Ideology Overwhelming Education


Recently, on a closed local Facebook group, a resident of a Rhode Island town (not me) told an anecdote from when his children were school aged.  Because the group is closed, I won’t give names or details, but the upshot of the story was that many parents of children in a particular early-childhood class were having issues with the teacher.  The resident offered to take the lead in submitting a letter to the administration, but when it came time for everybody to sign, the rest all got cold feet.  The teacher’s behavior continued, and the resident’s family became private school customers thenceforth.

The moral of the story turned out to be that the education system should provide for some level of choice in order to empower families that may currently feel trapped.  The writer laid out some very rough per-pupil costs, but only as illustration of how a smart system could be win-win.

This can be a charged topic, but the very first response made a point worth ruminating on.  The commenter (a partisan of the pro-government side) dismissed the resident’s numbers as “fuzzy math,” insisting that public schools have different obligations than private schools.  This assertion justified the commenter in saying that he “won’t even bother to delve into” the resident’s ideas.  “Others,” readers are told, have done such delving before in the face of similar “fuzzy math.”

This “fuzzy math” phrase is what catches my eye.  It’s much easier simply to label an idea, declare that somebody, somewhere, has already addressed it, and move on.

A few years back, working with a local economics professor, I developed a dynamic tool to estimate the fiscal and enrollment effects of various school choice policies.  That tool provided multiple ways of dividing up a school district’s costs in order to estimate what were truly fixed and variable expenses.  The tool also allowed one to adjust the thresholds at which, for example, one fewer teacher would be needed.  The user could change other variables, as well.  Ultimately, the outputs allowed for ranges of estimates.

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An unstated idea was that public debate could settle on some comfortable assumptions, and then a pilot program could test the model’s projections before larger-scale commitments were made.  Unsurprisingly, no school choice skeptics ever engaged in the debate long enough to start playing with the assumptions.  Instead, one heard the blanket assertions that government-run schools are just different and that saying otherwise is “fuzzy math.”

Of course, that’s just the nature of public debate one finds with any issue.  What makes it of more concern on this subject is the sense that this sort of thinking may infect the curriculum, too.  Significantly, the commenter dismissing “fuzzy math” was once on a local school committee.  With Common Core, the clear ideological bent of teachers unions, the bias of textbooks (as flared up recently as an issue with AP history), and the academic rewrites of tried and true methods for teaching subjects like math, the public has reason to worry that the alchemy of rhetoric is changing the way students are taught.

In other words, if a phrase like “fuzzy math” can brush away inconvenient concepts, it’s reasonable to worry that those charged with teaching the math and concepts that could prove the phrase specious might find other topics more worthy of delving into instead.