Education, like politics, is local. You want it close to home, the better to monitor it. That's how it should be.
What and how to teach the kids, like politics, is subject to the changes of clout, even when it hurts the kids. That's not how it should be, but that's how it was in Washington, where a mayor stood behind an innovative leader in education who took on the powerful teachers unions, daring to fire poor teachers, to ignore tenure when teachers underperformed and to dismiss principals of chronically underperforming schools. Student test scores improved, but when the mayor lost an election, the innovative leader was out, too.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's story is told, without its recent ending, in a new documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.'" She resigned this week. Now we're waiting for Clark Kent.
Washington has one of the most expensive public school systems in the United States, spending more per pupil than any other system. But the schools are, in a word, lousy. The president of the United States wouldn't dream of sending his daughters to Washington public schools. (Jimmy Carter as president tried that as an expression of good faith, and eventually withdrew his daughter for a private school.)
In most years, not a single congressman enrolls his children in Washington's public schools, electing instead to send them to expensive private schools.
The local teachers union lost its battle against merit pay, based on student performance, but won the war by defeating the mayor who tried to change things. Lousy teachers are protected to continue the lousy schools.
The debate over education remains mired in arguments over how best to measure performance, and how to create charter schools and implement school choice. Almost no one disputes the importance of making academic standards more competitive, measured against standards prevailing in other countries. But almost nobody wants to talk -- in public -- about what our kids should be studying.
Teaching methods as well as subject matter always suffer from the pursuit of trends, and the trends today are particularly deleterious. In many schools in the lower grades, for example, a popular "technique" to get children to read is to let them choose whatever book they want, rather than assigning the books that every American child ought to know. Instead of "smarting up," this dumbing-down fosters an attitude children will keep as they grow older.