What Else are They Wrong About?
October 30, 2022

Patrick McIlheran

Director of Policy, Badger Institute

If educrats don’t have the one right answer for teaching math or reading, why trust them with monopoly power over children?

Results for the latest “nation’s report card” tests were disastrous, with 4th– and 8th-graders’ performance in reading and math falling sharply since 2019 in every state, Wisconsin included. Our state’s 8th graders in 2022, for instance, are most of a year behind in math compared to 8th graders in 2019.

But nothing fell so far as the moral claim to power that the public-education technocracy wields over parents and teachers: “Trust us. We know the one right way that things should be done.”

Clearly, no.

Do they — the state education bureaucrats, the schools of education, the consultants, the unions, the central offices — know the one right way to teach math?

That big test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, found that not once in the past two decades have Wisconsin’s public schools managed to make more than 41% of 8th-graders proficient in math.

Proficiency means, for instance, being able to use ratios to solve problems or understanding the concepts of “parallel” and “perpendicular.” Not once in two decades have fewer than 59% of Wisconsin 8th-graders been unable to do those things proficiently. This year, 67% couldn’t.

Worse, in every round of the NAEP for the past two decades, at least 21% of Wisconsin 8th-graders have been below “basic” in math. That means at least one-fifth of children on the cusp of high school don’t have even partial mastery of basic concepts. They’re unable to solve word problems involving integers or fractions or to “determine measurements, including length, area, and volume.” This year, 30% of 8th-graders in Wisconsin couldn’t do that. In Milwaukee Public Schools, 68% couldn’t.

If the technocrats in the Department of Public Instruction headquarters, in its dozen field offices around Wisconsin, in all the central offices of all the school districts, and in all the state’s schools of education knew for certain the one right way to teach math, that level of failure would not persist.

How about reading? Humans have been reading for thousands of years. Surely we know how to teach that?

Yes, sort of. In the decades-long fight between traditional sound-it-out phonics and the fashionably progressive “whole-language” approach, research seems to have vindicated the former while the latter seems in retreat. But the wearily unending “reading wars” are not over, suggesting that even if the technocracy thinks at last, it has the one right method, it doesn’t have a grasp on how to get it used in classrooms.

Thus, 28% of Wisconsin 8th-graders had a below-basic ability to read. That number’s been at least 21% since 2003. That means at least a fifth of 8th-graders are unable to decode words or understand their meaning.

A mother is entirely justified in thinking that while maybe whatever the local district school is doing might work for some kids, her child may need something different. She is entirely justified in insisting that she be free to try something else for her child’s one shot at life.

Why believe this education technocracy, then, in all its other trust-us moments? Expertise is the moral foundation of this establishment’s attack on Wisconsin’s practice of letting parents choose the schools they think best and to direct the state’s aid for their children. The technocracy scorns putting such power in the hands of mere parents.

But why should parents defer to the judgment of a system that leaves 28% of 8th-graders functionally illiterate?

This doesn’t even reach the less settled subjects. Besides the reading and math that they’re not doing especially well at, the technocracy is promulgating lessons on human sexuality. Wauwatosa’s parents were alarmed this fall to learn that the local district would be teaching elementary schoolers the notion that whether they are a girl or a boy is not particularly related to their inborn biology. It’s an alarm that’s struck parents in communities around the country as the technocratic class has become keen to raze yet one more set of traditional mores.

Yet, as the Pew Research Center reported this week, only about 31% of parents think schools should teach children the quasi-mystical belief that sex is “assigned at birth.” The other two-thirds think schools should stick to biological reality — or just leave the matter alone and try harder at teaching math.

You hear a hint of a real motive when that technocracy decries school choice on the grounds that we’d be “funding parallel systems of education,” that giving parents options outside of the bureaucrats’ control would somehow hurt democracy or harm “our school system.” These are the claims of people who not only believe they have the one right answer to both math and sexual mores but the right to impose it, even on unwilling families.

Such claims may have played better back when anyone believed that experts did have a monopoly on answers. No more.

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.