Second Lady on Schools

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

While the first lady’s commitment to education gets covered widely, the “second lady” has been even more vocal, and critical. “In kindergarten and first grade, we learned phonics,” the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney recently said at the American Enterprise Institute. “We even diagrammed sentences.”

“My teachers were old and they were tough.” Lynne Cheney is currently a senior fellow at AEI. She contrasts her own education quite favorably with public school instruction today.

“The Social Studies Council on Teacher Standards calls for 8th graders lobbying against state budget proposals and studying migrant workers” rather than the Constitution of the United States, Mrs. Cheney notes. To a degree, she is trying to fill this void, with some success, by authoring children’s books about American history.

Ironically, Mrs. Cheney offered no comment on that occasion about the landmark education legislation passed by her husband’s boss—the No Child Left Behind Act. She did say of national standards, which are hotly debated whenever NCLB is discussed, “We’ve been down that road before.”

The former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities is leery of most educational fads. “My heart sinks when I hear words like performance-based assessment,” Mrs. Cheney says.

Similarly, she notes, “The United States does not have a very good track record on delivering vocational training” or the school-to-work programs popular in the 1990s. No less sanguine was her panel mate, Abigail Thernstrom, the vice chair of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“I was at a school in Newark that had a map of cities and countries in Europe,” Mrs. Thernstrom remembered. “When they were asked to identify them, students’ hands went up.”

“They knew it,” Mrs. Thernstrom explained. “It was rote learning.” Such an approach does not represent the rule of thumb, from what Mrs. Thernstrom has seen, including the output of the instructional corps on the federal payroll known as Teach for America.

“There were three problems with Teach for America,” Mrs. Thernstrom recalled:

“The teachers had to have education degrees;

“They had to be union members; and

“They leave.”

In general, Mrs. Thernstrom observed, “The feds have a really hard time monitoring quality.”

“In Massachusetts, the superintendent gets the money for math education,” she relates. “At the end of the day the money is just going down the drain.” Mrs. Thernstrom’s husband, Stephan, is an historian at Harvard.

Conversely, Mrs. Thernstrom is more supportive of spending on education that she views as more wisely targeted. “On the other hand, I’ve never been in a school where everyone didn’t know who the effective teachers were and who showed videos,” Mrs. Thernstrom said at AEI. “Why shouldn’t we pay math and science teachers more?”

“That’s called a market.” Currently, Mrs. Thernstrom is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy n Academia.