The data the Times adduces is, as are many developments in public education, richly amusing. The Arizona Board of Education, for example, recently eliminated a state math test after 89 percent of the high school sophomores who sat for it failed. In Virginia only 7 percent of students are meeting certain state standards. Los Angeles educators claim now that they'd have to hold back almost 50 percent of their students if they eliminated social promotion. In San Diego this year, half of the eighth-graders still burdened with a failing grade even at the end of the summer school courses were promoted to the next grade.
It's possible, however, to be a bit optimistic in the midst of this carnival of failure. First, it's amazing that "standards" are being discussed with such little controversy in the first place. We recall an era in which the invocation of "standards" would have elicited snufflings from professional educators prepared to decry them as elitist, reactionary, racist, counterrevolutionary, right-deviationist, exclusionary, etc. One hears such cant in the current debate over CUNY. Here, though, such experts are either keeping their mouths shut or else the Times, of all publications, is ignoring them.
Second, there was a heartening article in a recent Harper's by Francine Prose, arguing that American high school literary education is precisely calibrated to create obedient, politically correct consumers, the contemporary equivalent of cannon fodder (cf. our favorite book on this topic, Dumbing Us Down, by former New York Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto). It's not a revolutionary thesis?intelligent kids force-fed Maya Angelou already know that?but it's nice to hear it anyway. We're not holding our breaths for a radical improvement in American public education. But neither did we suspect that educational standards could be discussed in the Times without snuffling, or that the time would soon come when an article like Prose's would seem not incendiary, but like simple good sense.
Shelter Island Watching the Coalition for the Homeless rally in Union Square this Sunday, we were reminded of the book Tyranny of Kindness (1993), by Theresa Funiciello. Ms. Funiciello had been through New York's welfare and shelter system, and argued that the relevant bureaucracies and charities had everything to do with building their budgets and facilities, very little to do with actually ending poverty or homelessness?which indeed would end their reason for being. What she depicted was a "coalition for homelessness," in effect.
One critical chapter was titled "The Creation and Marketing of Homeless People." In the current debate, little seems to have changed since 1993. "Homeless People" remains a handy marketing tool for demagogues on both sides: the ruthless Giuliani and the opportunist Sharpton, one who'd sweep the streets clean, one who'd stuff the shelters full. But "Homeless People" are a diverse population, currently or chronically unable to shelter themselves for a variety of reasons. (And yes, some, whom we used to call "bums" or "hoboes," are simply unwilling to.) As long as there are forces on both sides of the issue willing to exploit the existence of "Homeless People" for political and private gain, the problems these people face will not?cannot?be addressed, and you can spare us the expressions of moral outrage as well as the pretense of compassion.