Education’s Philosophical Fantasy Fixes Fail

The final dictat of the Obama Department of Education has been revealed. It is, to be sure, curious.

The department’s regulation creates a standard approach that states must use in determining if their districts are overenrolling minority students in special education compared to their peers of other races. If the disparities are large enough, districts are required to use 15 percent of their federal allotment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act on “coordinated, early intervening services” aimed at addressing the issue.

The new rule also requires states to use a standard approach to determine whether minority special education students are in segregated settings more than peers of other races, or if they face more suspensions and expulsions than their peers. Disparities in those areas would also trigger the requirement to use federal money to fix the problem.

See the problem? No? That’s okay. I’m here for you. It’s like the moronic question asked on my law school application, “How many hours per day do you plan to study?”  I answered, “How long must a man’s* legs be?”  See it now? Too obtuse? Jeez, you’re a tough crowd.

The notion that minorities might be “over-enrolled” in special education presumes there is a right percentage of minorities in need of special ed. As opposed to, say, whatever the actual need might be. Why? Because of the absolute certainty that minority students should not be in need of special ed disproportionately to their percentage in the population. To believe otherwise might suggest there’s something “wrong” with minority students. Since that’s an unacceptable belief, it can’t be.

For the even-more-unaware, the idea that there is latitude in schools’ compliance with dictats like this, which speaks to federal funding, the life-blood of the educational bureaucracy, is just a tad unrealistic. As with counting sports team members under Title IX, the feds are too busy to think hard about why numbers work out the way they do, so they do the math with their very expensive calculators and, if your numbers don’t add up, you are discriminating. Screw your reasons. Stats never lie in D.C.

But what, you ask, of those boys and girls who, for whatever reason, need special ed? Don’t we care about the children? Well, sure we do, but not nearly as much as we care about the fantasy. So, schools will have two ways to “fix” their statistical failings: put fewer minorities into special ed or put more non-minorities into special ed.

If the former, minorities will suffer for failure to provide a “free appropriate public education.” For the latter, who gives a shit if they spend a few years sitting around being taught far below their capabilities, but getting cool stickers and red balloons.

The fantasy, however, doesn’t end there, as the denial of reality, personal needs and issues, individual attention and responsibility, will stick with them like an unpleasant smell through the end of their educational lives.

Many college campuses have reacted to Donald Trump’s election with shock and angst. Professors and students are wondering how the rest of the country could be so different from them. The more introspective are asking: What can we do?

Actually, the more introspective are asking, How can we be so clueless, so utterly out of touch with reality? But I digress.

Michael Bloomberg has an answer.

It’s an answer that should appeal to both liberals and conservatives — an answer that isn’t about Trump per se but instead about the alienation that helped him win. Bloomberg wants to make leading colleges more open to the working class. He wants to make them fairer places that look more like America.

There is a fetishist vision of every aspect of education, of America, that invokes the word “fair” as if believing hard enough makes every wish come true. Putting aside the fact that students are coming out of college with a lifetime of debt and the best job prospect of managing their very own Dairy Queen someday,**

A landmark recent study found that most highly qualified low-income students don’t attend one of the country’s roughly 250 top colleges. Many instead enroll in local colleges with relatively few resources and high dropout rates.

Think about what an injustice this is. Thousands of students each year overcome long odds — tough neighborhoods, weak schools, chaotic families — and excel. Then society lets them down once again.

Society? You misspelled Harvard. Nobody put a gun to college dean’s heads and demanded they raise tuition by a million percent. Oh wait, the Department of Education kinda did when it required more exceptionally well-paid Title IX administrators than teachers lest any student not have a bureaucrat of their own, just in case. But I digress again.

Those thousands of students who “overcome long odds . . . and excel” may very well be exactly the sort of students who should be in college, as opposed to your suburban dopes who enjoy top flight schools because your mommies and daddies worked hard to make sure that neither your laziness nor narcissism got in the way of your impressing the neighbors.

But what stops these deserving students? If they’re so damn smart, how is it possible they don’t know that there are these nice, bucolic places called college that will enable them to grow up to be president someday?

Yet again, the fantasy screws the pooch. Aside from your absurd tuition hikes, and the lesson of other grads that a diploma isn’t the gateway to the American dream, but a life of debt and underemployment, economically poor students need something other than the sweet condescension of well-meaning pedagogues. They need money. They need to earn a living, to help their parents, the siblings, eat. Pay rent. Put gas in the old Corolla. They can’t afford the opportunity costs of four years of obsessing over Audre Lorde.

The truth is that colleges have long had the ability to enroll more middle-class and poor students. They’ve chosen other priorities: sports teams; new buildings; ethnic and geographic diversity; admitting alumni children.

Right. Poor kids suck at sports. Everybody knows that. And then there’s that ethnic thing, ruining colleges with all their ethnicity. Imagine how many problems could be solved if universities sold tickets to rich black kids fighting poor white kids on the quad?

Except this is all a lie. Colleges have had need-blind admissions for years, and most, especially the top colleges, offer very generous assistance. A smart poor kid will get a free ride at Harvard, and shockingly, even smart poor kids have heard the word “college.” So why aren’t they rushing to apply? Because they don’t have the latitude to blow off four years of their life to end up sitting on the couch in the basement, if they have a basement, pondering when someone will open that gender studies department store for them to manage.

The fantasy at the start and finish, expressed with the deep passion of true believers, sounds wonderful. So why hasn’t it managed to make our world a Utopia? Because it’s all just fantastical educational philosophy that fails children, students, but with the best of intentions. It’s just not real.

*I was not yet woke to my sexist upbringing.

**”But my adviser said employers love the critical thinking skills of deviant sexual studies majors.”

21 thoughts on “Education’s Philosophical Fantasy Fixes Fail

  1. Weebs

    In fairness to Harvard, they waive tuition, fees and room & board for students from families earning <$65K per year. Families earning between $65K and $150K pay ten percent of their income.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Dictate? Well, well…WTF!  Have you been reading them libertarian wanna be baby anarchist blogs on the toilet again while waiting for this winters constipation meds to arrive from Helsinki or what?

    You do know that you gotta start emulsifying some real deal olive oil to dose your dirty martinis with if you wanna truly harmonize the snooze button and your daily duce. But you probably already knew that.

    So, whats really up with this continued bewilderment of yours and the Department of Education creating it’s own lingering high pressure systems to make everyone happy?

    It’s almost as though you can’t get your head around the fact that the staff at the DOE walks straight  past the NOAA building and then cuts through the alley to hang out on the FED quad every single time when they are looking to hook up for some afternoon delight.

    WTF man? Do you really need to read, all about it in that newspaper of yours’ Sunday magizine before you will believe it or what?

    Why is it that nobody can get their head around the needs that those folks at the  DOE have. It’s pretty obvious when you consuder who the are scratching it with.

    Enjoy the sunshine those lingering high pressure systems eminiating from DC bring to our lives esteemed one before the boys and girls at NOAA figure it out and start seeding clouds with with the true swingers over at the tax court to one up the DOE.

    That could get down right nasty and you know it.

  3. Steve H

    Fantasy indeed!

    Attention Mr. Leonhardt and NYT: Do you really think that the country’s 238 most selective colleges could ever reflect the spectrum of American youth?

    I see these “talented poor kids” every semester, holding down 3 jobs while taking 16 credit hrs, tag-teaming childcare to make lab or study hall, eating Ramen or oatmeal nutriloaf, living at the edge of town in trailers, flipping burgers to supplement $7.25 with tips and on-shift meals, sitting in the back of class with their toddlers, working unpaid internships, earning STEM scholarships by stomping the heck out of teacups, borrowing only as a last resort b/c the utilities are being cut off, etc.

    These kids aren’t majoring in SJW, they’re too mature for “fairness,” and Hawwwvaaad might as well be Oz. They’re combat vets planning to cure PTSD, children from first-gen-college families, dislocated tradesmen and women, single parents planning to become doctors, or maybe just hungry kids from bad neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re bona fide rocket scientists, but more often than not their primary “talent” is that they’re carrying two brimming bucketfuls of guts.

    Beg the “top 238 universities” for a pity admission based upon who they were during high-school? Most of these “talented poor kids” have a plan that would make their grandparents proud: grow up, grind out 2 years at awesome dirt-cheap comm colleges with small classes and uber instructors, follow that with 2 more years (or less) at low-priced state 4-yr schools, graduate nearly debt free, then leverage their educations and work experience into decent jobs.

    Philosophical Fantasy Fail (rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?)? The real cream of American youth doesn’t need an elitist, condescending, progressive boost into the country’s “238 most selective colleges.” (What they do need is better support of state 2- and 4-yr schools close to their families-but that’s another rant, eh?).

    1. SHG Post author

      I went to college in the pre-Ramen days. For me, it was 3 fishsticks per day (IGA house brand, not that fancy name brand stuff). Bartended at night so I could get free beer. And, of course, walked uphill to classes in the snow both ways, but that’s another rant.

      1. Steve H

        I went during the era when a Pell grant would pay tuition, books, and goodly chunk of the semester’s dorm rent. Kids today don’t disbelieve that such Camelot ever existed. But still they slog on.

      2. the other rob

        It was beans on toast for me (Heinz, of course) but ditto on the bartending for free beer (and potato chips – or crisps as we called them). Plus holding down a part time job or two, because the side hustle hadn’t been invented yet. In later life I paid cash for my MSc and emerged from both with no debt.

        Were I to consider that today, in the US, I don’t think that I could make a business case for it. Better to go to trade school and become a plumber or an electrician.

        1. DaveL

          I can only imagine how unjust and shameful Bloomberg must imagine trade schools to be, given how the article describes the bottom 90%+ of colleges.

          1. SHG Post author

            Honorable work, trades, but not the “American dream,” as we tell all the kids. After all, they actually have to create things rather than just talk about them.

            1. the other rob

              Exactly. When did working hard and making/fixing things become something to be ashamed of?

              That said, if, like me, your hobby is rebuilding old vacuum tube amplifiers or radios, people magically overlook your academic or business credentials and suddenly you’re a preservationist instead of a shitlord. When all you really want to do is play with toys.

              Meanwhile, the guy who fixes the HVAC is less highly regarded. Because the important shit that he fucks with isn’t as cool as the nice but inessential stuff of my oevre.

              Jeez. Is there any chance of us getting some balance any time soon?

  4. B. McLeod

    Well, if “too many people” of any given ethnicity are going to special ed, that is a sign that the school system needs to launch a district-wide, critical intervention, taking over the home lives and upbringing of all the children of that ethnicity within the district. Because that’s what school systems are for, and of course, they should have the power to do that.

  5. losingtrader

    C’mon, you aren’t giving credit for education. If parents can spend so much on educating students , they can surely afford a Dairy Queen franchise fee. At least the kid’s in charge. (International Dairy Queen owned by…Berkshire)

  6. Lee Keller King

    “Fairness” has made a mockery of university education in the United States. In other developed countries it is assumed that many, if not all, young people will not go to university. Those that do attend do so after passing fairly rigorous entrance exams and earning a position. Those that do not attend university often go into a trade school/apprenticeship program that will earn them a good paying job in industry.

    But not in the good ole USA, because fairness. “Every child deserves a quality college education,” they say. “It’s only fair.”

    Unfortunately, this ain’t Lake Wobegon and all of our children aren’t above average. And the worse part is, by making a college education a “right,” we simultaneously set up a large number of students to fail (because they would be better suited to a good trade school or apprenticeship program), while devaluing the college degree of those that do graduate (with enormous school debt).

    Bah! Humbug!

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