatest scientific minds of the time—the Jesuits.

In other words, Galileo thought he was right (although it turns out he was wrong about several things, such as the nature of the tides and circular orbits), and made a rhetorical argument that skewered one of the most powerful religious and political rulers of his day (the pope). That ruler responded with brute force, crushing any chance Galileo had of actually dealing with the scientific issues he’d attempted to address.

I will grant you that the pope was wrong in using the church as an instrument to enforce his will. As a dyed-in-the-wool American protestant christian, I have the same objections to the behavior of some of the pope’s and their ties to (and abuse of) political power as many atheists. I suggest, in contrast to the meta-narrative, that the problem with this is not an issue of religion, but rather an issue of people with power. When you look over history, I believe the more accurate story is not the one which speaks of religions suppression, but rather the story of an engine of economics driving the tools and institutions of power (most often centered in organized religion) to carry out the will of a few. For example, I encourage you to reconsider the actions of Urban VIII in light of the debt and dissension he dealt with at the time of the Galileo affair.

Maybe there’s some truth to the idea of money and evil.

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