The Birmingham News, my local fishwrap, is desperate to find a way to stay relevant.  By the time the housing implosion and recession hit, the internet was already working its magic to wretch away the weak monopoly on information flow the newspaper had once enjoyed.  Having discovered that monopolizing print news is not so great if the portal is now superfluous, the newspaper is scrambling to find a way to maintain some semblance of relevance.  What good is having a monopoly in something that no one seems interested in buying?

From the look of things, it appears to be pursuing two disparate strategies in its attempts to forestall the inevitable.  First, it appeals to the baser instincts of its readership, for example, by providing “news” coverage of what happened on popular television shows, particularly those reality shows where one of the participants happen to have a local connection.  It is the least common denominator strategy to which all mass market publications must ultimately stoop if they are to retain their mass market appeal.  The newspaper has always done this sort of thing, only now it concentrates its efforts more pointedly to appeal to the gossipy and prurient elements of its readership. 

Its second strategy contradicts the first.  Appealing to the few of its readers with an intellectual bent (as if those few turned to the paper for their intellectual insights), it now offers an endless stream of in-depth, supposedly-thoughtful articles covering issues that are contrived to concern the whole community.   Along this line, it has lately been running a series of articles bemoaningly, yet progressively, titled Reinventing our Community

So it was that yesterday’s (Sept 18, 2011) Sunday paper depicted a rotten apple, the graphic and its text taking over 2/3rds of the front page, with the headline, “Disparity in our Schools”.   It didn’t take much to figure where this was going; the headline’s subtext cleared up any doubt:

The uneven quality of our schools is a key challenge standing between metro Birmingham and a brighter future.  The 21 school districts across our region range from struggling to exceptional, meaning a child’s chance of success depends as much on where that child lives as on his or her abilities.  There are hopeful signs–instances where strong leadership or different approaches are showing success under tough circumstances.  For leaders in metro Birmingham, finding ways to address the disparity in our schools must be at the very core of any effort to reinvent our community. 

Where to begin?  There are so many invalid premises revealed just in the headline and its subtext, how could the article possibly present any insights to problems with the education of children in metro Birmingham?

“Disparity in our Schools” starts everything out with an ominous feel.  It seems to sound simultaneously bad and mysterious, like a chest X-ray that has revealed an unknown solid  mass.  

But is disparity in schools a bad thing?  Disparity simply means being unequal.  How would equality in schools be achieved?  By making all schools average?  This is presumably yet another stab at the perceived inequities of school funding, but really, the only way to truly achieve equity is to make every school as bad as the worst.   As I told my daughter one evening at dinner when she complained life wasn’t fair, “Indeed it isn’t.  Were life fair, every kid would have had two bone marrow transplants by the time they turned sixteen, as has your brother.” 

Of course, “disparity” is code in Birmingham for racially-distinct outcomes.  Black kids, on average, do not perform as well on standardized tests of academic achievement as do their white counterparts.  Hispanics do a little better than blacks, and Asians do the best of all, including whites (excepting perhaps Jews).   Time and again these disparate results obtain, no matter how equalized is the school funding.  But averages are not individuals.  There are smart black kids just like there are dumb white, and even Asian, kids.  Averages are just averages.  While the IQ of a child, just like the speed with which he can run a forty yard dash, can be readily predicted within a couple of standard deviations by adding the IQ of the parents and dividing by two, there is no way to predict whether this or that particular child will be a genius or an idiot.  Disparity in genetic outcomes is a robust feature of sexual reproduction. 

But is the point of an education system to achieve higher average scores across populations, or is it to have individual students achieve to the limits of their abilities?   While every parent–the constituency purportedly served by the system of public education–would, or should, proclaim the latter, no extra money accrues to a school system whose students achieve to the limits of their abilities.  Testing such a thing seems too difficult, so it is always averages that are used to determine funding.

“Disparity” in the context of the article specifically means the academic fortunes of Birmingham and Bessemer’s (a small city southwest of Birmingham) almost wholly-black school districts relative to the surrounding communities, all of which are about thirty percent or less black.   Both of these inner-city school districts could only be charitably described as miserable failures, losing hundreds of students each year in a steady stream to the suburbs and surrounding communities.  They are each heavily bureaucratic, operating more as neighborhood jobs program for adults than as institutions focused on student achievement.  That they also happen to be black is irrelevant. 

The inner-city schools are in a downward spiral.  The good students, with supportive and relatively well-off parents that care that their children get a decent education, are abandoning the systems in droves.  The school systems are stuck with the unfortunate kids from families that can’t make the dash to better neighborhoods, or whose parents can’t afford the many private school alternatives that have arisen as a result of the public system’s ineptitude.  Going to school in the Birmingham and Bessemer school systems doesn’t condemn a kid to a life of poverty–there is nothing more valuable on a college application in America today than being an inner-city black child with brains and determination enough to overcome the challenges posed by the environment–but may be indicative of the type of family and background that yields grinding intergenerational poverty.  The poor, as Jesus said, will always be with us.    What he didn’t also say, but should have, is that poverty seems to begat poverty; no matter how much effort and treasure is expended to give them a hand up, it seems that some people rather prefer to be poor.

But the real problem with the article, and in the attitude of the local leaders it represents, is the idea that some select oligarchy of leaders in the local area should be reinventing the community.  Birmingham arose from little more than a post-Civil War railroad-crossing town to an industrial giant of the South by beginning of the twentieth century, all without anyone deliberately inventing a thing.  It grew because iron ore was discovered to be buried in copious amounts underneath nearby Red Mountain (hence the mountain’s name), along with the coal and limestone needed for smelting the ore.   No one invented Birmingham; as happened in the settlement of most of the rest of the country, people came to Birmingham seeking their fortunes.  No one now needs to reinvent it.

Birmingham’s industrial base withered in the seventies along with the rest of the American industrial economy, mainly due to foreign competition from economic systems finally springing back to life after the war.  But it was already fast on its way by then to becoming a leading center of health care and research.  It also developed into a regional law and banking center, boasting three or four of the nation’s top banks by the end of the millennium.  It became the economic center of Alabama.   Presumably, through all of this, it managed to educate its citizens well enough that they could meaningfully contribute to the flourishing industries of law, health care, banking and education.

The good times of rapid growth are now over.  Except for the automobile manufacturing industry that finally reached the area around a decade ago, the industrial base has shriveled (and automobile manufacturing, as the recent downturn attests, is highly cyclical).  Only one of the major banks still stands alone (Regions), and it is on government life support.  The legal industry, an economic parasite that creates nothing of value on its own, but only facilitates the reshuffling of ownership interests around, has faltered along with the banks and the industrial base.   The only bright spot is college-level education (though most growth has come through dubious for-profit colleges) and health care.  Health care seems to be perfectly situated to take advantage of the greying population, but the funding for health care will necessarily begin to decline in the not-distant future, if the entity (the federal government) doing the funding is to remain fiscally viable.   The bottom line:  Do all the reinventing you wish; unless gold is discovered alongside that seam of iron ore (how could they have missed it?), it matters very little whether or not there is some disparity in the amount of dollars flowing to area school systems. 

The purpose of education, at least of the type the article is concerned with, is the training of students to take jobs–to create value of some sort–in the local economy.  Education is not like a field of dreams, where if a better educated child or better educational system is developed, then economic growth will flourish.  Birmingham had practically no public education system when it magically grew at the turn of the century.  The economy grew, and the education system followed along behind to serve its needs, not the other way around. 

This is the natural order of things.  In both education and economic matters, innovation and progress always proceeds from the ground up, which should be painfully obvious by now to anyone paying attention to the last few centuries or so.  The trash-bins of history are filled to the brim with failed top-down economic systems.  The way to reinvent the community is to allow the community to reinvent itself.  The way to fix bad educational systems is to allow good ones to flourish.  The process might be speeded along a bit by doing exactly the opposite as the education proponents always propose–providing failing systems with more money.  Starving the failures is the way of nature and should be the way of educational system funding.  Fighting nature can be a riotously expensive proposition, with usually very little to show for the effort.