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)
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.
It’s an odd title for a post on this social analytical blog, an odd sentiment for the perennial optimist with an impressive if unusual resume (see About Steve Harvey). But, as I’ve often said, and have even occasionally highlighted in my own case, we are not just disembodied minds cognitively engaging with an infinitely yielding world; we are also fallible and vulnerable human beings struggling with the sometimes terrifying challenges of life on Earth.
But I would not use this blog for this purpose, to address this theme, if it did not also serve some informative function, did not in some way contribute to the large, complex, multifaceted map of our social institutional landscape and our role in it that I am, brushstroke by brushstroke, attempting to paint here. Sometimes, broad understandings are best illustrated by particular examples, and as the voice of Colorado Confluence, it may be that all of my moods need to be expressed for this ongoing opus to develop most completely.
The irony is that the challenges I am currently confronting are trivial in comparison to those of most of humanity, and yet they are crushing me under their weight, particularly because I have an eight year old daughter who depends on me absolutely, and who I can’t bear to let down. We don’t measure our circumstances against global or historical standards, but rather against our own expectations, our own sense of what is “normal,” that of those similarly situated, and can, at times, jump out of Wall Street windows for losing what few ever dreamed of possessing in the first place.
The worst that is imminently threatening me and my family, at least for a while, is that we may have to sell our house and possessions and move into an apartment. But we love our home, our “Casa Azul,” with it’s brightly painted walls and beautiful little garden, as if it were an extension of ourselves, and losing it doesn’t even feel like an option I can contemplate. I can’t accept that it’s one I should have to.
As a teenager, I tried, with imperfect success, to take to heart Thoreau’s admonition in Walden not to live a life of quiet desperation, and not to come to the end of my days wondering if I had ever really lived. (Ironically, in Walden, he also mentioned the burden of having a costly house, the absence of which made one far freer, a lesson I had also lived by until starting a family.) After spending the first quarter century or so of my adulthood serving that commitment by pursuing my dream of writing an epic novel that would distill and express some aspect of the essence of our existence in beautiful and eddifying form, and doing so by pursuing experiences and studies that I thought would best prepare me to discover such a novel amidst the swirls and eddies of our collective consciousness, I’ve spent the last ten years or so (since the novel’s completion) in transition, seeking a path toward more robustly affecting human consciousness through the social institutional landscape which is its embodiment.
To do so, first I taught high school, then went to law school, then did some short contracts addressing child and family and mental health services. But I find myself now both unemployed (or nearly so) and apparently unemployable. The institutional world assumes I have no place in it because I dared to live a life which frequently deviated from the well-worn paths signalling to institutional actors a readiness to play a prescribed role in an adequately ritualized way.
At the risk of sounding bitter (which, unfortunately, I am, a bit, at the moment), little happens of great significance without imagination and a touch of bravado, and yet the institutional captains of social change cling to their unimaginative and safe check lists instead, and, by doing so, virtually guarantee that they will at best facilitate marginal improvements even under circumstances in which dramatic transformations are possible. That, of course, leaves me, with great talents and passion and a particular insight into how to ply those social systemic opportunities to maximum effect, and a desire to put all of that to work and to feed and house my family by doing so, out in the cold, almost literally, for not enough squares next to my name are ever checked off (though the squares next to my name that would be, were the producers of such checklists able to imagine greater possibilities, far exceed in value and scarcity and difficulty of being reproduced any of the superficial and easily rectified deficiencies that disqualify me). It’s enough to make one scream, which I am clearly in the process of doing, at least virtually.
I know, profoundly and absolutely, as most who have seen me in action or have read my musings know almost as certainly, that I have something unique and valuable to contribute to this human endeavor of ours, that I am able and eager to do so with intense discipline and contagious enthusiasm, and that my impressive but atypical resume is part of what recommends me for positions that that same impressive but atypical resume prevents me from getting.
It is that last fact that is driving me to the brink of despair. As I wrote recently on my Facebook page, I’m stuck in the mud on the road less traveled, hauling a cartload of esoteric cognitive wares. The night is deepening, the weather worsening, and those cherished trinkets serve no purpose unless I can get them to market, and get out of this desolate place.
Most recently (and the catalyst for this musing), I was invited first for a phone interview for a position that would be perfect for me, as the program director for an educational initiative whose logic I am intimately and professionally familiar with, and whose potential I am keenly aware of. I misread the signals, mistaking an invitation the next day to schedule an in-person interview, despite being told on the phone that such interviews would not be scheduled for a few more weeks, as an indication that they were particularly impressed with me, and wanted to move forward more quickly.
I decided to spend all of my limited political capital to seal the deal, excited and relieved to have finally found both the perfect position (which I had not yet encountered in a year and a half of looking) and an apparent reciprocal recognition that I was the perfect person to fill it (a recognition which, at least on their part, turned out to be illusory). I emailed friends and acquaintances who hold or had held public offices (including one U.S. Senator who generously came through for me), particularly those associated with education, executive directors of nonprofits and other prominent public figures, and asked them to contact either my interviewers or members of the board of trustees of the organization to which I was applying, which most did, effusively praising me. Some of them, I cannot ask again. Others, I’m embarrassed to continue to impose upon. It was capital spent and now depleted or diminished.
I arrived at the interview yesterday, unfortunately completely sleep deprived (unable to fall asleep at all the night before, something that rarely happens to me, but happened this time), only to discover my error; whatever the reason for the accelerated interview schedule, it was not some particular enthusiasm for me as a candidate. One of my interviewers, it seemed to me, was looking for candidates that satisfied the conventional check list, which I never do. I was thrown off, answered a couple of questions badly, became too animated when expressing my passion for the mission that the position represented to me, and was thanked at the end of the interview for my interest, and told that I would be contacted by the end of the week as to whether I would be invited for the next round a week and a half later.
I fell from the brink of salvation to the depths of despair in the blink of an eye. My dream job seemingly within reach was a mirage that shimmered and disappeared in the hot desert sun. I have been unable to recover from the disappointment. Even if, improbably, I am invited back for the next round, it was clear that the criteria to which I will be held are the criteria that discount me. My unique talents, my ability to rapidly learn whatever knowledge and skills are required, my passion and creativity and social institutional savvy, my leadership qualities and organizational acumen, all are irrelevant at the levels at which I must enter, because they’re qualities too valuable to be valued, in too short supply and too hard to measure to be placed on the check list of criteria to be considered.
So writing this is my therapy and my refuge. It is my note in a bottle, flung into the sea, giving me hope that maybe someone will find it and send a ship out to fetch me. When you find yourself stranded on a desert isle, you grasp hold of what hope you can.
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).
An inner-city Chicago school implemented a fairly simple and highly successful program to address the out-of-control violence and low probability of success (or even, in some cases, survival) that its students faced: Identify those most at risk, and pair them up with community mentors (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/#39804320). As one mentor said, he believes his mentee is college bound, though he didn’t think that when he first met him.
This is a model I’ve been advocating here in Jefferson County, both when I was a teacher, and now as a father and resident. It’s an obvious direction to take, clearly a good investment and good for our kids. Unfortunately, Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson is too much of an autocrat to risk any significant degree of community involvement. I’ve encountered nothing but obstructionism from her.
But our school districts ultimately belong to us, not to those we hire as our agents in their administration. We all need to start organizing a community-school partnership movement, in all of our school districts. it’s the next logical step in the evolution of public education, increasing again the amount and variety of human capital to which children are exposed and from which children can benefit, just as the original institutionalization of public education did.
One thing is certain: Show me a kid who has an adult taking an interest in him or her, and engaging in intellectually stimulating and optimistic-about-the-kid’s-future conversations and interactions, and I’ll show you a kid who’s going to succeed in school and beyond. The first most important step we can take in education reform is to make sure that every kid has such an adult in their life.
The conventional wisdom that education reform needs to involve some combination of merit pay, an end to teacher tenure, and increased accountability as determined by short-term quantitative measures, continues to be in vogue (http://www.economist.com/node/17148968). At a minimum the utility of such measures requires: 1) More qualitative measures of teacher and administrator quality that take into account a larger amount of relevant information; 2) Recognition of the relevance of varying contexts within which teachers and administrators find themselves, involving varying challenges with varying time horizons and varying requirements to be most effective; 3) Sufficient incentives for administrators to be more concerned with the quality of educational services than with the absence of “problems” or meeting checklists of superficial and often somewhat arbitrary quantitative measures, 4) sufficient increases in pay or other incentives offered to prospective new teachers to more than off-set the disincentive of decreased job-security, and 5) recognition that this remains a strategy which addresses a relatively superficial aspect of the failure of our educational system, without doing anything whatsoever to address the more fundamental problems where they reside.
All of these conditions are absent in Colorado. We are moving aggressively in the direction of strong reliance on quantitative measures that deal with short time-horizons, distort the educational process, create new and counterproductive stresses on teachers and administrators particularly in the worst performing schools (often leading to an anxious environment that is the precise opposite of what the students in those schools most need), and punish teachers and administrators for working in those most challenging environments (creating a new disincentive to do so). Given the superficiality of the quantitative measures to which teachers and administrators are held accountable, there is no sufficient set of administrator-incentives in play to create a context in which improved educational services would actually take priority over the petty politics of large school districts. Teachers are currently as likely to receive poor evaluations, or be dismissed for poor performance, for being exceptional as for being sub-par, because exceptional teachers tend to both have long time horizons in what they are trying to accomplish with their students (planting seeds that may germinate in the future rather than show up immediately on tests for which their students may be woefully ill-prepared in a way that can’t be immediately addressed) and to rock the boat in a variety of ways (e.g., b eing less willing to engage in an empty ritual that increases their performance score, or to pander to all stakeholders in ways which undermine educational effectiveness).
In anti-tax-crazy Colorado, at least, the funds to off-set the diminished incentives created by ending tenure simply do not exist. There is ample research showing that smaller class size (and a higher adult-to-student ratio) is correlated to better performance, so reducing the number of teachers is not a viable option for positive educational reform. Given the large demand for teachers to satisfy existing need and the non-competitive salary for attracting the most talented college graduates, diminishing the incentives facing prospective new teachers promises to deteriorate rather than improve the overall quality of the teacher pool.
The poor teachers that are in our schools now are there because of supply and demand, not because of teacher tenure: There is a huge demand for teachers, and a limited supply, which means that some of that demand will be met with teachers of lower quality. Firing poorly performing teachers and paying high-performing ones a little more would be a great strategy if the goal were to reduce the teacher pool to a compact corps of highly proficient professionals. But that’s not the goal: We have to continue to put a teacher in every classroom, which means we can’t reduce the number of teachers to those that are most talented. And if we offer incentives to in-coming teachers that are in aggregate less appealing than the ones offered now, not only will we have no greater number of the most skilled teachers to off-set the removal of the least skilled ones, we will in fact have fewer of the most skilled teachers.
Some might argue that merit pay would be the increased incentive to the most talented college graduates to go into teaching. But without increased revenues, and due to various structural reasons (e.g., existing contracts, and the need to retain enough teachers to have one in each classroom), significant reductions in some teachers’ pay to fund significant augmentations in others’ is not a viable solution. In Colorado, at least, significantly increased revenues for merit pay just isn’t going to happen.
While it would certainly be nice to remove the least skilled teachers and replace them with more skilled teachers, aside from the difficulties to this plan posed by such obstacles as supply and demand (it doesn’t address the need to recruit more highly skilled teachers to replace the removed less skilled ones) and the sheer expense involved in doing it effectively (in a country whose current most robust political movement is an ideologically extremist anti-tax movement), it does not really get to the heart of the educational failure in America.
The overall quality of the teacher pool is surprisingly good, in fact. The more salient problems are what children are exposed to outside of the school building and school hours: Parents who often have neither the skills nor time to devote to effectively supporting and augmenting their children’s academic growth; communities populated by people who barely know each other and feel no real connection; an anti-intellectual culture that increasingly markets to our youth the idea that hard work and academic success are neither cool nor necessary; and a plethora of mindless and ubuquitous electronic distractions that have the essentially the same effect on kids as drugs do.
If we’re really serious about improving educational success in America, we’re going to have to take the mission of the schools to the streets, to the homes, to the corporate boardrooms, and turn America itself into a classroom. We’re going to have to reform our communities so that they become foundations of personal growth, assist parents in offering intellectual stimulation to their children, address the full range of unmet needs of the lowest performing students (e.g., social emotional development and behavioral health issues), and reach down into what is at root a cultural problem.
This may sound like an overly ambitious agenda, but there are some very easy and viable first steps to take. Improving school-community partnerships is highly cost-effective, because there are many community members who could be persuaded to volunteer their time to tutor and mentor kids (both increasing the all-important adult-to-student ratio, and explosing kids to a broader range and higher quantity of adult human capital), and to help parents who need it to learn better academic-support skills as well. There are an array of state and federal programs that offer various kinds of assistance to children and families in need that can partner with the schools to ensure that those needs are met. Efforts are currently under way to coordinate the missions of schools and health agencies and juvenile justice agencies in order to better accomplish these ends.
The current emphasis on getting rid of bad teachers merely kicks responsibility for deep structural problems down the hierarchy, to those who are least able to address those problems, and does nothing to actually produce and attract the increased number of the most highly skilled teachers that would be required to make it work. Let’s focus more on creating fertile soil for education in America, so that increasingly better students and eventually better teachers will be two of the benefits reaped, rather than pretending that the solution can be imposed by a quick fix oblivious to the systemic realities that that fix will inevitably run into.