Public education would benefit from improvements on three levels:
1) improving the quality and quantity of encouragement and support that students receive outside of the school,
2) improving the “student culture,” such that kids encourage one another to engage in behaviors that are conducive to learning, and
3) improving the incentive structure that teachers and administrators face, so that educating kids replaces avoiding problems as their top priority.
These can be addressed by
a) reconceptualizing schools as centers from which the educational mission is pursued rather than as locations and hours to which the educational mission is simply relegated,
b) creating opportunities and incentives for parents (particularly of at-risk kids) to receive support and education regarding how most effectively to support their children’s education,
c) using established programs, such as “positive behavioral support,” and other innovative ideas, to give positive reinforcement to kids not just for engaging in educationally conducive behaviors, but, even more importantly, for encouraging other kids to engage in educationally conducive behaviors.
The current emphasis on “accountability” is in reality a passing-of-the-buck down the hierarchy, avoiding a society-wide confrontation of the structural social and cultural problems crippling American public education, and succeeding only in creating new disincentives to the most talented potential new educators, pushing them into other more lucrative careers.
The notion that creating a competitive “market” will improve the quality of education presupposes that parents making those choices will be acting on reliable information about what constitutes higher quality education. In order to facilitate such accountability, there is an increased emphasis on concrete measurements of student achievement. While probably a necessary component of a well-designed complete educational policy, this current over-emphasis on concrete measurements is problematic for a number of reasons: 1) It devalues investment in unquantifiable foundational educational experiences, such as in music and arts, though there is substantial research to indicate that such investments are very conducive to long-term educational achievement; 2) It further encourages already rampant practices such as grade inflation and overly rosy feedback from teachers and schools, since many parents rely on such grades and reports in determining how well their children are performing; 3) It skews education toward emphasizing easily measured “mechanical” skills rather than harder to measure analytical and higher cognitive skills, though the development of such analytical and higher cognitive skills is of critical importance; and 4) It places almost no value on seeds planted by inspirational teachers which might germinate years later, though the planting of such seeds may well be the most important of all educational successes.
While I do not believe that the “school choice” movement addresses the most fundamental problems with our public education system, and am concerned that this movement in some ways undermines our commitment to maintaining high quality neighborhood schools, I oppose any state or national standardization of educational policy on legitimately unresolved issues: Local experimentation is the best way to discover what does and does not work.
A more promising initiative, which I enthusiastically support and would work hard to implement, is to promote and facilitate increased community involvement in neighborhood schools, particularly the utilization of professional and retired volunteers who want to come in, give their time, and help both struggling students to succeed, and highly motivated students to pursue their interests.
Students thrive on positive attention, on the encouragement of engaged parents, charismatic teachers, and a supportive community. If we want to improve the quality of public education, we need to work hard on improving the context within which public education takes place. Nothing short of that, or which attempts to circumvent it, is likely to perform as advertised.
I believe that affordable and flexible higher education options are necessary to a well-developed and productive work force, as well as to the provision of opportunities to our young adults. Investing in our human capital yields remarkable economy-wide returns and mitigates a host of costly problems. Controlling tuition costs, increasing the availability of low-interest student loans, and ensuring a variety of options for students of different abilities and preferences, are necessary components to a complete education policy.
Most importantly, we need to foment a cultural paradigm shift, one in which “education” comes to be perceived as a fundamental aspect of human existence, a life-long endeavor, and the most basic tool at our disposal for improving our individual and collective existence. The greatest tragedy facing humanity today is the underutilization of the human mind, for all other tragedies could be more effectively addressed were it not for that one. And a society that cultivates an appropriately exalted appreciation of the importance of education is a society of people who not only thrive better economically, but also live richer and more meaningful lives