Putting our children’s futures first
Many may know that Thomas Sowell is a highly respected American economist and social theorist who is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
He has just turned 90 and has written books and essays on the topics of education, economics, markets and minorities over the past 60 years. His latest book, Charter Schools and their Enemies, describes how extensive research has shown the real success of some US charter schools in educating poor minorities versus their traditional public-school counterparts.
US charter schools are classified as “public” schools in that they are funded with taxpayer money, don't charge tuition and are required to take any student who wants to enrol. But while a traditional neighbourhood public school is governed by a school district and its school board, charter schools are operated by independent groups, which can be either non-profit or for-profit.
They operate independently of the established state-school system in which they are located and are “independent” in the sense that they function according to the basic principle of autonomy for accountability; ie, they are freed from the rules but accountable for their results.
According to Dr Sowell, the educational successes of charter schools clearly undermines often-used theories such as:
• Being a product of one's environment
• Claims of cultural bias in the testing methods
• Presumptions that income differences are among the root causes of educational outcomes
Dr Sowell writes. “This last claim has been used for decades to absolve traditional public schools of any responsibility for educational failures in low-income minority communities.”
To compare “apples” to “apples”, Dr Sowell was careful to conduct his extensive research on charter schools that are located in the same building with a traditional public school, serving the same community. What he found was that it was clear that these schools are not simply doing a better job than their traditional counterparts with the same demographic groups, but in many cases, inner-city charter-school students are outperforming their peers in the wealthiest and whitest suburban school districts in the country.
In New York City, for example, the Success Academy charter schools have effectively closed the academic achievement gap between black and white students. While he agreed that subpar charter schools do exist and results vary from state to state, it was clear to him that any honest assessment of the research data shows that school choice is a huge benefit for student groups that have been long poorly served by the traditional public-education system.
It is interesting to note that in recent years, US charter-school “sceptics” have made some progress in blocking charter schools and now limits have been placed on how many can open and where they can be located.
If we look at the New York Success Academy charter schools, we see that they require significant parent commitment and they hire only non-union teachers, who are paid well but can be fired for non-performance.
The latter certainly has made them unpopular with the teachers' unions, but in a saner and more sensible world where students and learning are really the No 1 priority, you would think that the educational establishment in general, including teachers' unions, would be eager to copy the proven educational success of charter schools such as Success Academy.
Dr Sowell reminds us that: “Schools exist for the education of children. Schools do not exist to provide ironclad jobs for teachers, billions of dollars in union dues for teachers' unions, monopolies for educational bureaucracies, a guaranteed market for teachers' college degrees or a captive audience for indoctrinators.”
This is not to suggest that the blame lies with everyone working in our public schools. We have many great teachers and educators who are dedicated to their mission, but I have also heard their damning claims regarding the flawed “system” they are required to work within, and I have written about this previously. Parental involvement — or lack thereof — is also a known problem and has its own ramifications.
Our Minister of Education, Diallo Rabain, recently updated us on his ministry's 2022 education plan for phasing out all middle schools and he outlined “sweeping positive changes” for a two-tier education system, along with the introduction of signature schools.
Plan 2022 includes this mandate: “Develop a governance structure that both holds the Department of Education directly accountable to citizens through a Board of Education and that provides the department greater autonomy for fiscal, human, and operational decisions …”
Over the past two years, a prototype for this plan has been developed and now the Government is in the collaborative stages of gathering public feedback. The minister added that the idea of an Education Authority “is still very much being considered” and discussions with the advisory group Bermuda First, which recommended the move, are continuing.
If the formation of an independent Education Authority — or similar oversight body — materialises, with a results and performance-driven mandate, we will have finally reached the elusive goal of accountability in public education.
If we truly strive for educational excellence for our children, we should be agnostic as to what sorts of institutions can best deliver it and make accountability for results the main priority. It is time that we put the children and their futures first.