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Robert Samuelson's Unpersuasive Fatalism

It's rare to come across an individual whose appearance reflects his personality quite as closely as Robert Samuelson. The Newsweek/Washington Post columnist is a conservative, but his ideology is not so much movement conservative as dour conservative. When he supports Republican initiatives like the Bush tax cuts, as he predictably does, it is less with ideological fervor than a kind of weary resignation. He is able to generate strong emotions only in the cause of fatalism about government, an emotion that animates nearly everything he writes. The Samuelson ideology, in a nutshell, is: people are greedy and lazy. Nothing works. What's the point of it all?

Samuelson's weekend column scoffing at education reform takes this style to almost comic lengths. In Samuelson's telling, the failure of American education to produce better outcomes is a reason not to reform education:

Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" haven't produced meaningful achievement gains. The most reliable tests are given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reading and math tests, graded on a 0-500 scale, measure 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. In 1971, the initial year for the reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306.

This is, of course, ridiculous. For the most part, American education policy has been on auto-pilot. Nothing like the current wave of reform has been tried before. The reasons Samuelson cites as arguments against school reform are, in any sane calculus, reasons to reform education.

Samuelson argues, essentially, that the structure of American schools and teacher compensation is optimized. (Samuelson complains that teacher salaries have risen, though he doesn't acknowledge that the entry of women into the workforce has disippated a massive pool of underpaid talent forced into teaching as one of the few permissable careers.) Why, then, are America students falling further behind on international measures? Because damn lazy kids thse days don't want to work hard:

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.

If you really want to find something that people have been saying forever, it's that. Kids today are a bunch of sullen teenagers corrupted by a youth culture.

How does Samuelson explain the existence of new charter schools that produce dramatically higher results among these lazy, no-good teenagers? He insists, "no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) 'scalable.'" This is utterly false. The most prominent example is the Kipp schools, which have shown revolutionary improvements among poor, inner-city students and have rapidly expanded.

It's true that successful new education models haven't yet taken hold everywhere. Guess what: creating and nurturing those models is the point of education reform. Now, you have good reason to believe this will fail if you think everything government tries must fail. But that's not much of an argument.