Light-Bulb Moment

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

From ancient lore comes the “once in a blue moon” phrase, deployed to describe quite-rare events like the night of 21 Nov 10, when a second round Luna displayed within a calendar month. The next such event will be overhead this coming August. If you just can’t wait, peruse the pages of the current issue of “American Spectator”, in which George Mason University professor T.H. Buckley persuasively describes and explains an aspect of modern K-12 education which no other recognized writer has identified or addressed. On reading it, your Humble Scribe experienced that other graphical phenomenon, the “light-bulb moment” usually deployed in cartoon symbology to illustrate the subject character experiencing a sudden flash of illumination and understanding. “Blue moon” language in English traces back to the 16th century, and newspaper cartoons date from the late 19th, but when was the first artist-insight for using the light-bulb to indicate enlightenment? It isn’t historically recorded. It can’t very well be any older than Thomas Edison’s invention of the device. Buckley’s subject: parental satisfaction with public education. The statistics have long been a subject of official collection, but his analysis tackles a question the Feds haven’t. Other explanations can be found (HS research inadequacy?) nowhere else.

You can peruse the overall parental-satisfaction stats, 1993-2007, on the web page of the National Center for Education Statistics. Sub-divided into four levels, they show that, of parents with children in “assigned schools” about 50% are “Very Satisfied”. Those who exercised school choice, public K-12, were about 60-70% VS. For private schools, sectarian or secular, the VS rate climbs well into the 80% range. For “Somewhat Satisfied”, the rate is about 35% for assigned public schools, about 30 for chosen schools, in the teens for private ones. For “Somewhat Dissatisfied” and “Very Dissatisfied”, the returns are all in single digits, highest for public-assigned, lowest for private-sectarian. What you can’t peruse in the NCES stats is the satisfaction level by parental socio-economic status level. Even a Web search brings up nothing; in Vermont, the closest you can get is through the very occasional (“blue moon”?) surveys in Supervisory Union Annual Reports, with results by Town School District, and then seeing how upper-income towns fare in comparison with lower-income towns within the same SU.

There have been a (very) few such surveys in the last three or four decades; your Humble Scribe recalls news accounts from elementary districts in such upper-income towns as Norwich, Manchester, and Weybridge, and all showed high parental approval percentages, even though, in those same years, a large majority of students wasn’t making Proficient in reading and math on Federal tests and a very large minority wasn’t doing so on the then-in-use State tests. How could education-super-sensitive upper-middle-class parents pretend to think well of schools wherein their own kids don’t do well? Buckley explains: “…they are on top and want things to stay that way for themselves and their children…and would therefore tend to favor policies that tend to destroy public schools…and to oppose…[policies and achievement results]…that would give lower- and middle-class children a leg up.” That appraisal coincides with comments to HS from Vermont friends who proclaim their support for their town schools and explain that they can easily make up at home or with tutoring for whatever minor things their “excellent” schools might not do well—like teaching reading at Proficiency levels, for example.

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The Buckley essay, which run five full pages in American Spectator, is persuasive (HS opinion) not because it’s statistically-based –it isn’t– but because, like any good hypothesis, it offers a possible explanation for an observeable phenomenon; in this case, the professed support, by high-SES families (whose place in society depends critically on superior literacy and/or numeracy, families which, in a recent generation, may have personally used that typically American pathway to upward mobility) for public schools which, as Federal test scores (and even State test scores, which explains the constant search for easier “tests”) have shown for forty years and counting, can’t or won’t, any more, bring all their students to the essential Proficiencies as they once did. He even brings crony capitalism into his explication:

“Burdensome tax and regulatory policies (HS note: typically blue-state and Gentry-Left) will be of relative advantage to the rich and the professionals, who can employ specialists to work through the maze of rules that impose traps for unwary members of the middle class. The more complicated the rules, the easier it is for those who are plugged in, those who know the right people, to game the system.” Like government-sponsored wind and solar, even bio-fuel and local-vore, in Vermont, anyone? “Such policies are defended on grounds of social justice, not aristocracy, of course. The ‘aristocrat’ favors economic regulation, teacher unions…he hates parochial schools, flat taxes, and global-warming ‘deniers’…he allies himself with an underclass which has lost interest in [upward] mobility and against a middle class which seeks it. And now, without shame, he tells us that he does this in the name of mobility. The wealthy Progressives who support the policies I have described as ‘aristocratic’ are not traitors to their class. They know exactly what is good for their class. And members of the middle class who oppose such policies don’t suffer from the false consciousness assigned to them by Progressives…both sides well understand that what divides them is the question of [SES] mobility.” In an earlier quote he explained why the ‘aristocrats’, for reasons different from teacher-union motives, similarly oppose school choice and charters; he might have added a comment on their preferences for the sorts of anti-sprawl, pro-“wilderness” zoning which keeps the hoi polloi suitably distant and enables them to treat nearby government-owned acreage as their own, free-of-taxes, back yard.

As for ideological orientation, “…they tend to hold Progressive views, and this has been thought puzzling. It’s not. If they care about the relative status of their children, one would expect them to support policies that reduce overall societal wealth but serve to preserve their children’s position in society.” And that would include K-12 schools which can’t or won’t bring all students to Proficiency. Reduces potential competition for their own kids, some of whom aren’t exactly motivated, don’cha know. Blue-moon event or light-bulb moment? HS reports, you decide.