Notes on a Speech: The failure of American public schools

This is part two of a series. I’m re-posting this set of articles because four years have passed and I’d argue our side has made little-to-no progress on any of the important items discussed by Newt in this speech. Of course, if Newt had made better campaign decisions he could have carried these issues into the 2012 general election, but he didn’t, so the rest of us have to pick up the slack.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s speech answering Barack Obama is important for several reasons, not least of which is that Gingrich’s comments show the way to truly move beyond race and to real solutions.

This will only be accomplished if more Americans, in the words of Gingrich, examine their values and get angry about the failures of “bad culture and bad government.” In the speech he said that the choice is this:

“…How many eighth graders will take up drugs instead of math and science…How many young African-Americans will be killed or sent to prison? So when we talk about bold ideas, it is in the context of human disasters right here in America reported in your news every day. And the next time you hear these disasters, ask yourself, “To what extent is this the cost of bad culture and bad government?”

Gingrich then turned to the topic of American public education, noting that April 26th will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of “A Nation at Risk.” Newt quoted from the report:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have in effect been committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament.”

Gingrich discussed his work on the bipartisan “Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security for the Twenty-first Century,” which issued its report in March 2001.

“It said the greatest threat to the United States was a weapon of mass destruction going off in an American city, probably from a terrorist. It did not get much attention in March, but by September 2001, people thought we were fairly prescient.

But it said that the second greatest threat to the United States is, quote, ‘inadequacies of our systems of research and education which pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.’

Let me repeat this, because I think to have a national security group come back and tell you that you are in greater danger from the collapse of education than you are from any possible conventional war should have been a very startling thing, and should have led to very fundamental questions about how badly the system is failing and what the replacement has to look like.”

Gingrich challenged anyone to defend the current educational system, saying that it is especially failing the “poorest and weakest of Americans.”

“The tragic truth is that the current system is not working because of two topics we don’t like to talk about: bad culture and bad government.

And bad culture and bad government intersect to reinforce each other, to create human and financial cost beyond anything we could have imagined a quarter century ago.”

Senator Obama asserted:

“Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s white and black students.”

Gingrich answers (emphasis is mine):

I’m going to repeat the closing part of this. “. . . helps explain the pervasive achievement gap. . .” That is simply factually false. The Detroit schools are the third or fourth most expensive schools in America. They’re a disaster. The District of Columbia schools are not bad because of racism. The District of Columbia schools are bad because it has an incompetent bureaucracy, a failed model of education, a unionized tenured system. It is utterly resistant to improvement. That has nothing to do with racism.

And if Senator Obama is serious about helping children in urban America, he will have to question whether or not in fact he’s prepared to automatically reinforce the lockstep power of the National Education Association, which is the largest single provider of delegates to the Democratic National Convention…

The number one problem with expensive large urban schools is they are failed bureaucracies protected by political unions who refuse to change…

The results are even worse. The best estimate of the Gates Foundation was that a freshman entering the Detroit school system had one chance in four of graduating on time. Three out of four children in Detroit are being cheated by one of the most expensive school bureaucracies in America.

But that’s because we measure the wrong metric. The primary metric of the Detroit school bureaucracy has nothing to do with the children. It has to do with whether or not the paychecks are issued every month. And it has been a stunningly effective bureaucracy at issuing paychecks. It just doesn’t do anything for the paychecks. And yet no one wants to talk about this…

And you may think I’m exaggerating. Consider the following. An entrepreneur offered $200 million to develop charter schools in Detroit and was rejected on the grounds that he was obviously a white racist attempting to overturn the black power structure. “I am disappointed and saddened by the anger and hostility that has greeted our proposal,” explained [Bob] Thompson to the Associated Press.

Because of these contentious conditions, we are not going to move forward with our planned charter high schools. Our proposal to build a number of new, very small charter high schools in Detroit was intended to increase options for Detroit parents and children. The proposal was meant to be for kids, and not against anyone in any institution.

Now what does that tell you about pathology, when you can have a system failing, and remember, if you’re an African-American male, and you drop out of high school, you face a 73 percent unemployment rate in your 20s and a 60 percent chance of going to jail.

And you have to ask yourself, by what moral authority did the Detroit school bureaucracy block $200 million from saving young men from going to jail, from giving them an opportunity to go to college, from offering them hope? And why did no one speak out against it?

Later in the speech, Gingrich introduced a bold way to help solve the problem created by the notion of “adolescence,” which he calls a “failed, nineteenth-century idea,” aimed at “keeping middle-class kids out of factories and out of coal mines.”

“It is a disaster for the following reason. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, people were either children, or they were young adults. The average age of going to Princeton in the Revolutionary War was fourteen. Benjamin Franklin left home, in Boston, at thirteen and was an apprentice to his uncle in Philadelphia. And did real work. And you were treated with dignity. You were expected to actually be a young adult. And you were expected to learn from adults.

Now we have invented this middle zone, where kids are bored, trapped in mindless bureaucracies, critiqued routinely, and end up hanging out, watching junk television, doing drugs, and having sex. Now this is not the best years of their lives.”

For more of Gingrich’s comments on that topic, click here to read the speech, or click here to watch it.

Up next: Fixing bad culture and bad government.

Originally posted March 31, 2008.