Here it is, nearly a year since George W. Bush got his way on education reform, and some conservative commentators still have absolutely nothing new to say about the subject. Many seem locked into the same critique of public education that they have been offering up since—well, ever since I can remember. I think its time for something a little more radical.

The traditional conservative critique pushes three main points:

(1) Public education just doesn’t seem to educate—I mean, really educate—much of anybody.
(2) This is partly because the all-powerful teacher’s unions protect incompetent teachers at all costs.
(3) But it’s mostly because the educational establishment favors political correctness over mastery of subject area (be it readin,’ writin,’ ‘rithmetic, or whatever) for both teachers and students.

So we get endless complaints about books and teachers that and who indoctrinate their students in, say, environmentalist dogma at the expense of scientific skepticism.

After a little over a year teaching in a public high school in rural Virginia, I’m disinclined to argue with the first point. Our seniors emerge from twelve years of “education” knowing remarkably little of any kind, and hardly anything that remotely resembles what I would call real education.

But I see little merit in the second and third points. Virginia isn’t a union state, but I doubt whether that makes much difference. So far as I can tell, there isn’t much incompetence here for a union to protect. On the contrary: my colleagues seem more or less uniformly knowledgeable and hardworking. As for p.c., it’s just not a factor. Sure, some of my fellow teachers are dyed-in-the-wool liberals, and sure, the textbooks are filled with all these annoying sidebars about the contributions of women and people of color and the like—but we’re all way too busy teaching the basics for any of that stuff to intrude much.

And yet, as I say, little real education seems to be happening here. Why?

The real problem lies deeper than the conservative critique admits. It lies in the very nature of universal public education as such. My colleagues and I don’t really educate people because that’s not really our job—a fact revealed in the structure of incentives that faces teachers and administrators alike.

If I inspire in one of my brighter students a love for Dante, then my colleagues and supervisors might well think that’s lovely—but they won’t lose any sleep over it if I fail, or if I don’t even try. For they have more urgent things to worry about. In particular, if more than a handful of my not-so-bright students cannot figure out whether 6/7 is greater than 1 or less than 1, and if that leads them to fail their state exams (Virginia’s “Standards of Learning, ” or S.O.L. Tests), then there will be hell to pay—for the very accreditation of the school depends on students passing these tests in sufficient numbers.

What this means in practice is that my colleagues and I must spend virtually all of our time and energy on those of our students who simply defy any attempt to convince them that there is a difference between a numerator and a denominator, or that five is a greater number than negative ten, etc. If you’ve been out of high school for a while, you probably don’t realize just how many such students there are, or what utter hell it is to try to teach them anything—and I do mean anything. Hell for all concerned: for us, for them, and, above all, for the smart and motivated students who must tread water while we harangue the recalcitrant for the tenth time about something that the attentive picked up the first time around. But what can we do? Word has come down from on high: No Child Left Behind.

Ridiculous and pointless as it may seem, this is what the public schools are for, now. The top seventy percent will manage on their own. The bottom ten percent are hopeless no matter what we do. We are here for that slow but salvageable group in between. We must drag them and ourselves over the coals until they pull out their D. And that is a full-time job—as well as a sadly unrewarding one. Believe me, I would infinitely rather be showing the best and the brightest kids how to tackle Homer and Shakespeare. But who’s going to pay anyone to do that?

I don’t know whether there’s any political hay to be made out of all this, for either left or right. In fact, I think that it results from a sort of unintended conspiracy between them both. The left insists that education be universal, and the right insists that a diploma should actually mean something. Put these two goals together, and you get the situation as it now exists: America sacrifices real education for those who want it and can achieve it to the perverse project of putting the unwilling and the unable through a few useless motions. A project that achieves its full flower in the slogan “No Child Left Behind”—which is merely a euphemism for LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR.