More on the Education Factory   (March 6, 2009)

Unfunded mandates in education are open-ended commitments made by government on behalf of certain populations of students. The problem is tax revenues are not open-ended. As government slips into insolvency, we have to accept that all programs, however needed and morally justified, must have spending limits.

I received an informative email from a veteran teacher on topics with far-reaching implications.

On education - a thought:

I am a 25 year veteran high school math teacher in a high performance high school. Virtually all discussion in Retooling The Education Factory is productive and interesting. However, the reasons offered for why we are spending an ever increasing amount of money are wrong. Public Law 94-142 Public Law 94-142, The Education For All Handicapped Children Act (IDEA) (U.S. Department of Education website) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Wikipedia), is driving almost all spending increases and absorbing almost all the new money. Implementation of this law has completely distracted educators and distorted what is done in our schools since its passing. Ask any administrator or teacher how much of their time and energy is spent complying with it and you will find out what is really wrong in education in America today.

When I started teaching my high school had one educator with a half time secretary providing services to our special needs kids. We now have an entire cadre of teachers, support staff, and personal assistants. I really do not know the exact number, but I am fairly certain we now have at least a dozen full time people serving these kids. No other component of the staffing in my district has grown over this interval. We have been tight budget forever, have a lean administration, have increased class sizes and reduced teaching staffs, and cut programs of the type Michael Goodfellow thinks we need.

My district has a number of high schools, junior highs, and elementary schools. The staffing paradigm is the same in each: lean as hell at the core with a huge group providing services to special needs kids. In my opinion this is the great untold story of our era. People are absolutely correct about the raw and inflated dollars increasing steadily, they just do not know that it is virtually all going to serve the needs of our least able students - because the law mandates that we must and clever lawyers find ever more need for schools to provide ever increasing levels of service.

It is totally out of hand at this point.

Importantly, due to mainstreaming, all teachers are constantly distracted from teaching a truly robust curriculum by the need to make sure that kids who should never be taking advanced algebra, for example, have a chance at passing. These kids are in these classes these days because the law has a presumption that anyone can learn anything - we educators just need to make the appropriate adjustments to curriculum, testing, homework assigned, seating, provide personal notetakers, full time personal assistants, special small study groups with a full time teacher and only a handful of kids, etc.

Yes, these kids make it through - some of the time. But instead of designing a challenging and interesting curriculum for kids who might actually use math at some point, I need to make sure the mainstreamed kid with the personal assistant and no chance they will even know when to add or subtract in a real world setting has a chance at having some partial success at using the quadratic formula!

The situation is the same everywhere. No one who matters talks about it or writes about it. I am certain it is a significant explanatory factor in both the cost and performance domains. And it is getting worse each year.

Thank you Veteran Teacher for an insider's perspective on a subject most of us do not know much about. This strikes me as an example of what started as perfectly reasonable mandates becoming unaffordable because there are no limits on services or costs. That disabled children were left out of education was obviously a wrong which needed righting, but any open-ended commitment--to healthcare or special education or national defense or any of a dozen other vitally important government mandates-- which disregards the fact that taxes and revenues are not open-ended is eventually doomed to implode.

This report also calls into question the very notion of fairness. If an inordinate percentage of education funds are being allotted to a small percentage of children, then isn't that depriving "normal" children of their equally mandated rights to education? (Some 6 million children are being served by special ed programs out of a K-12 population of over 60 million. Annual Estimates of the Population by Sex and Five-Year Age Groups for the United States (U.S. Census Bureau).

All open-ended mandates assume a wealthy, growing economy with essentially unlimited tax revenues. While I am not an expert in this law, it does not seem to contain any limits on costs or any recognition that at some point the attention and funding devoted to 10% of the students could harm the remaining 90% by siphoning off a significant percentage of total education funding.

I know it's awfully easy to say we could find the money for education if we cut the Pentagon or a hundred other boondoggles, but each of those "boondoggles" has its own open-ended mandates. There isn't any law which says ten aircraft carriers is too many, or aircraft can't cost more than $100 million each (current costs seem to run $300 million and up per plane.) The mandate is to protect the nation against any and all external threats, period.

There are also no limits on how much Medicare costs--it's an open-ended mandate/entitlement which will soon outspend the Pentagon. One person's boondoggle is another person's entitlement/job/right.

A government which borrows a trillion or two every year to fund its open-ended commitments is a government which is headed for insolvency. At that point, all the laws and mandates and regulations and lawsuits can be pushed into a furnace and torched (to recover the energy in the paper, of course) , because there won't be anywhere near enough money for all the mandates and rights and guarantees.

Yes, all the claimants and stakeholders and lobbyists will fight over the remains, and whatever stream of tax revenues is still being collected; but there won't be enough. "Living within our means" means just that: no sustainable budget can ever be open-ended in terms of reach (or over-reach) and cost.

I understand the needs exist regardless of revenues available, and that's why I think we as a society need to start valuing unpaid work. As noted yesterday, if we're entering an era of "the end of work" then that doesn't mean there won't be work for millions of people, it simply means there won't be paid positions.

Perhaps people who are receiving enough government funds to scrape by--and I believe we can't just watch unemployment benefits for 25 million people run out and let their families starve--will be offered meaningful work, some of it in education.

National insolvency will change a lot of things, and we might as well start thinking about deploying the talents and experience of the millions who won't have paid jobs anymore. Meaningful work and meaningful skills make a meaningful life, even if the work is unpaid.

Other readers made these comments on education:

Gene M.

Hope you don't mind my chiming in on this. Been thinking about this topic forever it seems. Long before Michael wrote his commentary that's for sure, most of which I agree with.

Much too much to summarize, but I've been preaching for 25 years the old Chinese saying: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. Should be plastered on every forehead of every elementary school teacher and high school teacher as well. Start with that and 50% of the stupidity might vanish.

Need to distinguish between teaching and learning. Two different processes, connected but different. Learning can and does occur without a teacher, perhaps the best learning.

All you have to do to get the right principles is observe carefully how children learn in the world outside school. My kids were all in 4-H, the best thing that ever happened to them. I also used to bring my girls to USF when I was a prof there, long long before the idea came to take your kids to work. Took son and daughters with me when I was a contractor, on safe jobs, at least. Taught my girls how to saw and hammer and turn a screw driver when they were little. Of course all that stuff gives them an immense feeling of confidence in their world and their control of it. Project oriented learning I believe is catching on in some schools

My main gripe vs schooling is that its such a waste of kids' time, input vs output. It's not that NOTHING happens but that so little happens, by and large.

Finally, we omit what you would relate to so well as a former philosophy major, how to live one's life fully and well. I would say the Waldorf schools come closest to that. We are far from even considering such a topic, and of course most teachers would be a disaster if they could even conceive of that idea.

Well, you got the juices going. These are just hints, and each would take one of your essays to do it justice.

Michael S.

IMO, the education system we have is meant to socialize our population and nothing else; for our kids, it all comes down to reading and hopefully they use that skill with their thinking caps on.

truly, I don't think anything else matters: not the union; not the cost; etc...

the best teachers will be solving day-to-day problems; they won't be in the classroom.

FYI: I won an award on the "math content test" via ETS.OR. I attached the award. the passing score was 136 (I think). I received 184.

Until I started reading math books on my own and doing math problems on my own, I wasn't getting anywhere. Now that I am taking risks, and falling on my ass, math is more rewarding than every since my brain is actually processing the whole experience.

Chris S.

You wrote:

10. The U.S. educational industry is built on the assumption that life skills like balancing one's accounts, purchasing homes and insurance policies, planning one's retirement, preparing a healthy nutritious diet, etc. will be taught in the home. Given that this is so obviously untrue for a vast swath of Americans, perhaps we might profitably divert some resources from theoretical math to practical math, such as grasping rent-vs.-buy, mortgages, insurance, 401Ks, investing, credit, interest amd some basics of health beyond everyone's favorite bugaboo, reproduction. How about some basic nutrition, cooking and fitness knowledge?

My high school actually taught all of these things (I graduated in the 80s) including some good history and US Government courses. I'd say that gave me a solid foundation --look how I turned out :-)

However, that's not taught in schools now because TPTB can't have a truly educated/informed/thinking populace. If people could have guessed in advance (like you and I did) that they were going to get screwed on their mortgage, 401k, etc, it would have been much harder for TPTB to steal from them, destroy their family wealth base, and hammer down the entire middle class in the process.

Notice how the home-schoolers have been producing some very sharp kids from spelling bee winners to solid college academians? Notice how the state laws came into play later which restricted home-schooling as a movement? The home-schoolers were not only a challenge to the state monopoly on education (despite the fact that the schools still received the property tax money from those households), but more importantly the home-schoolers were producing kids who could really think outside the box.

BTW, conditioned thinking gets more interesting in grad school --especially later in a PhD program-- but that would take quite a while to go into this morning.

David H.

Good job today, and all year for that matter. Your essay reminded me to order the following book which you may find of interest.

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality I am a big fan of his other book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 and the one he co-authored, and Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life . I recall from an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal before publication of the education book his basic premise: half of people are below average and one cannot have a rational educational system in which we ignore the fact that some people are simply not intelligent enough to do the work.

I agree with all of your points and would add another: by dumbing down the curriculum to enable a higher percentage of people to "succeed," we create a huge mis-allocation of resources. Milton Friedman wrote somewhere about how his 8th grade graduation exam was much more difficult than what most kids are taught in high school today. Junior college looks to be nothing more than teaching kids what they should have learned in high school, and early high school at that.

I was graduated from an elite prep school and college was EASY compared to high school. While my college was not all that competitive (U of Redlands), I was first in my class and did not work all that hard. I was shocked when I saw my wife's college assignments (she is significantly younger) at the University of North Texas -- my high school work was significantly more difficult.

Combine this with the incredible cost of higher education today. We have a generation of kids graduating with staggering amounts of school loans and the vast majority of them are learning things that they could have learned in high school just a few generations ago. This is a huge waste of resources from a societal perspective as we extend the period of time during which people are net consumers instead of net producers for no good reason whatsoever.

I am not intimately familiar with the European model, but it seems to make more sense: keep standards high and flunk out (via testing) the kids that cannot do the work and send them to vocational school.

One other your point: your observation that our system incorrectly assumes that kids are taught certain life skills at home is well taken. In Malcolm Gladwell's new book he discussed a study in the Baltimore public school system indicating that the poor kids did just as well as the rich kids during the school year, but were significantly behind as they aged because the rich kids gained on the poor kids each summer; i.e., almost the entire gap in educational achievement between the rich kids and the poor kids could be attributable to what happened at home when school was not in session (the poor kids were left alone and watched t.v. and the rich kids read books, went to camp, etc.).

Chris H.

The American public education is probably the single Greatest Institution that is overlooked! I myself attended numerous private, and parochial schools growing up (parents moved often...bought and sold homes 70's-80's).

Two Reasons:

1) Why....Public schools take in all religions, all races, all socio economic groups!

*Social Impact of Public Schools: This is important as these students grow together, play together, learn together... we grow as a Nation of understanding and acceptance and understanding of each other (work together).

*Religious Schools: Students are taught that their religion is right and others are wrong and they become intolerant of different thoughts.

*Private Schools: More or less the same except its about have's and have nots...In Palm Beach it's "those people over the bridge'".

*Cost wise I would send my children to the private school if I could afford it... these children ...most end up in the best of the best Ivy League Schools!


Here in Palm Beach County Fl:


Public Cost per Student: $6,500

Religious School: $9,000 for a good one (would not send my kids...paying for grades, paying not to have to take the tests required for the No Child Left Behind requirements...

Private: 15,000 and up ...these are comparable to public schools in education but offer the connection base from elementary, middle school to high school thru university.

2) The people who protest about the cost often forget that these children are the future citizens and thus tax payers that will pay their Social Security, Medicare and will fight the wars for them. The children are America;s most valuable asset!

If we didn't have public education what would we look like?

1) Religion against religion

2) Class against Class

3) Uncontrollable Crime

Enough...don't want to waste your time.

Thank you for your blog!

Kevin M.

In it's current configuration, the education industry is almost certainly beyond reform. The component issues run so deep, so pervasive, that it probably isn't reasonable to think it possible that the system is even remotely capable of fixing itself, or even of having it enforced from the outside. The problem is that the problem is no longer even about educating kids.

Two days ago our local school district issued yet another non-educational decree--prohibition against "PDA's"--public displays of affection. No hugging or other forms of human affection. Now at some level one can see a well intended purpose for such an edict. However it serves as an example to highlight the fact that some time since the 1960's or 1970's, the emphasis of the education establishment shifted away from traditional education in favor of social conditioning/engineering and indoctrination by government propaganda and other public policies which have been deemed beneficial or appropriate by the ruling elite within the establishment.

We see evidence of this in the enforcement of zero tolerance policies, political correctness, mindless testing and the trend toward a curriculum heavy on theory and light on practical application. Then there's the near religious obsession with law enforcement, including policing schools for drugs, sex, child abuse, weapons possession (which includes pocket knives and water pistols!) and hate speech, among others. Treat a generally good person like a criminal and you shouldn't be surprised if he responds by acting like one.

How do teachers teach or students learn in an environment in which the primary purpose is behavioral control? It leaves neither time nor resources for the schools's alledged primary purpose of educating children. And of course, such a direction, being difficult to quantify, requires enormous amounts of compliance tracking and reporting, hence teachers' time is diverted from teaching, and the development of a greater "need" for para-professionals (counselors, psychologists, etc.).

When the public demands that "something be done" about the latest media-hyped school related crisis du jour, I'm not certain most folks realize that this is how things play out. We have demanded action, and we got it. But for better or worse, public education is now being run by politicians and political types, rather than by local parents and school boards. We have gotten what we deserve, which isn't what we expected!

With the system incapable of reform, our best option may be to do what you've advocated many times, and take matters into our own hands, at the local level. This probably means home schooling (or some form of assisted home schooling) for anyone concerned about truly educating their children. Not a comfortable option for most of us, but increasingly, the only sane one.

Ben D.

The end of schooling?
A Conversation with John Holt (1980) Interviewer: Marlene Bumgarner

Dr. Marlene Bumgarner, parent of four children, teaches child growth and development at Gavilan College in California, and has written and lectured about children and education for over two decades. Her son John, now 24, is pictured in a photo with John Holt on the back cover of Learning All The Time (John Holt, 1990). Marlene's latest book, Working with School-Age Children , was published in 1999 by Mayfield Publishing Company.

AGAINST SCHOOL: How public education cripples our kids, and why (John Taylor Gatto)

John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling .

Thank you, readers, for these thought-provoking comments. I strongly recommend reading the two linked articles above for added perspective. Since we're discussing open-ended education mandates, here are two links on the "No Child Left Behind" law.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) (U.S. Department of Education website)
No Child Left Behind Act (Wikipedia)

Lastly, here are some titles I recently added to Books and Films:

The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling

Learning All The Time

The Great Transformation
Karl Polanyi

The Road to Serfdom
F. A. Hayek

Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion

Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life

Hanging On, Or, How to Get Through a Depression and Enjoy Life

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's

Since Yesterday: The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939

The End of Work

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century

First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan

As always, I provide the link to so you can read reviews and reader comments about the books; hopefully your local library carries at least a few of the above titles.

New essays and readers' comments in Readers' Journal.

NOTE: The serialization of my new ebook "Survival +" starts March 21.

Of Two Minds reader forum (hosted offsite, reader moderated)

New Operation SERF Installment:

Operation SERF, Part 11

Chris Sullins' "Strategic Action Thriller" is fiction, and on occasion contains graphic combat scenes.

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--An anonymous comment about CHS posted on another blog.

NOTE: contributions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

  Thank you, D.M.T. ($40) for your outrageously generous contribution via mail (and your very kind comments) to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.  

Or send him coins, stamps or quatloos via mail--please request P.O. Box address.

Your readership is greatly appreciated with or without a donation.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2009 Charles Hugh Smith, All rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.

I would be honored if you linked this wEssay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


consulting   blog  fiction/novels   articles  my hidden history   books/films   what's for dinner   home   email me