Broader, Bolder Book: Arguments from an Attorney

By 11/29/2010

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If one wants to read a fleshed-out version of the broader, bolder case for reforming our urban schools without doing anything about their internal operations, there is no better place to go than to David Kirp’s forthcoming book, Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives.

According to Kirp, the best way to improve America’s urban schools is to ignore them. Instead, attention should be focused on parents, pre-schooling, reshaping neighborhoods, finding mentors for the kids, and giving kids money to go to college.  In other words, do everything except fix the disastrous state of the big city school system, shaped by court decisions, federal regulations, professional bureaucrats, collective bargaining agreements, and a progressive philosophy that expects little in instruction from teachers.

I listened to David Kirp make his broader and bolder case to a group at Boston College two weeks ago.  His presentation was that of a lawyer, citing every study that fits his case, then finding a methodological fault with every piece of research that adds weight to an opposing argument.  Kirp is, indeed, an attorney, though he fled the court room for the quiet halls of the Berkeley school of public policy.

Much of the broader, bolder case for kids can hardly be faulted.  Certainly, kids are better off if they have better parents—no one is as important to the life of a child as his or her mother.  Even Dad is pretty darn important (and I like to think grandparents count too).  Since those are insights that undergird the compassionate conservative agenda to save the integrity of the American family, it is nice to see someone like Kirp admitting their truth, even though he puts his chips on professionals telling mothers what to do rather than suggesting ways to keep parents married and families intact.

And, like Kirp, we all would like to have good learning experiences for children in early childhood, have mentors for them later on, and find ways to encourage them to save for college.

But Kirp’s ideas of putting the education of “Kids First” is to fix everything but the schools—the very institutions assigned to do the job.  When I suggested at the Boston College seminar that fixing schools should be our first priority, citing KIPP success at educating even severely disadvantaged students, Kirp pointed to a study that said charter schools weren’t any good, said he “knew where I was coming from,” and, with that snub, marched on his merry way, as any good lawyer certainly can do.

-Paul E. Peterson

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