Few forces in American life have postured as more messianic than public education, whose prophets predicted a golden age of creativity, equality, and prosperity if only the government could run the schools and children be forced to attend. They got their wish, and billions of dollars in the people’s money, but the result was quite different.
Instead of imparting a body of knowledge and transmitting the time-honored cultural and moral values to students, American public education—really government education—serves mainly to reinforce ignorance, enhance credulity, and put its inmates at the mercy of society’s eager brainwashers, with recording studios and TV cameras at their disposal. Home-education expert and curriculum consultant Cathy Duffy knows this all too well.
In the early 1800s, before we had compulsory schooling, she points out, the literacy rate surpassed that of today, when students who can read advertisements are considered literate. In economic education the situation is even more dismal. America’s educational establishment also knows its own failures and has embarked on a grandiose program it claims will fix the problems. In this tough, well-documented book, Cathy Duffy gives them a report card.
Duffy goes to the heart of the problem with her diagnosis that American educational problems are iatrogenic, induced by the system itself, particularly in its attempts at reform. As Richard Mitchell and other educational critics have shown, even calls for reform only feed the bureaucratic brontosaurus by providing it with a pretext for yet more studies, more support personnel, and of course increased taxes. The latest of these are “Goals 2000” and “Outcome Based Education,” subjects of this helpful volume.
The author shows a keen ability to translate from the language of bureaucrats, which some call “educanto.” This is the pretentious dialect that calls grades “outcomes,” tests “assessments,” and libraries “learning resource centers.” But there is no mistaking the author’s purpose: to “stimulate more people to value their freedom and autonomy enough to stand against the encroachment of benevolent government-nanny programs that would keep us all perpetual children.”
Goals 2000, Duffy says, includes some reforms but in reality “goes out of the classroom, into the home, beyond instruction and into indoctrination. In reality it provides the framework for a cradle-to-grave takeover of America’s families.” For example, the author shows how the screening processes of ostensibly benevolent “parent educators” (PEs) are based on a massive mistrust of parents. The plan’s call for “partnership,” Duffy says, “is shaping up to be an invasion.” The official pretext is the desire that “all children shall start school ready to learn.”
The intrusive PE’s, Duffy shows, can easily manipulate parents into uncritical acceptance of programs under the Goals 2000 umbrella. These include the declaration of certain children “at risk.” But the standards are so broad that some schools declare all students “at risk.” And Duffy documents the disturbing liaisons between schools and social service agencies which, when in doubt, tend to break up families first and ask questions later.
Duffy casts doubt upon every high-minded plank in the Goals 2000 program, whose cost she estimates at up to $1 billion a year. She notes that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is an $11 billion per year “investment” in education that even dwarfs Goals 2000.
The much-promoted Outcome Based Education (OBE) while promising improved results, turns out to rely more on the feelings of students than their thinking powers and mastery of knowledge. As the California CLAS tests confirm, it also allows schools to become yet more intrusive with students and parents.
The one certainty of such reforms is that they will be expensive. Another is that they will serve bureaucratic interests. Based on those realities the prospects for success may well be doubted. Duffy makes a convincing case that these goals could well make things worse but at the same time raises key questions for those dealing with the system.
Do children belong to the state, as in the Prussian system on which ours is based? Are citizens rapidly becoming slaves to the government? As C.S. Lewis put it, there is a fundamental difference between the methods of an eagle which teaches her young to fly and fend for themselves, and the poultry farmer who raises birds for the slaughter. American education is very much in the second camp. “We are faced with two choices,” the author concludes, “We can choose the security of the government womb and pay the price of freedom. Or, we can choose a challenging future that holds both risks and responsibilities.”
Cathy Duffy provides solid analysis to push the reader toward that more difficult second path, ringing defenses of freedom to challenge the reader, and resources to help them proceed. Government Nannies will prove a most useful tool for parents and educators alike in the closing years of this century.
Mr. Billingsley is a media fellow of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.