What can be done about the dismal state of public education in America?

How this question gets asked, and the answers often all seem, well, impractical.  The problem with centralized governmental “anything” is often as simple as its size.  We are a huge nation of diverse people.  Attempting to fit all kids into the few “sizes” available in our public classrooms works out no better than if all kids were asked to fit into one of three basic sizes of pants.  That is not to imply that all our problems are as simple as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but the analogy does hold.

It seems to me that the answers lie in this issue of size.  If we are going to get serious about offering a better education, it will not be by pooling ideas, resources, and standards all into one large pool, but rather by empowering those closest to the students in a given locale to make local decisions that have local effects. In other words, the smaller the solution, the better the solution.  The more local, the more likely.

Aside from all the other reasons I have already given in past blogs for this localization of the problem, and there are many, the one I focus on at this point is movement.  As long as the problems of our educational system are abstracted and “nationalized” or even “globalized” we will see no movement toward improvement because the sheer size will paralyze anyone who seeks to make changes.  I think it is quite like the married couple who have allowed their debt to skyrocket to a point where when they do the math, it just seems impossible to pay it down.  Many of those in that circumstance wind up doing nothing because no one thing or even many things will change their situation significantly.  Many in education have “frozen” because no solution seems big enough to solve the problems.

straight jacket

Resizing the problem has the advantage of making the necessary changes not something that must fit the whole nation, but rather something that fits just that community.

I am watching my home state (NC) try to reform their schools at the State Capitol.  This is too abstract.  It is far too tempting and easy to simply blame “others” or “them” or “the gummit” rather than actually employ real differences in specific classrooms.  And it seems as though we have been trained to acquiesce to this “group think” or to use this comparative measurement to continue our paralysis.  Continuing to seek large solutions in the end confirms in everyone’s mind that there are no solutions.  Anytime a public teaching friend of mine seeks to do something different, the whole disciplinary process is thrown into high gear.  And often their peers, those actually teaching with them, love the attempts at change, and even local admin gives their under the table approval, but officially, we all have to play by the book.

So while not suggesting a practical means in this blog, I give a challenge to my many friends whose lives are being given in the public schooling systems of the U.S.:  focus on this issue of size.  How can you, as one person, in one school, break the mold of paralysis and groupthink that pervades education and actually teach to the needs of your students?  I am not saying it can or cannot be done, but the test will be in this issue of paralysis, which I believe is tied to size.  Let’s make it local, more and more local, and break into motion again.

Real Reform

I live in North Carolina, where just last week our Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a budget that purports to be heavy on “educational reform.”

I have argued previously that real reform must include the finances necessary to pay for education, but that if anything, the government is spending too much money and should be lowering its taxes and giving parents their money back so they can educate their children better than the nanny State is able to do.  So when I see NC using the budget to effect educational reform, it makes some sense to me.  Here is the skinny on what is in play with these reforms (source):

  • Scholarships for children from low- and middle-income families. The Opportunity Scholarship Act will give students from low- and middle-income families and foster care the opportunity to receive $4,200 scholarships to attend private schools of their choice.
  • A–F school grading. A transparent school grading formula on an A–F scale based on student achievement and growth will start the 2013–2014 school year. It will also grade high schools on graduation rates and enrollment in accelerated coursework.
  • Teacher contract and dismissal language. The budget replaces existing tenure rules with renewable two-year contracts. Top-performing teachers will be offered four-year contracts.
  • Phase-out of certain teacher salary supplements and move toward merit-based pay. Teachers and instructional personnel will no longer be paid based on paper credentials such as master’s degrees. The state will also move toward a merit-based teacher compensation plan, which will evaluate teachers based on student performance and growth.
  • Teach for America expansion. Additional funding will be given to Teach for America to expand the size and scope of the program. Total funding will be $6 million.

And generally, those seem like a good start.  But here is the problem.  All too often these kind of political moves only go half way.  Remember, each kid in NC represents about $10K in spending (this is roughly true throughout our nation), so when a little over 40% of that is given back to parents, the private option is still a major cost and the other $6K is still funding a failing system.  And when this is only for low and middle income families and foster care, it becomes a form of redistribution that is fundamentally flawed as a principle to begin with.

I always smile when reform includes “a transparent school grading formula” as if now grades will be more objective.  I won’t restart my discussion of assessment here, but it needs more than a new way to arrive at a letter grade, especially when they continue to use numbers to get there.  A real reform would to go back to the day of true letter grading and drop the silly use of numbers.  But I digress.

education reform

I am not a fan of tenure (back in the day of honest public discourse it may have made sense, but in our characterless society it is ripe with corruption).  But I am not sure of what the basis for retention or dismissal can actually be in our day of unionization and obfuscation.  I am for the longer contracts, but want clear and real reasons for hiring, retaining, and dismissing teachers – something other than the current bureaucracy that seems to be topsy-turvy with good teachers suffering and bad ones benefiting.  I have the same concerns with merit pay.  Merit pay comes from corporate sales America where you get more for turning a greater profit for the company.  If you tie school money to test scores, and then hire teachers to get high test scores, it makes testing, not teaching (and I know there need not be much correlation between those two things), the basis for school and teacher pay.

I generally applaud any act that seeks to defund failure and put money toward those things that are good.  I am just not ready to call more of the same, but paid for more carefully, a good.  Real reform would change how we teach, what we teach, how we pay for such, and how we evaluate the quality of all that.  And it would start mainly by remembering that teaching is an art, not a science.  You pay for science when it “works” and you pay for art because you need it to live well.  The two are not the same.

How Khan We Do Better?

Mentioned in my last post that I had read this book.  I have now put together my thoughts from his thoughts over at my book site.  You can read it here.  And expect some blogging at this site on the ideas mentioned therein.

khan book