When it comes to the crisis faced by American education these days, a return to "standards" and "fundamentals" may sound attractive-and it will certainly help. But it won't correct what has gone so desperately wrong.
That's because in losing our way, we aren't even agreed any longer on what the "basics" are and what makes up the "standards" and the "fundamentals." If we aren't sure what they even are, how can we get back to them?
When 385 educators (and lay people interested in education) gathered recently in Washington for a "No Excuses" conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, they focused on the theme that almost anybody, under almost any circumstances, ought to be able to do better at education than America is doing. There is no good excuse for the terrible job we are doing educating our children-and society should quit accepting the typical excuses that are offered. Too little money? Run-down facilities? Too few teachers? The excuses pile up especially with reference to inner-city, low-income schools. But the excuses, conference participants were reminded, don't hold water.
The Heritage Foundation deserves credit for bringing together at this conference folks from a wildly unlikely set of backgrounds. Included at my lunch table were a woman from a think tank in California that promotes publicly funded vouchers for use even in religious schools, and another woman representing the National Education Association.
Heroes at the Heritage gathering were the people who work in the trenches of the nation's schools, both public and private, and who have been successful with their products. They included Jaime Escalante, the math teacher in East Los Angeles who barely survived his early years in teaching, and then began producing an incredible cadre of graduates in advanced placement calculus. Mr. Escalante's discipline, determination, vision, and fortitude were featured a decade ago in the popular movie Stand and Deliver, which ought still to be required viewing for every teacher, administrator, board member, student, citizen, and donor to any educational cause.
Some of the success stories were from public schools like Garfield High. Some were from new charter schools. Some were from parochial schools like Holy Angels School in Chicago, where 97 percent of the students are from low-income families. Embarrassingly absent were representatives of the evangelical Protestant Christian school movement, which has tended to put its focus on audiences other than the high-risk, low-income inner city.
So what characterized the methodology of these educators who accept no excuses? It was a simple no-nonsense approach. It included basic disciplines, both academic and behavioral. It included drilling in subjects like phonics and math facts. It included dress codes and saying "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am." It included long school days and long school years, more investment in teachers and less in administrators.
In short, it included almost exactly all the things you would expect to find in schools that produce good results. And the components are just simple enough that you're inclined to say: "You're right. There aren't any good excuses. What's so hard about structuring our nation's education that way?"
So do we give an A to educators who think so sensibly?
Almost, but not quite. For it is no accident that the terrible drift away from "basics" and "standards" has come hand-in-hand with a drift away from "truth" as well. And even conservative people like those at the Heritage gathering tend to shy away from talking about truth.
Almost everyone at the "No Excuses" conference would probably have agreed that moral and behavioral "relativism" is one of the biggest problems afflicting American education. And yet relativism about "truth" itself would have kept most of the participants from getting together on a serious mission statement for just about any school you could imagine.
To the extent that "basics," "standards," and "fundamentals" reflect a turn away from total relativism, that turn has to be seen as good. And there's a certain kind of agreement on that point, even from those of us who claim that only biblical truth provides a lasting foundation. For in many ways, it is better to be close to the truth than far from it, and preferable to exist even under a shadow than to live in total darkness.
Yet we should also ask: What good is a tidy kitchen if the food produced there has no vitamins? What joy is there in the precision of the marching band if no real music comes from their instruments? If all we conservatives worry about is making things a bit more orderly, we may succeed-for a little while. But if we don't also focus on the content of that orderliness, the ultimate chaos will be just as bad as that produced by liberal permissiveness.