American Self-Sabotage

“We have accumulated years and years of ignorant people,” Portuguese industrialist Belmiro de Azevedo said.


The recent economic problems faced by Portugal brought an incredibly bad statistic to light. Only 25% of Portugal’s adult workforce has completed High School. They are a nation that literally self-sabotages. Their membership in the EU prevents their societal retreat to the stone ages. If they were attached to Asia, South America or Africa, large numbers of their people would already suffer starvation.


It is easy to laugh at Portugal and belittle the bumbling Eurocrats all the more. Until you read up on American success stories like the one in Detroit, MI. Of course, if you were from Detroit, there would be a non-zero probability that someone would have to read those achievements to you. 47% of the adult population of Detroit, MI, cannot read.

The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund attempts to bring struggling adults back into the modern economy. Part and parcel to that effort, they study the current state of that workforce. What they describe below would elicit a sad, and knowing nod from Belmiro de Azevedo.

The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations. We also know that of the 200,000 adults who are functionally illiterate, approximately half have a high school diploma or GED, so this issue cannot be solely addressed by a focus on adult high-school completion. The remaining 100,000 of these functionally illiterate adults (age 25 and older) lack a high school diploma or GED, another prerequisite for employment success.

-Page 2, Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis, The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund.

Several things here strike hard.
1. A major US city has a large collection of totally unread people who are unable to meaningfully join the US workforce. On a day that we learn that the US economy generated 244,000 new jobs last month, these people are helpless to get in on this game at all.
2. Half of these illiterates have High School Diplomas. Why?
3. The other half does not. Why should they bother?
4. What does a high school diploma actually mean at this point? Does it indicate learning or merely docile compliance?


I am reminded of an old column by Fred Reed. He used to ride with the DC Metro Police Department and write about it for the Washington Times. Sometimes he went to other cities as well. He described a scene from The Chicago Projects below.

It was strange to see the contrast between the eagerness of the kids to meet a real po-leese man and the contempt of the gang members, the blank-eyed stares they affect. It wasn’t pleasant to know that in a decade the wide-eyed tykes would be the drug dealers. Kids look up to their big brothers, however unwisely, and want to imitate them. The dealers would let the junior crew work first as lookouts, or let them go get drugs from stashes. Step by step they would be swallowed by the drug trade. The girls would end up pregnant and on welfare. This is the pattern. And there is nothing in these sad towns to prevent it. Ten years, twenty years from now the same cycle will play itself out, again and again, unless something happens that no one can imagine.


Well, Mr. Reed some people did try to do something. They were DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and his Chancellor of DC Schools, Michelle Rhee. Rhee confronted teachers unions and closed failed schools. She dismissed large numbers of incompetent teachers. This enraged the old boy network in US Secondary Education.

As a result of Rhee shaking up a failed bureaucracy, Mayor Fenty was sent packing and Chancellor Rhee followed him out the door. However, Michelle Rhee continued to participate in education reform by founding This group lobbies for greater teacher accountability and student-based education reform.


The teachers unions and educrats hate Michelle Rhee. They are doing everything they can to destroy her. The Daily Beast has assigned both Diane Ravitch and Dana Goldstein to pour on the vitriol.

A bunch of teachers cheated and tried to improve the test scores of their children. This allowed these disreputable individuals to avoid punishment for poor student performance. This is a bad thing. A lot of these teachers should be fired. So why is this used as a fulcrum to attack Rhee?

Because Rhee expected the teachers to have taught the material and measured the teacher performances against student test performance. By expecting the students to actually pass these tests Rhee created moral hazard. Thus, when teachers erase wrong answers to pop up their scores, Michelle Rhee is obviously to blame.

Getting rid of the standards works much better. The union is happy, the teacher stays employed and two out of three isn’t bad. In Detroit, the kids are too dumb to read anyway. They can’t even read a newspaper, see how badly their schools are performing and get mad about it. Fewer complaints indicate satisfied customers. It’s a darn good thing nobody like Michelle Rhee showed up to upset the applecart.

As I write, Osama Bin Laden feeds crabs in the newly-christened Martyr’s Sea. He is dead and his menace has been blessedly removed. Yet, within our very own borders, a menace exists that has all but destroyed the futures of millions of Americans. They have no life, no hope and perhaps a High School diploma that they are too gob-smacking ignorant to even read. I can’t help but feel that Al Qaeda wouldn’t have even been sadistic enough to have done to any US city what our secondary education profession has successfully done to Detroit and much of the rest of inner city America.


But none of us should worry. The IMF just bailed out Portugal. Nobody needs to worry about standards. Bailing out Detroit, Chicago, DC, Baltimore, New York, Richmond, and 140 other US SMSAs should just be a snap.


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