Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ben Carson Is a Dope

So now, as political reality itself circles a reason-eating soul-sucking black hole of doom, we are forced to contemplate the idea of Dr. Ben Carson as the nation's official Leader of Education, because when Donald Trump is Supreme Leader, he has promised to Make It So.

It is on days like this that I'm glad to be a mere blogger. As a legitimate journalist, I would be obliged to consider this development with thoughtful, reasoned tones, but in our current political cycle, that makes as much sense as sending an ivy league philosophy professor to cover a death match cock fight. No polite and thoughtful considerations in even-tempered tones are enough when what is really called for is a loud, incredulous, "Holy mother of God-- did you see him take a bite out of that wing!? And look at all the damn blood!"

Valerie Strauss has written professional, responsible, and relatively restrained consideration of Ben Carson as High Tsar of Education, and I recommend you read it. But I'm going to be more direct, because when it comes to education, one thing is clear.

Ben Carson is a dope.

When it comes to building American STEM education, Ben Carson is right there, arguing that we need to push math and science, particularly by use of virtual reality classrooms:

"They’re running around the Egyptian pyramids through the virtual reality classroom,”  Carson said. “They could actually go to the Egyptian pyramids and explore the chambers."

Of course, pushing science will be a singular challenge for a guy who utterly rejects evolution.

Candidate Carson addressed education in his materials. You can look at the quick website material about his position, check out the summary version (which is the website version in a nicer font) or the full version (which is the summary version plus some nice graphics and full-page pictures of Carson). They all boil down to the same five-point sort-of-a-plan. And because Carson is, you know, a surgeon, the plan is laid out with some medical terminology. Because fixing schools is just like brain surgery.

His diagnosis is that A) we have low scores on the PISA and the B) even after Common Core, we have an achievement gap. But we have had low scores on the PISA score as long as there have been PISA scores, including the Grand Old Days that Carson wants to return to. Tell me Dr. Carson-- if a monitor in your OR says that the patient is dead, but the patient is having a spirited, alert conversation with you, do you bury the patient, or scrap the monitor equipment? And since "achievement gap" is a fancy-ish name for "test score gaps," of course the Common Core wasn't going to fix it.

His five solutions? Here we go.

1) School choice, and lots of it. Although I'm literally uncertain that Carson knows what he's advocating.

It is our moral imperative as Americans to lay the foundation for a world-class education for every student not simply to those in the best neighborhoods or with the money to buy the educational support they need. 

That's a powerful and eloquent argument-- for fully funding our public school system. It has absolutely nothing to do with supporting school choice, which as currently practiced does not even attempt to serve every student, but "rescues" a handful at the cost of making things worse for the rest.

But Carson imagines that choice is magical. "When choice exists, the best schools will thrive and attract students from all locations, while failing schools and “dropout factories” will be incentivized to institute real, effective changes to compete." We've had charter choice systems for a while now-- the process that Carson has described has happened exactly nowhere. And even if something like that did happen, Carson has betrayed his own vision, because he's describing system that works fine from POV of the free market winners concerned-- but it ignores the question of how such a system will serve ALL students (spoiler alert-- it won't. it will serve only the "desirable" customers).

And remember-- one of the two problems we're trying to solve is the "achievement gap," and after years of charter-choice, such systems have closed the achievement gap nowhere (pro tip-- collecting a bunch of students at the top of the gap in one charter and leaving all those at the bottom is NOT "closing the gap")

2) Empower parents, teachers, local school districts, states-- anybody except the federal government.

But not teachers unions. Teachers unions are evil obstacles to progress.

Carson is particularly bothered by all the money the feds have "thrown at" education over the years (his time frame is hard to pin down-- he talks a lot about the"past seven years" but rails against NCLB and occasionally invokes "for generations" as a descriptor of bad policies.) So maybe he's advocating for local control, or maybe he's advocating for local financing, as in, local districts should be freed of all that federal support and allowed to pursue excellence with all the financial support that a poverty-stricken community can muster. Yay, freedom!

Local authorities should decide what to do with Common Core. States should make sure communities get the funds they need (though remember, that shouldn't be much because money is unimportant and I wonder how often Dr. Carson told a hospital to slash the OR budget in half because throwing money at the problem is pointless).

Do I have to point out the bizarre irony of a black American arguing for states rights? Carson is not a young man; does he really not remember how things play out when certain states are given free rein to decide how to regulate their own educational system? I am a huge advocate for community schools and local control, but even I get that history suggests that local control can be used to crush certain ethnic and racial groups.

3) Encourage innovation.

He has no idea what he's talking about, and so he says nothing. Technological advances. New stuff, of some sort. Because that would be great. "Educators, scientists and web designers" should be free to innovate. Damn, that would have been a great Ben Carson poster-- "Free the Web Designers, and Free the Future of Education"

4) Reward good teachers.

The man cannot make up his mind. A few policy points ago, he was solidly in the "no new money should be thrown at education" camp, but here he is saying teachers are too often required to accomplish Great Things with "inadequate resources and little pay." He wants to free up block grant money for teacher bonuses based on evaluation systems from somewhere. Also, recruit teachers when they're in high school and give them mentors. Really cutting edge stuff here.

5) A better student loan process. Which seems swell but-- wait a minute? How is this related to the achievement gap? Or fixing PISA scores?

Napping through History

As several commentators have noted, one other striking feature of Carson's "plan," released in January, is that Carson seems to have napped through the discussion and passage of ESSA-- the new education law that actually does some of the Get The Feds Outta Here things that he called for. Who knows. If Carson had stayed in the race, he would have come out in favor of giving women the vote and repealing Prohibition.

In fact, Carson's policy brief appears to be a huge cut-and-paste job, void of anything new or interesting and lacking even basic internal consistency. It's the work of a seventh-grader who was kind of half-listening at the dinner table when his parents were talking about what they'd heard that someone had read about education policy.

Other choice quotes

Strauss noted this choice nugget from the Carson library:

He wrote in his book “America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great” that Americans were better educated in the 1830s than they are now.  He wrote about “an example of questions in a sixth grade exit exam from the 1830s. I doubt most college graduates could even come close to passing it today.” The questions he uses aren’t actually from an 1830s test but from an 1895 test, which most students who took it flunked. (You can see more on this, plus the actual questions, here.)

Pick the 1830s or the 1890s-- in both cases, US education was reserved for only a select few. The mission-- particularly in the 1830s-- was pretty much the opposite of the one Carson was touting in his plan.

But Carson loves the golden past. Here he is in April of 2013:

Our public schools used to be the envy of the world in the pre-1930s time. But remember in those times we spent a lot of emphasis on very basic education and we also taught values in our school system.

Yes, indeedy. Values like "People who are non-white or non-wealthy don't deserve an education. And if they don't have a penis, they probably don't need an education either." What the hell alternative timeline does Carson come from. No wonder he always seems so tired-- the sheer effort of holding cognitive dissonance at bay while staying anchored in this time line must be exhausting.

And then there's this from November of 2015:

We know that the best education is homeschool, the next is private schools, the next is charter schools, the next is public schools. 

So even though the generation of parents mostly got their education from the vastly inferior public schools, those parents are the best qualified to educate their own children? How does that happen? How do people go from being the product of vastly inferior educators to becoming the people most qualified to educate the next generation? Because that's impressive, and whatever happened to those folks-- we should be trying to get that to happen to everybody.

Did you need one more reason not to vote for Trump?

Well, this would count. Anybody who thinks that Ben Carson is a good choice to be Grand Poohbah or whatever else we'll call government officials under a Trump emperorship is Very Confused. I suspect that Carson is a nice man who will continue to enjoy a career as something, but he has no more business playing at education policy than I do performing brain surgery.


  1. Is there any hope that Hillary or Bernie will choose a worthy Secretary of Education? The expert Obama brought in from the CPS didn't do us any favors. I don't hear any of them talking in a way that reflects a deep understanding of the realities and needs of public education. Sigh.

  2. Could they use virtual reality to explore the Egyptian pyramids and see where all the grain was stored? (Dr. Carson believes that the pyramids were giant grain silos.)

  3. "What the hell alternative timeline does Carson come from. No wonder he always seems so tired-- the sheer effort of holding cognitive dissonance at bay while staying anchored in this time line must be exhausting."

    Ok - morning coffee out my nose!

    Excellent commentary on the political fluffernuttery as always, Mr. Greene.