A few years ago back in peacetime — yes, way back then — I jokingly wrote that we needed a war to distract policy makers from their chronic top-down meddling in public schools.
George W. Bush had just ascended to the presidency. His flight-deck mission then: to become the nation's school superintendent. After all, he'd "done" education in Texas.
Congress took the bait, as had state legislatures. To hear the rhetoric, collectively we had assigned school reform the moral equivalence of war. Egad.
I was wrong to think a real war would be the stick of chewing gum that would take reformers' salivary attention off of schools, with the overkill and misery they engineered.
I'd seen how flavor-of-the-week changes bombarding my sons' Texas schools did nothing for them. Indeed, test-heavy "accountability" was the worst thing ever to happen to their educations.
War "over there"? No matter. The school reformers kept firing their carbines, each time advertising a new magic bullet. Meanwhile, teachers had to duck, cover, and hand out worksheets to comport with each new military-style edict.
Magic bullet: merit pay. Raise test scores, make more money. School districts that tried it have found it barely nudged the needle. Then they yanked any incentive when times got tight.
Magic bullet: combat pay, or the equivalent of it. Send teachers into the "worst" schools for more wad. But, then, teachers value job stability over lucre, especially lucrative offers that collapse when a school doesn't produce the numbers desired.
Magic bullet: "new management." This has proven especially specious when handing schools over to private firms that showed up with whole ammo belts of magic bullets. But many reformers had pressed on with the notion of blowing up the system in favor of suspect charter schools and for-profit contractors.
Magic bullet: increasingly strict dress codes. They're advertised for their stain-fighting power in school discipline. We are to believe lack of discipline to be the root of all scholastic ills. However, when educators point out that the best way to manage a class is to have a manageable number of students per class, the reformers change the subject.
Just the other day another magic bullet was found to be of the dummy variety. A study published in the journal Science asserted that the push for single-sex classrooms and campuses, promoted by No Child Left Behind, offers little educational benefit, and may do more harm than good.
The bottom line, according to the study: Though schools and teachers may vary in quality and approach, segregating students by sex is no game-changer. What matters? Highly involved parents who supply really good students, of course.
This brings up the most ballyhooed of all school reform magic bullets: "choice," code for school vouchers.
If truly authoritative evidence supported the scholastic efficacy of vouchers, we'd hear about it every day from school reform warriors.
That evidence doesn't exist, for the simple reason that wherever a student goes (or wherever the student stays in the "failing" public school), his or her parents come along. That variable doesn't vary.
Private schools are better schools? No evidence supports it, certainly not when factoring in the family units with which exclusive schools get to work. Believe what you wish. Nothing supports voucher "magic."
I'll tell you about magic. It came in the petite form of a third-grade teacher who taught both my sons, Mrs. Evans. She loved to thrill her students about science — until told that she needed to devote science time to math time, as state test scores dictated it. She's out of the profession.
Along with the generally amazing raw material presented to schools on Day 1 in the form of generally smiling, enthusiastic children, the only magic that can change lives inside the doors is that supplied by teachers. What has more than a decade of peacetime/ wartime school reforms done to help generate that magic? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: email@example.com.