Regarding educational reform, I think there are two main dimensions to address: 1) Student socialization and culture, and 2) targeted student (and teacher) placement. (Though issues of teacher socialization and training are also relevant, in this essay I’m going to focus only on student socialization, which I think is the most critical issue in educational achievement; and, yes, in response to a comment to this essay on Facebook, that does include addressing parent socialization as well.) The issue of student socialization and culture involves how students are taught to be students and encouraged to engage in those behaviors most conducive to successful learning, both in the school and in all the years and hours outside of (including prior to) the school. The issue of targeted placement involves making sure that every student and teacher is placed in the environment most conducive to satisfying their particular needs (for students) and most able to exploit their particular talents (for teachers). In other words, neither students nor teachers are fungible (interchangeable) , and we need to stop acting as if they are.
Student socialization is really the critical factor in student success or failure: Those students who are better socialized to be good students will excel more certainly and in a broader array of contexts, whereas those who are not will require increasingly precise, expensive, and elaborate interventions (that are decreasingly successful) and will to varying degrees obstruct the education of those around them. Addressing student socialization requires both more attention to the role that time prior to and outside of the school plays in determining how students perform in school, and more attention to the role that kids play in encouraging/facilitating either educationally conducive or educationally counterproductive behaviors among one another both in school and out.
To address the socialization issue of what goes on prior to and outside the school, I think we need to implement a very robust volunteer tutoring and mentoring program, locally, statewide, and nationally. We have enormous social and professional resources, including a growing cadre of retirees looking for useful places to put their time and energy, and a huge need on the part of many students to be socialized into a sense of intellectual curiosity and how to feed the hunger for knowledge and comprehension that such curiosity instills. (To some extent, such socialization primarily requires careful nurturing of innate tendencies, because children are naturally curious.)
As for in-school, student mutual socialization, I worked on a research project years ago involving incentivizing mutual encouragement of positive behaviors in a target population (something I’ll call “group-mediated behavioral reinforcement”). The project was enormously successful, and can and should be applied to schools. We already have in Colorado programs like The Legacy Schools Project implemented by The Colorado Legacy Foundation, rewarding students for their own good academic work, but what if we extended such incentive-based programs to rewarding not only good academic work (e.g., passing an AP exam with a 3 or above, as Legacy does), but also helping others to do so as well, paying successful students for their recruits who also pass with a 3 or above? What you end up with is a positive pyramid-scheme of increasing numbers of successful students scouring the remaining student population search of recruits to train and assist in excelling academically.
Finally, targeted placement: We throw students with various and competing needs all together, and frequently don’t address any of their needs very well, particularly in failing schools. We need to identify student needs, and target their placement into schools that can specialize in meeting those needs. For instance, some of the most responsible and motivated students in the articulation areas of failing schools would benefit most from a college-like environment; others need military-like discipline due to the degree to which their own dysfunctional behaviors have become entrenched in them; and others still need more personal, emotional, and focused attention and nurturing. School choice does not really address this, because parents and students generally seek out the schools that they wish were right for them rather than those that actually are, or, in some cases, that satisfy needs and desires other than educational achievement. We need to find ways to target the assignment of students to schools in order to give them each what they really need, and to prevent those with incompatible needs from undermining the education of those around them.
“Targeted teacher placement” simply refers to the fact that we assign teachers too haphazardly, frequently putting teachers with less subject area expertise but great technical and classroom management skills in high performing schools and advanced classes, and teachers with extraordinary subject area expertise but poorer technical and classroom management skills in behaviorally challenging schools and classes, losing the comparative advantage of both and setting both up for failure or sub-optimal performance (which in turn means that the students in both contexts receive educational services inferior to what they would have had teachers been more strategically and consciously placed).
Clearly, all of these recommendations raise a host of issues, primarily involving the tension between centralized decision-making and local autonomy. But identifying the most fundamental, underlying factors affecting educational success and failure is a critical component of any truly robust and ambitious plan for educational reform. It’s time to move past the superficial panaceas and start focusing on the real educational challenges we face and on developing richer, deeper and more structurally penetrating strategies for addressing them.
(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, A Colorado Teacher’s Perspective on Education Reform, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve)
“School choice” is all the rage. “Accountability” is all the rage. “Funding” is all the rage. I’ve written before on the more fundamental concerns we should be addressing: Student socialization both prior to and within the school, requiring us to pay more attention to that larger portion of a child’s educational preparation that occurs outside the school building and outside the school year and hours, and requiring us to focus more on preparing students to be students than on seeking superficial panaceas that can succeed without attending to this fundamental challenge.
But there is another dimension on which we are systematically failing to address our real educational challenges: The manner in which students and teachers are placed. “School choice” is based on a notion of educational consumers and providers, relying on market dynamics to discipline schools. “School choice,” however, is a misguided effort to homogenize schools, to set them up to compete for generic clients, rather than to create more targeted educational institutions, in which those students who currently do the most to undermine the education of others are placed away from others where they cannot do so, in highly disciplined environments where they can learn to behave in a manner that does not adversely affect others, and in which all other students are similarly assigned to environments which are specifically tailored to meet their particular needs and to leverage their particular talents.
Neither teachers nor students are fungible; each is unique, and all fall along numerous axes of variation. School reform, and intentional educational policy, has paid little or no attention to the challenge of ensuring that we make an effort to place the right students with the right teachers, that we utilize our human capital to maximum advantage by playing to individual teachers’ comparative advantages, and that we serve students most effectively by assigning them to the teachers and schools that best serve their needs.
There are students currently thrown together in struggling urban schools with very different sets of challenges and difficulties, often exacerbating one another’s problems, feeding into one another’s dysfunctions, and creating unmanageable or difficult to manage chaos together, whereas removing just a few of the students who really need strict military-style discipline from that setting would free the teacher and the remainder of the students to engage in a far more functional and fast-moving educational process. Further, assigning students more carefully according to their strengths, weaknesses, and needs would allow those particular strengths weaknesses and needs to be most effectively addressed. This is, in many ways, the opposite of the direction we have gone in, insisting that students with identified special needs are placed in “the least restrictive environment,” meaning not separated from other students lacking similar needs unless “absolutely necessary” (by criteria of necessity that does not include overall educational effectiveness for all children).
Similarly, teachers with a gift for teaching the highest functioning and most motivated students (highly intellectual college-level teachers with vast enthusiasm and expertise in their discipline and imaginative, intellectually stimulating lesson plans) often find themselves stuck in struggling schools beset by serious behavioral problems, frustrated by the fact that they have no special gift for this job, though they do for another that goes by the same name. As a result, their careers are short and education loses excellent teachers who were destroyed by a dysfunctional system. At the same time, teachers whose subject-area expertise and imagination are less well developed but have excellent classroom management skills are often promoted to teaching advanced courses in pedestrian ways, where the most highly motivated and capable students are deprived of the benefits of more knowledgeable and imaginative teachers.
This is one more dimension to our deep-structural educational dysfunction, along with an unwillingness to tap into, in a very robust way, the community resources available to our kids (i.e., professionals and retirees who would be glad to volunteer their time tutoring and mentoring kids, but are never asked to do so), to broaden the educational mission to include more focused and extensive work with families in order to assist them in assisting their children to become intellectually curious life-long learners, and to engage in programmatic strategies for developing student cultures in which students themselves mutually reinforce educationally productive behaviors and mutually discourage educationally counterproductive behaviors in their peers.
(See the seventh box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for hyperlinks to essays on related education policy ideas and critiques of current popular education reform obsessions.)
I returned to education and Denver Public Schools this year, after a five year foray into law and policy. I very vocally and rationally opposed SB191 when it was being debated by pointing out that it would do more to drive great teachers out of the profession and dissuade great potential new teachers from entering the profession than it would do either to weed bad teachers out or raise them up. In other words, it was going to have a larger effect on choking off the inflow and increasing the outflow of the most talented teachers (more than least talented teachers because more talented people generally have more alternatives in the competitive labor market) than it would have on removing or improving teachers who needed remediation or removal. I also argued that it focused on the one aspect of our educational system that was least broken –-the quality of our educators– while ignoring the factors that were most broken –what goes on outside the school building, years, and hours to socialize kids to be either successful or unsuccessful students.
My experience this year has overwhelmingly confirmed these observations. I started at West Generation Academy, an innovation school in DPS. Their plan sounded good to me, the passion of everyone involved appealed to me, and I wanted to be a part of it. The implementation was so badly botched that within weeks virtually every teacher there was desperate to get out. Many of the teachers (including me) have left, and the principal has resigned. The reason for this is that they assumed that they could accomplish everything in the building, without addressing the litany of issues affecting what would go on in that building, and without putting any discipline plan in place, and, as a result, it was complete chaos.
Now, at Abraham Lincoln High School, I see the most talented and passionate teachers talking about how the joy has been taken out of teaching, and how the micromanagement of teaching has crippled them and made them unable to teach effectively. More are talking about retiring early than ever before, when great, dedicated teachers were often reluctant to leave the job and children they loved. I feel it myself, unable to do what I am best at –inspiring students with a sense of the wonder and adventure of life on Earth—because I am so bogged down in the bureaucratization of education, following a curriculum that teaches boring irrelevancies rather than inspiring insights, and engaging in practices that are like an off switch to whatever curiosity is left in these brutalized students’ minds. We are doubling down on the failed factory system of education, in a prime example of the doctor eagerly killing the patient.
Tom Boasberg (DPS Superintendent) came to Lincoln a couple of weeks ago, and answered one of the questions submitted to him. It happened to be mine. In reality, whether intentionally or unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter) he didn’t answer it but rather answered a similar question that I hadn’t asked. I wrote him to explain why the question I had actually asked was one that needed more attention. I also sent an email to two representatives of CDE who had come to roll-out our School Support Plan, to share with them my views, hoping that maybe this perspective I would like to see more integrated into our education policy could reach more ears with more ability to increase its salience in our education policy decision making. Those two emails (neither of which were responded to) follow below.
Email to Tom Boasberg:
Thank you for addressing my written question during your visit to ALHS today. I just wanted to clarify something that I think is very important, somewhat unique in the perspective being expressed, and may help inform a more nuanced approach to education reform. I apologize for the long email, but please indulge me; I think it will be worth your time. First, here’s the question again:
How are we, as a district, going to preserve the comparative advantage that excellent teachers traditionally had in inspiring students, in pursuing spontaneous lines of inquiry that might arise in the course of instruction, of avoiding the overapplication of standardised approaches that might not be best suited to our particular grade level and population? And how are we going to stave off the loss of job satisfaction, the sense of despair and joylessness that is so apparently invading the minds and hearts of so many excellent teachers, who feel micromanaged and stripped of their ability to use their discretion to serve their students to the best of their ability?
I wasn’t referring to standardized tests so much, but rather standardized instruction. I don’t mind standardized tests particularly, as long as there is little pressure to teach to them (a potential problem with teacher evaluations increasingly based on their results). But I do have some concerns about standardized instruction. In some ways, i think it is the perfection of mediocrity.
Let me explain: My forte as a social studies teacher who spent years in his youth traveling around the world, who was a PhD student and college lecturer, who wrote a fantasy fiction novel, and who is now a lawyer and public policy analyst, is to take students on adventures of the mind and imagination, to incite their sense of wonder about the world, and to sometimes engage in spontaneous adventures that just emerge from our interactions, much as I do with my own nine year old daughter, who is “gifted and talented” and scores in the advanced range of standardized tests in all subjects. (And I think that her high performance is in large part due to these interactions.)
But, having returned to education this year after my foray into law and policy, I do not feel that my comparative advantage is being well utilized. This is no one’s fault, but a defect of our efforts to improve the quality of education, because we are focused on improving the performance of poorly performing teachers, but not attentive to preserving the special skills of teachers who have exceptional abillties of particular varieties.
I am in a PLC of fellow Geography teachers who aren’t particularly eager to adopt the games and simulations that I had developed in my previous teaching career, which leaves me more or less forced to teach in more conventional ways. My former joy in teaching is almost completely extinguished, and what I used to bring to my students I am no longer able to bring. They do not benefit as much from the energy and wonder and imaginative forays that was my trademark.
We may be lifting the lower performing teachers up, but we may also be pulling certain kinds of extraordinary teachers down. I think we need to work at preserving that spark of spontaneity, of imaginative innovation in the classroom, that some of our standardization of curriculum and instruction may be stifling. At least, it is stifling it in my case, and it breaks my heart to be in the classroom not fully liberated to do what I can do uniquely well. And Social Studies is the perfect discipline to allow such innovation and adventure in education.
I am passionate about education, not just as, or even primarily as, a vehicle for career success for our kids, but even more so as a vehicle for the growth of their consciousness and their spirits, their joy in the partcipation in the adventure of life on Earth, and yet do not feel that my own spirit is liberated enough to take them on that journey in the context of this new paradigm. And that breaks my heart.
Thank you for your time and attention.
Email to CDE representatives:
Thank you both for your excellent facilitation of our SST Reveiw Roll-out at Abraham Lincoln High School today. I want to take the opportunity to put on record some feed-back I have about the direction public education is taking in Colorado (and the nation), which will in some ways be familiar, but perhaps with a novel enough addition of nuance to be of value.
First, I think that it’s clear that the main variables differentiating highly successful students from unsuccessful students, and highly successful schools from failing schools, are found outside the schools rather than within them. That does not mean that what we do in the schools is irrelevant, or that we are therefore absolved of responsibility, but rather that, if we are serious about dramatically improving education in Colorado, we need to address the fundamental problems where they reside, and not focus all of our attention and resources on patching up the defects created by our failure to do address them where they reside.
We need to redefine education, from something that takes place in a school building during school hours and school years, to something that takes place everywhere, throughout the day, and throughout our lives. We need to redefine “schools” from the places where education more-or-less exclusively occurs to the focal places from where a less localized education is facilitated. And, most importantly, we need to stop killing the patient with desperate attempts to cure a cultural problem without ever actually addressing the cultural problem at all.
The main difference between highly successful suburban schools and failing urban schools is everything that goes on prior to and outside the school experience. It is primarily a function of socialization, in which more students in successful schools (wherever they are located, really) are better socialized to be successful students than in failing schools, creating critical masses that then create feedback loops amplifying either the success or failure of the school, and pulling students either up or down as a result. If we spent the resources we currently spend trying to “cure” education in the one place where it was actually somewhat functional -the schools themselves- and invested those resources instead into the place where reform is truly needed -the socialization of the children prior to and outside of the schools- we could dramatically improve educational outcomes in Colorado and America.
I understand the daunting political and practical obstacles to what I’m suggesting, but the consequence of failing to face those obstacles squarely and courageously isn’t just limiting ourselves to addressing educational challenges within the narrow confines of educational institutions, but actually harming the ability of those educational institutions to most effectively educate our children. Yes, we make marginal gains by all of this “scientific management” of education, by reducing it to its components and increasing the efficiency of performance of each component part (see “Taylorism”), but it is the perfection of mediocrity, and the prevention of true excellence, because truly excellent education is far more organic, far more inspired, far more spontaneous, and far more utilizing of the particular talents and expertises and knowledge and passion of the teachers who are truly the best and most effective teachers of all.
And it is precisely those teachers, those passionate, deeply knoweldgeable, charismatic teachers, who can inspire kids, who can ignite their sense of wonder about the world, who we are driving out of this new micro-managed, sterilized, oppressive paradigm of education, this attempt to save an institution we are in the process of killing, like Medieval doctors bleeding their unfortunate patients.
I want to be a voice for real education, for passionate education, for organic and inspired education. At the very least, let’s preserve some enclaves in which that organic, charismatic adventure can occur. My field, social studies, is one of those fields that should not be reduced to a mechanized and micro-managed discipline, but should be an enclave of wonder and adventure through which to ignite students’ curiosity. Let’s at least build more nuance into what we are doing, retain some of the spirit that we have forgotten to value, because we may raise test scores and increase graduation rates, but we are going to lose soaring souls in the process, and that is not a bargain we should feel compelled to make.
As the Denver Post noted in two columns in today’s (Sunday, 3.18.12) Perspective section (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_20183851/are-college-students-learning-holding-higher-education-higher and http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_20183853/holding-higher-education-higher-standard), the value of a college education suffers from the lack of emphasis on the teaching ability of college professors. The fact is, universities hire and retain professors on the basis of their research and writing skills and efforts (“publish or perish”), rather than on the basis of their teaching skills and efforts. “Teaching colleges” are an exception to this rule, focused on teaching rather than research, but perhaps lose something in the bargain as well. Arguably, immersing young people in an evironment that is home to the most brilliant minds in the world, laden with cutting edge insights and the highest levels of cognitive activity, has a benefit not to be lightly dismissed. But the transmission of that brilliance to the students who fill the lecture halls needs to be accomplished in a manner a bit more intentional than mere osmosis. If we want our young adults to receive a high quality college education, we need to ensure that there is a system in place designed to deliver it.
American universities not only fail in the degree to which they ensure that they are effective educational (as well as research) institutions, but also in the degree to which the highly specialized enclaves of cutting-edge thought cross-fertilize one another. Careers are built on complete immersion in very narrowly defined and information-intensive academic microcosms. There are many benefits to this, but some costs as well. We have conceptually fractured reality into its tiniest components, but have done little to conceptually reassemble it. This affects not only the breadth and depth and quality of the insights achieved through this process, but also increases the distance between professors and students, turning too many professors, as Ms. Bullard noted in her collumn in The Denver Post, into “a disheveled man…mumbling half to himself.”
It’s tempting to capture these dual challenges with pithy oversimplification, stating that the remedy to these two problems is more specialization along the teaching/research continuum, and less specialization among the various content areas. Unfortunately, though I like the simplicity and balance of that statement, it fails to capture the reality of what I am proposing: I am really suggesting that we build more and better bridges, and more fully develop the regions that form their destinations.
We need a new emphasis on the specialization of teaching, but not a specialization which is completely detached from the academic vibrancy and richness that is the modern university. One way to accomplish this might be to hire teachers to teach, and research professors to do research, and to allow the two groups to overlap and articulate with one another both organically and by design. Those brilliant professors who are great researchers but lousy teachers can spend all of their time doing research. Those who are both great teachers and great researchers can spend some of their time on both, as is currently the case, but with a more balanced emphasis and more balanced rewards for excellence in each endeavor. Those who are great teachers but not particularly talented researchers, or not particularly interested in doing research, can be hired on exclusively as teachers.
It would be a professional expectation of all university teachers that they demonstrate the highest levels of expertise in their field, completely comparable to those of their research counterparts, and to be fully versed in what their colleagues are doing, including their colleagues who are engaged only in research. But it would also be a professional expectation that they become broadly, as well as deeply, educated, that they are aware of developments in other disciplines, even completely unrelated disciplines (“unrelated,” that is, by conventional modes of thinking).
Part of what professors specializing more in teaching could bring to modern universities is more cross-fertilization, more bridges among disciplines, helping students to learn not just the discipline that defines the primary class material, but also the connections between that discipline and others, between its insights and insights being developed in very different subject areas.
But teachers need to teach one another as well as those students who are seated in the classrooms and lecture halls. And research professors would benefit from more catalysts to the imagination and to the processes of inspiration and insight coming from other, sometimes very different disciplines. So I would add one more layer of innovation to our universities: A “Department of Interdisciplinary Synthesis.”
While we do not want to lose the benefits of the intense specialization which is so robustly producing such finely tuned and precise insights into the nature of the world and universe we occupy, we should seek to gain the further benefits of how these insights articulate with one another, form surprising areas of interdisciplinary coherence, generate surprisingly robust and useful understandings that not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but leap across disciplinary spaces that have heretofore been considered as wide a gulf as that between galaxies.
One basis for such interdisciplinary synthesis is Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis (what is often thought of as “Chaos Theory”). Rather than a focus based on subject area, it is a focus based on the choice of lens through which to understand subject areas. Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis has applications throughout all of the social sciences (see, e.g., my series of essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), physics, biology and the life sciences, meteorology, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts (including music and visual arts), to name a few. It is, in a sense, a naturally-occurring cross-fertilizing cognitive enzyme.
Other such “enzymes” undoubtedly exist as well. Discovering and utilizing them would be a very valuable academic enterprise, one which currently occurs mostly on the margins of ultra-specialization rather than in the center of an effort to build bridges among those islands of thought. We live not only in a mind-bogglingly complex and subtle reality, the understanding of which benefits from extreme specialization, but also a coherent reality, the understanding of which benefits from synthesizing the products that extreme specialization. And the challenge is not only to produce and synthesize these products of human genius, but also to disseminate them, and allow them to extend more broadly into the population and to articulate more thoroughly with the genius of the many.
Of all of the issues and challenges that face us as a society, our abysmal public education system is foremost among them. It’s not hard to identify the reasons for this failure: An archaic paradigm designed for another age and informed by a dehumanized assembly-line model that processes rather than inspires and mentors children; a ritualistic commitment to going through the motions rather than achieving excellent outcomes; a Kabuki Theater of faddish or merely time-wasting professional development and “sensitivity” trainings and purposeless faculty meetings; school improvement plans invested in and abandoned; an overwhelming administrative imperative of avoiding problems that constantly displaces any commitment to educational excellence; overpoliticized school district administrative and governance structures, focused more on ideological and power-consolidating maneuvering than on educating children; an anti-intellectual surrounding culture; a political zeitgeist emphasizing superficial and mechanistic “school reform” ideas which deepen rather than transcend the dysfunctional status quo and kick responsibility down the hierarchy toward those least able to address the structural problems involved; and the same political zeitgeist vilifying government (which school districts are) and starving them of much needed authentic public support. It’s a recipe for continuing and deepening failure.
What’s less obvious is how thoroughly within reach turning this around really is, how capable we are of transforming our public education system from one of the worst among developed nations to the very best in the world, bar none. We lack neither the human ingenuity nor material capital for doing so. Our children are in no way inherently less able to learn than the children of any other society. The challenge of inspiring and guiding and mentoring and educating our children from infancy through adulthood, and of thus liberating the genius of our populace to enable each to thrive individually and all to thrive collectively, is both the most critical and most tractable challenge we face as a society. (See Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons for some of my musings on education policy and education reform, and The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services for a discussion of the related issues involving the social institutional and social emotional context that are students are embedded in.)
Human consciousness is the spark of divinity we carry within us, that magical, marvelous wonder that allows us to explore the universe with our minds, both the macrocosms and microcosms, from the farthest galaxies and most distant times, to the tiny particles dancing into and out of existence and our own elusive inner-selves. It is a captive giant, whose freedom is both the ends and the means of all other human endeavors. It is a tool for our prosperity and spiritual fulfilment, and a source of profound joy in and of itself, the font of our stories, of our arts, of our humor, of our scholarship, of our appreciation and celebration of the world of which we are a part. It is the essence of being human. (See The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future for some discussions of the relationship between human consciousness and our social institutional and technological landscape.)
This is why I become so excited when I see those too few but so inspiring genuine attempts to realize our potential, to educate our children in the truest sense of the word, to commit ourselves not in some superficial or mechanistic way, but heart and soul, using all of our passion and talent as educators, all of the information and experience available, all of the tools that have been developed and ideas that are now emerging, thinking, imagining, innovating, designing, refining, implementing, improving, refining, modifying, constantly and tenaciously, making it happen.
West Generation Academy is just such a venture, led by a passionate and inspiring principal, imbued with vision and imagination and discipline and commitment, poised to make a dramatic difference both directly and indirectly in the lives of untold numbers of children, and of our society as a whole. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the turbulent atmosphere, what reverberating ripples it will send out into the suchness are yet to be known. If the school achieves what it is so determined and so well equipped to achieve, it will be a force of nature, liberating the genius of children who will then have a reverberating impact of their own on the world around them, inspiring emulation that then produces new waves of reverberating, self-amplifying success.
The Generation School model is a complete revamping of the structure of schools, not an attempt to reform education by some shallow panacea that appeals to those who live in a linear and oversimplistic world, but rather restructuring the school itself, and its relationship to families and communities. It restructures the space in which education happens, the way in which education is delivered, the calendar and the schedule, the planning and implementation, all in response to the question “what works?” (See http://westgenerationacademy.dpsk12.org/ for discussion of specific design innovations, and for more information about West Generation Academy.)
But a good model is not enough by itself: Passionate, inspiring leadership is also required; a spirit and energy infused into the project, a zeal and joy and optimism and commitment to turning a vision into a reality. And, rallied by that leadership, recruited and mobilized by it, a team of individuals all similarly invigorated and committed is also necessary. Judging from the presentation I attended a couple of days ago, all of these elements are in place, or are being put into place, by Bob Villarreal at West Generation Academy. Whether the potential that I felt pulsating in that room comes to fruition or not is yet to be seen; but the fact that the potential exists seems to me to be an undeniable reality.
When good things are happening around us, when talented and dedicated people are striving to make a difference, it is incumbent on the rest of us to offer what support we can. We are all in this story together, and all should be striving to work together to write it well. If you live on the West side of Denver, or are just a highly engaged member of the larger community (as I am), consider finding your own place in this exciting and encouraging new endeavor, whether it is as a parent looking for the right school for your child, an excellent teacher looking for the right school in which to work, or a member of the community looking for local initiatives in which to invest your energy and resources. (One small way to show support would be to “like” West Generation Academy’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/West-Generation-Academy/191616214259731)
Too often, those of us who are most politically and publicly engaged look for what’s wrong with the world and bemoan it, driven by anger and frustration, discouraged and disgruntled. But our real power lies in looking for what’s right with the world and nurturing it, cultivating the best sparks of positive change, blowing on them until they blossom into a brilliant blaze. West Generation Academy seems to me to be a glowing ember of great promise. Let’s lend it our own breath, our own inspiration, and help to ignite it into a roaring fire of realized potentials and expanding opportunities.
I had an epiphany during a panel discussion of Lobato v. State of Colorado (the Colorado district court holding that the Colorado public school system violates the state constitutional requirement that the state provide ”a thorough and uniform” public education system, and that vastly increased funding would be necessary to be in compliance with the state constitution) at the annual policy summit of CLLARO/CLF (Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization/Colorado Latino Forum): A constitution is unenforceable in a state that allows direct democracy, or what I call “government by plebiscite” (usually in the form of the initiative process, through which the polity can directly amend the constitution or pass legislation, entirely circumventing the state legislature), and therefore such direct democracy is ultimately incompatible with both constitutionalism and the rule of law.
The panel consisted of Lisa Calderon (the mother of one of the plaintiffs), James Eklund (an attorney for the state), Prof. Kelly Hupfeld (UC Denver Assistant Dean of the School of Public Affairs) and Liane Morrison (Executive Director of GreatEducation Colorado). Two of the panelists (Lisa Calderon and Liane Morrison) were advocates of and in agreement with the Lobato decision; one (Kelly Hupfeld) was academically fascinated by and apparently somewhat favorable toward the decision; and one (James Eklund) had the thankless and clearly not entirely heartfelt task of presenting the state’s opposition to the decision to an audience of progressives overwhelmingly on the other side.
The discussion revolved around the familiar issues of quality of education, deficiencies in funding, the constraining constitutional provisions of TABOR and the Gallagher amendment (which constrain Colorado state government taxing and spending power, and require the state to submit any proposed tax increases to the electorate for approval), and the question of whether the court overstepped its bounds and addressed what is properly “a political question” and therefore not within the competence of the court to address (a separation of powers issue). For the record, I’ll state that I’m agnostic regarding the central legal question involved in the decision (i.e., whether it was the court’s role to quantify in dollars what constitutes “thorough and uniform,” or whether that is a political question to be addressed by the state legislature), but wholeheartedly agree with the decision as a matter of public policy, and am glad to see it as a potential catalyst for much needed systemic change.
(As an aside, non-lawyers aren’t always familiar with, or interested in, the distinction between legal analysis, on the one hand, and social/political/economic public policy analysis, on the other. But this distinction is a vital one to constitutional government and the rule of law, and I think we’d be well-served to make it a more commonly understood aspect of our social institutional landscape, a goal, ironically, that could be more effectively met through a better-funded and designed public education system.)
Of the facets of Lobato directly discussed, the reference to TABOR and Gallagher comes the closest to identifying what I think is really the most essential issue implicated by this decision, though it was raised in too superficial and limited a way to identify that issue clearly. Some might take exception with this claim, arguing that the deficiency in school funding and subsequently in quality is the central issue, but I am not talking about the obvious and fairly easy to understand political ideological battle between those who, on the one hand, recognize that we have underfunded and underperforming schools, and those who, on the other, believe that less government is always better government (the latter delusion being one I address at length and in depth is a series of essays hyperlinked to in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). Rather, I’m talking about the subtler and more structurally fundamental question of whether the rule of law and governmental accountability can exist in the absence of a government to be held accountable.
Though TABOR and Gallagher don’t eliminate government entirely, they do diminish its role sufficiently to raise this question, because compliance with the court order to dramatically increase public school funding is, in reality, virtually impossible for the government to accomplish without the electorate agreeing to it, and if there is no concise and identifiable population of people (e.g., the state legislature) that can be held legally accountable for refusing to obey the court order, how can the court order possibly be enforced? And if a court order mandating governmental compliance with the state constitution can’t be enforced, how can the state constitution be said to exist as a legally relevant and effective document? In other words, in circumstances when direct democracy makes the enforcement of court orders mandating constitutional compliance impossible, direct democracy is incompatible with constitutionalism and the rule of law!
Certainly, there are subtleties and complications involved in this analysis. Courts never have troops to enforce their orders, and I may be exaggerating to some extent the distinction between a state legislature choosing to ignore a court order and a populace choosing to ignore a court order. But, while the distinction may be less stark than I have made it, I think it still exists, and is still critically relevant: A state legislature consists of a very limited number of identifiable individuals who can be held directly responsible for violating a court order, while an entire electorate is comprised of a large population of ultimately anonymous individuals who can not be held directly responsible for defying a court order.
Many, perhaps most, court orders directed against governments require state expenditures to be carried out. Desegregation in the Civil Rights era certainly did, for example. Those who hold the purse strings are those who can be held responsible for either complying with or disobeying such court orders. If the purse strings are held too diffusely to hold anyone responsible, then such court orders are essentially meaningless, and therefore so are the laws they serve.
One can argue that while direct democracy is incompatible with a bill of rights which protects the rights of individuals from the vagaries of power, including the rights of minorities from the democratic power of majorities, it is not incompatible with a constitution, since a constitution need not include a bill of rights. A constitution might say, instead, that as long as majorities exercise their power according to a prescribed law, which is ultimately up to those same majorities to interpret, then the rule of law has been adhered to. But this is a sham rule of law, only marginally better than the “rule of law” created on the spot by the whims of a ruthless dictator (since even dictators hold power in part by dispensing favors to supporters who form with the dictator a ruling faction, and the tyranny of the majority is nothing more than such a faction that is at least one person –though never necessarily more than one person– larger than half the population).
In other words, such a “constitution” is merely a ruthless dictatorship of a bare majority over all others, always subject to the caprice of that majority, regardless of how that maj0rity might choose to exercise it. If such a majority decided to interpret its constitution to permit the execution on sight of everyone with green eyes, then that would be within the law as defined by this “constitutional” society. A law which protects only those who wield power, whether they are few or many, is no law at all, but rather naked tyranny.
In reality, constitutions not only protect minorities from majorities, but also majorities from themselves, since it is often the case that foolish fanaticisms, sometimes entirely organic and sometimes fabricated or fanned by and for a minority with resources to influence popular opinion, inform mass decisions that are self-destructive. A majority mobilizing its genius through a process of careful reflection and contemplation to guide and channel its future passions (i.e., by drafting a constitution) is likely to fare better than a majority which simply surrenders to its own ephemeral whims.
This argument is related to the argument by the plaintiffs in Kerr v. State of Colorado, a challenge to the constitutionality of TABOR under the U.S. Constitution, which “requires all states to have a Republican Form of Government embodied in a representative democracy” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/56167554/Kerr-vs-State-of-Colorado-Challenge-to-Colorado-Taxpayer-Bill-of-Rights-TABOR-Amendment). In the complaint, the plaintiffs reference Federalist #10 (by James Madison), which states:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
But the observation in this essay goes beyond that of Madison: Not only does representative (as opposed to direct) democracy temper passions and protect minorities from majorities, but it is ultimately indispensable to the very existence of the rule of law!
“The Father of the U.S. Constitution” understood the defects of direct democracy, and condemned those who advocated for it. A careful analysis of the effects of direct democracy demonstrate that it is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of an effective constitution and the rule of law. Ironically, once again, it’s precisely those who arrogate to themselves the mantle of defenders of the Constitution who are the ones against whom it must be defended.
Grasshopper, when you can snatch the set-up to the logic game from my hand, it is time for you to matriculate….
In a rare moment of mercantile marketing, I am posting to inform my friends, followers, and faithful readers, as well as folks who stumbled onto this page due to clever search-engine maximization protocols, about my availability to assist you in going to the law school of your dreams, on a full merit scholarship, and possibly with a live-in masseuse or masseur (that’s how important a good LSAT score is!).
One of my current gigs, and something I intend to do forever (since it is a part-time job that is easily scheduled around other things), is LSAT tutoring for GetPrepped, a lower priced but higher quality LSAT prep company. First, let me tell you, I love the LSAT. I really do. I took it almost five years ago, scored in the 98 percentile, and, strange as it may sound, did so because I enjoyed the intellectual challenge it presented. The logic games are some of the world’s best intellectual puzzles. All of it involves systematic thinking and reasoning. It is a dream come true for over-educated intellectuals woefully ill-equipped for surviving in anything other than a world designed by and for over-educated intellectuals (or, as we like to call ourselves, “lawyers”).
So, if you are thinking of going to law school, then you have to first take the LSAT. And if you are planning on taking the LSAT, then you have to first prepare for it. And if you are going to prepare for the LSAT, then I am certainly a good person to help you to do so. And, if not me, then one of the other fine tutors and teachers at GetPrepped is ready to guide you through the zen-like journey of discovery that gives you access to “The Zone” –not just any zone, but the one in which questions that begin with phrases like “On Tuesday, an accountant has exactly seven bills to pay by Thursday of the same week, according to the following rules…” cause you to vibrate at the resonant frequency of legal reasoning.
If you go to the getprepped website at http://www.getprepped.com/net/, sign up for a class or 15 hours of tutoring, and tell them that I sent you, you will get $50 off the regular price. If you live in the Denver area, you can also request me as your tutor (you can request me as your tutor wherever you live, but you’ll have to commute to the Denver area for the sessions).
(Please circulate this to anyone you know who is considering, may be considering, or might some day consider applying to law schools; or who may know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who fits that description….)
Given Douglas County’s move toward school vouchers (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16803779), now is a good time to cut through the rhetoric, the ideology, and the assumptions, and examine the idea thoroughly and fairly.
The logic behind school vouchers is that by providing parents with the ability to take the tax revenue allotted to their child(ren) to whatever public or private school they choose, competition for students will ensue, and the quality of education in all schools will improve (or some will simply “go out of business,” to be replaced by those that have a more successful business model, better competing for the revenue that follows students to the schools of their choice). The argument against school vouchers revolves around the notion that they undermine our commitment to public education.
On the plus side, school vouchers empower parents and students to make their own choices regarding what school they feel best serves their educational needs. They incorporate market forces and competitive pressures into our national struggle to improve our abysmally poorly performing public education system. They do not, inherently, reduce the public investment in education, but rather merely contract out for educational services to the private sector.
On the negative side, school voucher programs are likely to create a permanent underclass of the poorest performing students left isolated in the most underfunded schools. They undermine communities most in need of the benefits of strong community solidarity, by creating a vehicle for abandoning what is often the central cohesive force in our modern communities: The local school. They undermine our commitment to education as “the great equalizer” by, ironically, assigning to each student an equal share of the tax revenue dedicated to public education, thus disenabling increased spending on those with greater needs. And they do absolutely nothing to address the problems of education where they reside, in our homes and communities, in our norms and ideologies, in our cultural anti-intellectualism and preference for mindless distractions over disciplined engagement with the world.
Since private schools are able to accept or reject applicants at will, and acceptance of vouchers will be made on the basis of their school mission and their profit-motive, the students most in need of the most attention will tend to be declined, while the students who are easiest to teach and need the least investment of resources will be preferred. This means that those children most in need of improved educational services will be least able to get them, and, in fact, will see resources that have been dedicated to them siphoned off by the flight of the higher-performing students from their local schools. This is a recipe for abandoning and defunding those children most in need of our attention and resources. It is a retreat from a commitment to equality of opportunity, and toward the reincarnated “social Darwinist” tendencies of the modern far right in America.
Student success is predicated most on their family and community environments; those children who have parents or community members who frequently engage them in intellectually stimulating conversations and model for them the disciplines and attitudes most conducive to success of all kinds will almost inevitably achieve academic success. Our primary focus on educational reform should be on cultivating more of that social support infrastructure outside the schools and school hours, not on dismantling that social support infrastructure even more. Academic failure in America has more to do with the advance of extreme individualism, and the decline of communities, than it does with any defects in the schools themselves. Giving those students already rich in the ingredients for the success increased opportunities at the expense of those poorest in those ingredients will certainly benefit some people, but it will hurt those who are most vulnerable, and will hurt us collectively as a society (by breeding a more entrenched substratum of despair, and all of the social ills that ensue from it).
The projected market-disciplining benefits of vouchers are at best dubious. “Market success” does not, in fact, automatically mean “higher quality”. All it means is that people tended to choose that particular good or service over its competitors. The higher the information costs (i.e., difficulties and obstacles to consumer-assessment of quality), the lesser the degree to which competition improves quality. Parents and students can indeed look at how past graduates of a school have fared, and make assessments on that basis, but those outcomes are based as much or more on the quality of the students that were admitted to the school as on the quality of education they received at the school.
Higher quality students moving from poor performing schools to these more selective schools may indeed on average experience improved individual performance, but not because of any improvement in the quality of educational services delivered; rather, as a result of isolating and removing low performing students from the equation. We have to ask ourselves who and what we are as a people: Are we committed to the continuing march of extreme individualism, the resurrection of “social Darwinism,” or are we committed to being a people who works together to increase opportunities for all? If the former, vouchers are the way to go. If the latter, we need to go in the exact opposite direction: A greater commitment to improving the services offered to families to assist them in better supporting their children’s education, and to communities to help move them in the direction of better facilitators of better educational performance and better citizenship in general.
While I haven’t yet seen “Waiting for Superman,” Dan Haley’s column in the Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/haley/ci_16589185) points to an error in the logic behind most current education reform movements. It is a logical error common in political advocacy of all kinds, from all points on the ideological spectrum: He assumes that an accurate description of the problem is an argument for one proposed solution. If that were the case, then correctly identifying the problem of, for instance, poverty, could be used as an argument for either welfare, welfare reform (such as occurred under Clinton), or the complete elimination of welfare.
Here’s a big problem with the “easier to fire bad teachers” model: There is a certain demand for teachers, and a set of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives to become a teacher. That set of incentives supplies us with the current in-flow of teachers, with the current distribution of quality. Making it easier to fire teachers adds only one new disincentive (because unusually high job security, along with lots of vacation time, have been two of the incentives counterbalancing a relatively low professional salary), without off-setting it with any new incentive. As a result, the average quality of in-coming teachers is likely to be decreased by some unknown degree (particularly since the most talented new teachers are also the ones with the most alternative options available).
Even if removing “bad” teachers worked as advertised, we would be skimming off the worst teachers while diminishing the overall quality of the teacher pool. Furthermore, the removed teachers have to be replaced, increasing demand for teachers, which, in the absence of creating an upward pressure on salaries (which, particularly in Colorado where tax revenues are low and increases require voter approval, are not determined by market forces), creates a downward pressure on quality (you have to fill vacancies with whoever you can get).
The lack of political will to raise revenues for education also debunks the counterargument that pay-for-performance or other increased incentives for quality teachers to enter the profession can or will off-set the increased disincentives, since the money doesn’t exist for any sustainable and substantial pay-for-performance program. Furthermore, few people contemplating entering the teaching profession are unaware of the difficulties in measuring “performance” in a way that would actually reward talent, or of the disincentives pay-for-performance provide to talented teachers contemplating teaching at-risk students.
Even beyond the above-mentioned concerns, I think that removing “bad” teachers is very unlikely to work as advertised. School districts are highly politicized environments, with risk-aversion and avoidance of boat-rocking forming imperatives far stronger than the commitment to provide children with the highest quality education possible. Therefore, teachers who rock the boat or somehow trigger administrators’ risk-aversion sensors (whether justly or unjustly) will be removed at least as frequently as teachers who are actually poor teachers. The evaluation systems for making determinations will become politicized in ways which will allow this to happen. It already does, to the extent possible.
So, the real systemic results of making it easier to remove “bad” teachers is that we remove some exceptionally good ones at a rate approaching if not exceeding the rate at which we remove exceptionally bad ones, and decrease the overall quality of the incoming teacher pool at the same time.
Sometimes, reality is counterintuitive. Simplistic arguments based on “Here’s the problem, and since it’s a problem, this proposed solution must be good,” may persuade those who are easily persuaded, but they don’t replace actually doing the analysis.
In countries where educational performance is superior to that of the United States, it is not due to weaker protections of teachers, but rather to stronger community involvement and cultural commitment to education as a value. The problems with American education are overwhelmingly located outside the schools, and outside the school hours. What we really need to solve our educational problems is a new commitment to expanding the mission of American public education to include more comprehensive guidance to parents and more effort to include the community in the educational mission.
The latter is so far from our current reality that when I strove, on my own time and my own dime, to create a more robust school-community partnership in Jeffco Schools, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson first stonewalled me, and then brusquely brushed me off when I persisted in my efforts. I believe that she doesn’t want a more robust school-community partnership because she doesn’t want the challenge to her autocratic authority that such community participation might imply. While realizing that an N of one is not evidence of any norm, I suspect that her attitude is not unusual, particularly in large urban and suburban school districts.
I am not suggesting that none of the ideas coming from our current education reformers and innovators are good ones. I strongly suspect that when I do watch “Waiting for Superman” I will be impressed by some of the ideas and experiments that have been tried, and frustrated by the politics which have obstructed their implementation and diffusion. Sometimes, as well, ideas that would not work if generally implemented work in specific instances because of the particularly endowed people implementing them. We need ideas that do not require “supermen,” but rather work with the material we currently have, everywhere. In the end, effective education reform is likely to involve a mixture of ideas and approaches, that recognize a variety of challenge and deficiencies.
But if we want to go down the path of real, effective educational reform, we need to stop kicking responsibility down the hierarchy to those who are already overburdened with responsibilities but under empowered to meet them. We need, instead, to place the responsibility where it really belongs: On all of us, on the anti-intellectual culture we have created, and on the ritualistic and ossified school district administrations we have essentially insisted upon by requiring them to compromise education to popular fanaticisms. Until we face these challenges at their roots, education in America will remain sub-par.
(For more general discussions of the need for less reliance on delegation of public responsibility, and more reliance on each person interested in meaningful improvement to start by taking personal responsibility for it, see, e.g., A Call To Minds & Hearts & Souls, A Proposal, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, “A Theory of Justice”, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few).
The Denver Post published an article today on Denver truancy court, and on the importance of diagnosing the problem with a child who is chronically truant rather than just punishing the violation of the law (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16425102?source=pop). As DPS truancy attorney Amber Elias put it, “School attendance is only a symptom. The purpose of truancy court is to identify what the disease is and how to address that.”
A good example of how important that is can be found in the case of 15 year old Louis Pollack-Trujillo, whose truancy was a direct result of an undiagnosed depression anxiety disorder. ”I wanted to go to school; I just didn’t want to go in the building,” he said. “The rooms felt too full, and there was too much going on.”
There is a movement underway in child and family services, called “Systems of Care” (SOC), which integrates and coordinates child-oriented services and agencies across the spectrum, including schools, juvenile justice, and county health, mental health, family, and social services. Both federal and state legislation (including in Colorado) is making it easier to “blend and braid” different funding streams (traditionally difficult to do, due to the precise discrete reporting requirements of each program), so that services can be designed as an integrated package for each child and family. By doing so, we can prevent the problems that fester and grow in the absence of such proactive attention.
This is just one dimension of the choice we face as a nation: Whether we want to be the kind of people who justify failing to do the best we can to address the problems that kids face, and by doing so prevent the problems that ensue from failing to provide kids with an education, to address debilitating mental illnesses, to provide health and mental health care services, to address abuse and neglect issues, to address substance abuse issues by the children or their parents, to address truancy and other juvenile justice issues, and to address all of these as parts of a single whole.
Those who chant the mantra of “less government,” without taking into account the legitimate demands that government alone can adequately meet, are not only contributing to higher rates of adult non-productivity and public dependency, associated higher rates of crime, and the intergenerational reproduction of these same problems in a cycle of perpetual costly dysfunctionality, but are also costing tax-payers far more in the long-run by declining to invest in far less expensive early interventions rather than incurring the far more expensive costs of reactive but ineffective “solutions” like incarceration and welfare. By refusing to use government as a precisely targeted proactive tool addressing specific issues, we are trapped into using it as a blunt and costly reactive necessity.
It’s like failing to maintain upkeep on a house or car, allowing it to deteriorate instead, at far greater expense to the home or car owner. It’s just plain dumb. And in this case, the deterioration of the “house” we’re talking about not only costs us, but involves enormous human suffering, suffering which has detrimental rippling effects throughout society.
The choice exists on many levels: Whether to try to resolve conflicts or pay the costs of their eruption; whether to try to identify and treat mental and emotional disorders, or to wait until those who suffer them impose costs and suffering on others; whether to find and address the causes of problems, or turn a blind eye and only deal with the results of not having confronted those problems affirmatively and proactively.
The rest of the developed world has very definitely and clearly selected the former strategy of confronting problems proactively, and have far better success at diminishing violent crime and infant mortality, improving social mobility, reducing incarceration rates, and, in general, spending more of their public resources on improving the quality of life rather than paying for the failure to do so. Isn’t it time we joined the modern world as well?