The Education Debate with Jeanne Allen and Johnnie Taylor

Bill WaltonCulture, Education

Imagine you are Jeanne Allen and you’re a longtime educational reformer, and you’ve coined this phrase, “backpacks full of cash.” And the phrase is catching on because it truly captures an exciting idea in American education – the notion that, instead of appropriating these giant sums to school systems, we, in effect, gave each child a backpack full of cash to spend on education as their parents see fit.

The money in the backpack goes to the school the parents choose. If public schools performed well, parents could send their students – and the accompanying backpacks full of cash – to them. If private or charter or specialized or virtual or home school environments best suited students’ interests, the money would go to them.

Imagine how excited she must have been when producers putting together an education documentary five years ago contacted her about the phrase and its meaning.

Finally, imagine what it must feel like to be Allen now. That movie is out, and rather than a balanced treatment of a variety of approaches, it is a hatchet job on her idea.

The trailer makes this clear, opening with a succession of speakers from the movie.

“It’s about privatizing, not improving, public education,” says one. “It’s an opportunity on islands of privilege amidst a sea of inequity,” says another. “There is no high-quality research that shows that this is a good method of teaching and learning,” says a third.

Not only that, the movie makes the case those students and their backpacks full of cash are leaving where they’re needed most and being siphoned into schools that may not work for them either. Better, the movie suggests, to spend more on public schools.

Not only that, but Matt Damon, whom she used to really like, is the narrator.

Damon tells the story of his public school experience – a high-income school in Cambridge, Mass., run by people from Harvard. He can’t seem to find this experience in California and sends his own kids to private schools, but the rest of us just need to work a little harder on our schools as they stand.

That’s the part that gets to Johnnie Taylor, who works for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which helps 300,000 people go to college every year. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, test – widely regarded as the nation’s report card – found last year that two-thirds of American kids are not grade-level proficient in any subject.

Not math. Not civics. Not reading, history or geography. Among immigrants and minorities, the numbers are even worse. In the D.C. school system, which has the second-highest per-student expenditure in the country, only 17 percent of black, brown and Latino 8th graders were doing math or English on grade level. That’s 1 in 6, which is about the rate nationwide for minority student achievement.

Yes, he says, graduation rates are up, dropout rates are down and overall scores on the NAEP are as high as they’ve ever been. But these are cherry-picked numbers – the graduation and dropout rates are more the result of some questionable school policies than increased achievement, and the elites are bringing up the numbers nationwide overall.

But Taylor drew on his experience working for Barry Diller. The founding of Fox News was billed as “new media v. old media, and it wasn’t necessarily that traditional media or old media was broken,” he said. But “education is one industry that refuses to innovate. And I think that’s my rub. Let’s not pretend that all of our public schools are working wonderfully. Why can’t we want to be better?”

Those who run America’s schools want to control how and where education is delivered so they can control what is delivered and how. Competition means workforces that fit the need, teachers with non-traditional qualifications, decentralization, less influence for unions. It means the goal is serving the student, not enriching the teachers or administrators.

But we have an educational establishment – with Matt Damon as its spokesman – that seems more concerned with preserving teachers’ prerogatives than improving schools.

Jeanne says she believes Damon is educable on this. So let’s try a thought experiment. What if his industry was run like schools? What if there was one central studio that controlled all movie making?

Would Damon be OK with making the same amount of money per picture as the worst actors in Hollywood, the way the worst and best teachers are paid the same? Would there be color or even sound in movies? Both were expensive gambles taken by smaller studios to give them a competitive edge over larger rivals.

It’s not that everything is broken in public schools. It’s that, if two-thirds of America’s kids are not proficient in any subject, we can’t be closed to attempts at innovation. And we can’t let Matt Damon or Hollywood or teachers’ unions stand in the way.