Friday, September 18, 2020
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Dr. Ben Carson writes prescription for education

Ben Carson, a Republican from Maryland who’s running for president in a crowded field, announced an education plan earlier this month, and since Republican candidates have largely avoided education in seven debates and Primary Season begins on February 1 with the Iowa Caucuses, I assume education plans differ only slightly among the multitude of Republican contenders.

Mr Carson’s plan, released on January 8, promises to give parents a choice in sending their kids to school, encourage innovation, limit federal intervention in the education process, reward good teachers, and simplify the student loan process, the Washington Examiner reports.

“Dr. Carson’s education plan returns America’s education system to top tier global status by returning the power back to the people who know best: parents and local school systems,” a news release quoted Mr Carson’s Nevada state director, Jimmy Stracner, as saying. “By contrast, ill-conceived liberal reforms like Common Core have worked to create a centralized education system that gives the federal government control over decisions and policies that should be made at the local level.”

“The hallmark of Dr Carson’s education plan is empowering parents and local communities to make the best decisions for their children,” said Mr Carson’s Iowa State Director Ryan Rhodes. “Like Dr Carson, I believe that parents in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines are better capable of improving educational opportunities for their students than bureaucrats in Washington.”

So, what does Mr Carson have to say about his plan? Again, he evokes his mother and reminds us that he’s a physician by using the word “prescription” to describe his proposed fixes to an education system that is broken or sick.

“My mother had little education, but she understood the great power that education has in changing life for the better,” he said. “My prescription for achievement takes politics and politicians out of education reform and puts it back in the hands of We the People.

“The plan not only empowers parents, but it also rewards effective teachers. A great teacher can make all the difference in a student’s life. I’ve seldom met a successful person who can’t point to a teacher who played a significant role in their success. The stakes are too high, and we owe it to our children to restore our educational system to global preeminence.

“We must adopt policies that will give parents and students the freedom to design an educational experience that is tailored to their unique abilities, interests, and learning needs.”

In what has become Mr Carson’s trademark style—the use of good words, combined in a way that makes no sense whatsoever but reveals a soft-spoken politeness—the Republican presidential candidate fails to impress me with his ability to run the country. Let’s look at his words here:

Diagnosis: The American education system is failing our children.

Prognosis: Without change, our children will not be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

Treatment Plan: Five Principles to Restore American Exceptionalism in Our Schools

  • School Choice: I will actively support school choice programs, such as school vouchers and charter schools, so every student has the opportunity to fully realize his or her God-given potential.
  • Empower Parents, Teachers, Local School Districts and the States – Not Washington: In education, as in so many endeavors, the best decisions are the ones made by those closest to the issue. I will work to directly support students, cut red tape and reduce the size and authority of the Washington educational bureaucracy.
  • Encourage Innovation: Everywhere I travel, I am inspired by the creativity of educators whose ideas offer real promise for tomorrow’s students. Rather than micromanaging these educational innovators with one-size-fits-all regulations that suppress their ingenuity, we should promote innovative ideas in education.
  • Reward Good Teachers: It is long past the time to give teachers the respect and the resources they deserve. Instead of an outdated system that rewards teacher tenure over performance, I will advocate for flexible block grants to the states to advance and reward teacher quality, and to develop teacher evaluation systems that focus on effectiveness in advancing student achievement.
  • A Simpler, Streamlined Student Loan Process: The Department of Education needs to get out of the lending business. We need a simpler, more streamlined and transparent financial aid process that gives students and their families the kind of simple, reliable information they need to make good decisions.

The case Mr Carson makes for reducing federal intervention has largely been accomplished with the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed last month by President Obama.

The case for empowering parents and school choice, mainly for private, religious-based, and charter schools run by private companies, is old and has been disproven. Mr Carson is on the record as opposing the teaching of evolution in biology, and any move to localize teaching of school subjects can only be viewed in that light coming from him.

It would be a horrible disservice to students in those schools to remove evolution from the biology curriculum, say, and the federal government can’t let go without more assurances about the teaching of subjects like financial literacy, computer science, arts and music, and even good science, including biology and environmental studies.

Furthermore, principals and teachers run schools, not parents, and not national or state governments. We have little to add here, since the federal government, especially, is completely incapable of “micromanaging” educational innovators on their home turf in the classroom.

Good teachers

The support for good teachers also involves “public-private partnerships” under Mr Carson’s plan, which calls the current “tenure-based” system outdated and ineffective.

“We ask [teachers] to teach, to inspire, to counsel, to nurture and to discipline—but in all too many cases, we ask them to do it with inadequate resources and little pay,” he writes. “Under the current outdated tenure system, teachers’ skills and educational outcomes are blatantly ignored when it comes to their pay and benefits.”

He would prefer to pay teachers based on student achievement and to provide mentoring programs for those who struggle. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the question must be asked, How do you accurately determine student achievement, map various achievement levels to a salary structure for teachers, or set the salary levels for teachers you pull out to be mentors? Mr Carson’s plan provides no details as to how this student achievement would be measured or mapped to salaries.

He does have a plan for providing this incentive pay, though, which is a start at the detail we need to see. He would hand out “block grants” to school districts that provide incentive pay for teachers and encourage private companies to make similar programs available to schools. How? We don’t know, but that’s what his plan says.

If Mr Carson wants to remove or reduce the influence of tenure for elementary, middle, or high school teachers, I would also prefer to see a salary plan for teachers that rewards the development and implementation of good classroom plans for individual, and real, students, rather than average or overall test scores that are high or much improved.

There are simply too many variables when it comes to student achievement, and teachers don’t have control over very many of them. It’s more just to base teachers’ pay on something they can control, like educational plans for managing their individual classrooms.

Student loans

College students graduate with an average of $35,000 in debt, Mr Carson writes. Those whose degrees are in certain fields have a higher probability of defaulting on their student loans than those in other fields, although it’s difficult to generalize this into anything resembling a federal policy.

The federal government also already provides the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and although it could be improved and streamlined, as Mr Carson recommends, how he plans to do that is with privatization, which has a poor track record of making government functions worse. Just remember the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“As President, I will use market-oriented solutions to reduce tuition costs and alleviate student loan debt,” he writes. “Instead of burdening these promising young people with onerous debt, we will develop an approach that reflects the American values of free market competition and consumer choice. … I will also reverse President Obama’s nationalization of the student loan market and welcome private sector participation in providing information and financing.”

Here’s an idea: Make college free and stop trying to “reduce tuition costs” without providing any plan as to how you’re going to convince colleges to do that. Someone has to pay for it, and if he can convince companies to pay for it, that’s fine, but what will that take? More specifically, will it take tax breaks for these companies that Democrats and independents would probably oppose in the general election? He doesn’t say.

These are the kinds of questions that his plan fails to answer and will mean its eventual and inevitable undoing. As I said, the words he uses are good, but he combines his ideas in ways that make no sense because he offers little to no support for the underlying mechanisms and how they relate to his election to the presidency.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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