Tag Archives: education reform

A Hopeful Reflection on the 2010 Midterms

Election Night is over.  While it didn’t go the way I wished it would (especially here in Kansas) I’ve decided to look to the future and think about what these elections have created.  With a stronger Republican minority in the Senate and a strong majority in the House, I am cautiously optimistic about the next couple of years. While the last two years of a presidents first term are generally all about getting a second term, there are still things to do. Education reform is still on the table. I desperately hope the leaders of this country will look at some common sense solutions to the education system in our country. Our deficit is enormous and our economy sluggish. Finding compromise on economic legislation and tax cuts will be crucial. Mostly, I think we should hope for the partisan rhetoric to calm down some.

If you’ve ever worked with young children, you’ve probably seen one who needs boundless attention.  These kinds of kids will misbehave just to be recognized. Negative attention is still attention. That’s somewhat like what Republican strategy has been.  They’ve run around Congress yelling “No,No,NO” because they had little power to affect legislation.  With control of the House, Republicans have real power. We can hope that they will use that to start an actual discussion. We can hope that Republicans and Democrats will consider finding the common ground. I don’t know that it will happen, but my hope is that this election has not just been another fickle swing of the American electorate who expects government to give them everything while taxing them nothing.

Only time will tell.

Education Reform Solutions

Recently, I wrote about the problems with a few of Pres. Obama’s ideas for education reform. I don’t like it when people just say what we’re doing is wrong. That’s the problem with political attack ads. They focus on something they don’t like and generally don’t provide alternatives. So I feel it is important for me to say what I think the government could do to help education in this country.  I can even boil it down to a catchphrase: “Think outside the classroom.”

Federal education law over the past 50 years has always focused on what schools and teachers need to do.  Recently, it’s been all about accountability.  The theory says if teachers are held accountable for their students success (or lack thereof) that they will teach better. Much of No Child Left Behind is based on this concept.  I’ve long had a problem with this theory.  On average I don’t believe that teachers are just getting by. If you work from this assumption, then you have to ask, “If teachers aren’t the problem, what is?”

The answer isn’t completely clear, but some things seem probable. Most failing schools are in the inner-city. A few things are generally true about the inner-city.  The people have lower incomes, they are predominately minorities, and will likely have more people for which English is not their native language.  The children in this environment attend these schools and on average they don’t perform as well as others.

Government looks at education with a very narrow lens. They see failing schools as an education problem, but it is actually a socioeconomic problem.  Poverty has long-lasting effects on everyone it touches.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty,  19% of kids live below the poverty level. More depressing than that is the fact that 41% live in low-income families, which are families whose income is not enough to provide essentials for their children.  These kids come to school hungry, and tired. They have little parental guidance because parents often work two or three jobs just to pay the rent if they’re lucky. If these kids are unlucky, their parents are drug addicts or worse.  Addressing the problem of children in poverty will go a long way to helping education.  Some will say that if they wanted these kids could work hard and break free from this condition. In theory that’s great, but the fact is theory is not reality. These kids grow up with the daily sight that school doesn’t get them where they want to be. The rich people in these neighborhoods didn’t go to college. They’re pimps and drug dealers.  If we want to improve inner-city education we need drastic reforms. Schools need money to provide free meals; starting at breakfast. We need more money for after school programs that help keep kids off the streets. If you like incentive based programs, we need more incentives for teachers to go to the inner city. We need to forgive student loans for teachers who spend enough time in certain districts.  It is important to make sure teachers are skilled, but it is equally important that we put children in a position to learn. That happens before regular schooling. We must expand pre-K programs like HeadStart.

Unfortunately, most of these ideas would fall on deaf ears. No, they would fall on the ears of those who don’t care to listen.  Republicans have long tried to eliminate at-risk preschool programs like HeadStart. They say that these programs don’t work. Often cited is the so-called “washout effect.”  At risk preschoolers who attend HeadStart and those who don’t generally score the same on standardized tests by about the 2nd grade. This leads to the belief that HeadStart, and programs like it, are not successful. Recently, economists have published reports that show kids in at-risk programs have higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates, and higher average lifetime earnings. This comes out to an average of $320,000 in a lifetime. I believe that is success.

We also must look at teacher education in this country.  I have a number of friends who have gone into the education field. They all seem to have the same feeling about their college programs. They had a lot of knowledge about subjects but not about kids.  Teacher eduction programs need to put students in the classroom more. After college new teachers need to work under experienced teachers in serious mentor programs. Nothing in the world can account for what a person who has been teaching for 20 years knows.  Experience is key in education and we need to be tapping that in our teacher education programs.

Improving education in the U.S. isn’t going to be easy. It will require the political will to engage in programs we can’t measure for years.  It will require the President and Congress to be more creative than ever before. We must acknowledge the fact that education is tied to other issues in society. Only by addressing all of these can we be successful. We must “think outside the classroom.”

The Problem with Education Reform

In the coming year education reform is likely to be taken up by the President and the next Congress.    Some of the main reform ideas  floating around include more charter schools and the  concept of merit pay.

The simple problem with charter schools is that virtually no one in the education world really thinks they’ll make a difference. Research has shown that on the whole charter schools perform no better than public schools.  They are exempted from most regulations so while the idea is that they are accountable to parents, parents have to hold them accountable.  In traditional schools people have full time jobs ensuring accountability in schools.  I feel that few parents have the time for that.  Charter schools often have high turnover rates. It is much easier for a charter school to fire teachers who do not perform to a certain standard. This seems logical but the resulting turnover rates make it difficult for them to find people and can undermine student achievement. Also some schools (operated by for-profit corporations) refuse to take on students with special needs because it would not be profitable.

Charter schools have been very successful in some places. In failing districts, charter schools seem to improve student performance.  However, they are not subject to the same scrutiny of public schools. You don’t always know what your getting. The biggest problem with the idea that we just expand charter school funding and build more of these schools is that we’re not really sure how well they work and how to best implement them.

Merit pay sounds great. Essentially, the better your  students test scores are the more money you make.  Wonderful, let’s give teachers a bonus for doing a great job.  I can tell you from experience that merit pay works.  Well, it works sometimes, in some jobs.  Teaching isn’t one of them.

The problems are many. The basic assumption that merit pay requires is offensive to teachers. It implies that teachers aren’t already trying the best they can.  I’ve worked with teachers for many years, and I’ve probably known of a few who were just collecting a paycheck. The vast majority of them are not. The reason merit pay is an idea talked about in Congress is that they think teaching is just another middle-class job. They don’t have a concept of why people become teachers. They are teachers because that’s what they have to do. The clergy often talk about a “spiritual calling” a feeling that they must devote their lives to God. Teacher’s get that same calling. People become teachers because the intrinsic reward of success is unlike anything else.  I worked in an autism program for awhile.  There is no way merit pay would work there, because the daily grind and stress of that job is so great. You have to want these kids to succeed. You have try your hardest everyday. Otherwise, you would quit before your first day was over.

The other problem is kids.  Merit pay works in jobs where variables can be accounted for.  I worked in screen printing for a time.  In that job, if your production was at a certain level you were eligible for a raise, but if your production fell you would lose that raise.  It worked great because printers would try to produce more. Any variables like the number of colors on the design, the type of garment, or whatever were worked into a formula that determined a certain person’s “efficiency.”  You can’t account for the class a teacher may have from year to year.  Take forty kids and put them into two randomly selected classes. Then do it again and again.  Every different combination you come up with leads to an entirely different classroom dynamic.  As smart as humanity has become, one thing we understand so little of how we interact with one another.  We can’t explain why you like one person and can’t stand another. Every child in a classroom has to deal with every other child and the teacher.  How all those people gel affects learning.  While successful teachers will always help their students learn, how much learning goes on is subject to too much unknown.

Finally, you have to ask the big question. “How do you determine student success?”  Currently we use a bunch of tests and your score says you have or have not learned enough.  Clearly, it’s a system that doesn’t work. We know that. We have known that. So why haven’t we fixed it? I’m afraid we don’t have a better idea. We can’t get away from standardized tests  because we don’t know what to do instead.  The reality is that really measuring student success takes years. How good your kindergarten teacher was could have a huge affect on your life, but we don’t know it until you’ve lived your life. Tests are just a single point on a graph but we need to see the whole line.  Testing does give us information, but it will never give us the whole story.  We can’t reward the best teachers based on student test scores because test scores don’t show you who the best teachers are.

Teachers today would love to have me in their classes. I’m a test taker. I knew someone who was basically failing a college astronomy course so her final test, whatever she couldn’t answer I did. She got a 92.  I’m good at multiple choice tests, because I’m a good guesser. I also have a brain full of facts that most people don’t need to know. I watch a lot of Jeopardy. But the fact that my test scores were always good didn’t matter when I didn’t do homework.  I got all the knowledge in school, because that was easy for me. I didn’t get as much of the intangible things teachers give you. Motivation, inspiration, discipline.  The best teachers teach those things. They teach children to learn.  In today’s world you don’t need school for knowledge. Knowledge is out their. Hell, you can learn almost anything you want on a cell phone anymore. Everything is available on the Internet. You could teach yourself physics and order a pizza from your couch. If you want to know something you just have to go looking. In the two hours I’ve been writing this I’ve read a dozen articles on education reform and the Wikipedia entry on charter schools. Finding the information is easy. School has to make you want to find it. School has to teach you how to look at something and decide whether you agree or not, and why you agree or not.  The best teachers teach children how to be adults. You can’t measure that with a test.