Lewy Olfson sets the record straight

From the Wisconsin State Journal

Olfson: Schools today have different objectives

by LEWY OLFSON
June 27, 2007

In a guest column headlined “What a difference 100 years makes,” Rick Berg makes a false assumption that an eighth grade test given in 1907 demonstrates that schools today are failing to achieve acceptable levels of learning in their pupils.

The world in 1907 was a very different place from the world today, and schools then had very different objectives from schools today. In 1907, American society needed a small number of highly educated workers and a huge number of unskilled laborers and farmers. Only a fraction of young people went to college.

The test referred to by Berg was designed to weed out those who were not considered suitable for higher education.

Berg doesn’t tell us how many eighth graders actually passed the difficult test he describes. He suggests that the difficult questions in that test were well within the capacity of most students. I seriously doubt that. Moreover, academic failure in 1907 was not a barrier to a young person’s ability to earn a living, nor did it carry any significant social stigma.

Today, graduation, not merely from the eighth grade but from high school, is all but essential if a young person is to achieve even a modest level of financial independence as an adult.

Schools today are attempting to meet the needs of our society as it exists in 2007, just as schools in 1907 were designed to meet the needs of society as it existed then.

Which brings me to my next bone of contention with Berg, his misunderstanding of the principles underlying government-supported mandatory public education. He proposes that the state should give parents vouchers which they would be free to use to buy education wherever they like.

In Berg’s world, schools would flourish or fail depending upon whether or not they offered programs that parents were happy with. But the each-school-has-its-own- system model simply does not reflect the underlying purpose of publicly funded education.

Publicly funded education rests on the premise that we, as a society, have a collective notion of the public good. We have a body of values that we want to inculcate in the next generation.

We have needs, as a society, that we want the next generation to fulfill. If taxpayers, even those of us who have never had children ourselves, are going to pay for the education of other people’s children, we want that education to be in the service of an ideal, an image of a future we can agree with and support.

In a democratic society, we the governed have agreed to finance a system of education for the good of society as a whole, but we don’t write that check without requiring accountability.

That is why we have elected school boards to establish policy and to oversee administration. The school board members are accountable to us, the taxpayers.

In Berg’s model, accountability is an issue between the individual school and its constituent parents. But that is not enough.

I do not intend to suggest that I think the Madison School District is completely successful. And the system can only benefit from the thoughtful suggestions of interested, serious people like Berg. But in this case, I believe his suggestions are misguided and ill-informed.

Olfson, now retired and living in Madison, was an education journalist for 25 years and is the author of a number of books for young people.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance

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