Monday, August 17, 2009

NUVO Examines Charter Schools; Gordon Gekko Provides A Valuable Lesson About Real Life to a "Teacher of Teachers"

I went to my mailbox this morning to find my Indianapolis Star had shrunk again, this time the city/state section having bitten the dust. Fortunately, I occasionally find other sources of quality local reporting, sometimes in the strangest of places. In the past I have been critical of NUVO for its failure to fill the news void left by the Star. Today, though I must write to commend NUVO and author Josefa Beyer for a well-written and balanced article “IPS vs. Charters” (

Beyer contrasted a charter school, The Project School, with IPS 20, a school that is closing. Surprisingly, NUVO gave a positive impression of the free-market charter and didn’t sugar-coat the flight of students from IPS, as told through the story of School 20.

However, the most interesting part of the article was one of the so-called experts interviewed: Professor Robert J. Helfenbein, Jr., a “teacher of teachers” at Indiana University. Set aside for a moment that the standard model of training teachers is wisely under attack by Indiana Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Bennett who seeks to get people who actually know their content into classrooms and limit the number of classes designed to teach a teacher to teach. Helfenbein’s comments demonstrate an ignorance of the high school civics' terms “democracy” and “free market,” somehow juxtaposing the former term for a political system and the latter economic term as somehow being antonyms. Helfenbein also demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the real world, where performance, competition, and improvement count. NUVO reports on Helfenbein’s comments regarding charter schools:

As a teacher of teachers at the Indiana University School of Education, professor Robert J. Helfenbein Jr. watches the district charter debate with growing concern . . . Helfenbein doesn’t think the market method can replace the democratic method.

“’If we’ve been following the economy the last six months, it’s crazy,’ says Helfenbein, referring to the economic meltdown that has gripped the country and even globe. ‘Do you want to trust your children to these forces?’”

So charters are the market method? OK, I'll bite on that. But traditional public schools are the "democratic method.” Huh?

Traditional public schools are the opposite of democratic. They are government schools. Government tells parents which school their children must attend, regardless of how bad the school may be. If the parents wish to take their children out of the public school system, they have to pay tuition at a private school, assuming, of course, the private school will allow the student to enroll and the parent can afford it. Other options include applying for a limited spot in a magnet school, which can deny enrollment for any reason, or enroll in a public (yes, they are public) charter school.

Of all these, only public charter schools are tuition-free and require open admission to any student. What can be more democratic than charters? Parents of any means can make the free choice to enroll or leave a charter school. They can enroll at will and “vote with their feet” by leaving if they don’t like the school for whatever reason. District schools, on the other hand, are more reminiscent of the Soviet Block days of mandating where a student went to school and what he studied. What, exactly, is the difference between the Communist system and a district such as IPS? Oh, yeah, the Soviets actually educated their children.

Helfenbein continues:

“Any business model has an acceptable loss, but what’s an acceptable loss to a fifth-grader?” What? An acceptable loss to a fifth-grader? Recess, if he loses his homework? Lunch money to a bully?
Giving the teacher of teachers the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume he is trying to paint charters as business-oriented and implying that any business will have losses. However, if the stakes are the education of a child, I continue to assume, the potential loss is too high to risk an education on a charter school. Does every student in a charter school “win?” (whatever that means). No. But Helfenbein’s implication is that the safer bet for the fifth grader is to stay in a district school where, I can only assume, Helfenbein believes all students win.

Helfenbein concludes with this observation: “It comes down to a democratic society. There is a limit to self-interest.”

I contend there is no limit to self-interest if the education of your child is at stake. The only thing most sane parents will not sacrifice for the collective is the future of their own children.

Contrast the looniness of Helfenbein, with the timeless words of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko: “. . . greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Moral views on "greed" aside, Gekko made a profound point – men and women, for centuries, have been driven by the desire to improve, to do better for their children, and to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve in life. When one is motivated to achieve, whether to get rich or just put food on the table for their kids, people work harder, get smarter, and look for any way to improve as a necessary step on the path to meeting this goal. It is that basic notion that advocates of charter schools understand and academics like Mr. Helfenbein, who are isolated from real life experiences, do not.


Unigov said...

A large percent of professors of education are Marxists.

A Marxist outcome requires two things:

1) Control of young minds, thru indoctrination in government schools

2) Control of the education market - no charters, no private schools

Anything that threatens this two-pronged attack is counter-revolutionary.

Communists used to want to control the means of production directly. They don't have to, if they can control the schools.

Hoosier in the Heartland said...

Once upon a time I asked the dean of the school of education at IUPUI why so many obviously unqualified teachers not only got their BS degrees, but went on to achieve their master's.

He said that the facts of life were these: His school's budget was based on the number of students. Therefore, nobody flunked a class. Ever.

And that confirmed for me what the state thought about teacher certification: it was a gravy train of student tuition.

(Nothing Marxist about it, Unigov: it's pure capitalism at work.)