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Saturday, December 25, 2004

Tom Friedman on education 

Merry Christmas.

I actually do plan on posting my Christmas present to you -- some Adirondack wilderness pictures -- once I get my hands on some bandwidth. Until then I'm keeping it simple. And tonight, picking on Tom Friedman is simple.

In tomorrow's column, Friedman lists ten seemingly unrelated recent news stories about such subjects as military logistics and declining test scores among fourth graders compared to students in Asian countries and asks his readers to find the common denominator. Failing to hear from us right away, he tells us how they tie together:
So what is the common denominator of all these news stories? Wait, wait, don't tell me. I want to tell you. The common denominator is a country with a totally contradictory and messed-up set of priorities.

We face two gigantic national challenges today: One is the challenge to protect America in the wake of the new terrorist threats, which has involved us in three huge military commitments - Afghanistan, Iraq and missile defense. And the other is the challenge to strengthen American competitiveness in the wake of an expanding global economy, where more and more good jobs require higher levels of education, and those good jobs will increasingly migrate to those countries with the brainpower to do them. In the face of these two national challenges, we have an administration committed to radical tax cuts, which, one can already see, are starting to affect everything from the number of troops we can deploy in Iraq to the number of students we can properly educate at our universities. And if we stay on this course, the trade-offs are only going to get worse.

Now, I myself doubt whether all the Bush tax cuts make sense either as a matter of fiscal probity or wise tax policy. I also believe that we should not send the message to our most affluent citizens that they should party like it's 1999 during the middle of a war of such magnitude and stakes. However, the ineffectiveness of our public schools has nothing -- nothing -- to do with the amount of money that we spend on them. We massively outspend virtually all of the countries that are producing more capable students than ours. Our public schools fail to educate against a global standard for all sorts of reasons, most of which have to do with the utter failure of state governments -- our public schools are, after all, creatures of state government -- to hold incompetent school boards, principals, and teachers accountable for their incompetence. As long as our public schools are organized as local monopolies they will suck, and no increase in federal spending would change that. So Friedman may be ultimately correct that we do not have the right fiscal policy for wartime, but the last thing our public monopoly schools need is more money to waste.

Tom Friedman is in many ways the most frustrating of the regular columnists of The New York Times. To his credit, he is unpredictable, at least compared to the other guys, so it is worthwhile to read him. Of the current crew, only David Brooks is as unpredictable as Friedman. Unfortunately, the quality of Friedman's analysis varies tremendously. There are some days when he nails it, and other days when he sort of blurts the conventional center-left agenda all over the page. This was one of those latter days.

3 Comments:

By Blogger Dave Schuler, at Mon Dec 27, 06:12:00 PM:

Everything you say in this post is certainly true but I think there are some other factors that should be considered as well. We're very nearly the only major industrialized nation that even attempts universal education. Britain, France, and Germany all have tracking systems. Students are tracked at roughly the junior high level and many don't have access to higher education.

And there are many other factors that distinguish us from our international competitors. You might like to take a look at this for some of them.  

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