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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)

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.

Jeffco Schools won a federal grant for 32.7 million dollars (and Colorado Springs for 15.1 million dollars), over five years, to reward teachers for improving achievement, teaching in tough schools, teaching tough subjects or to tough populations, and taking on leadership roles in their buildings, as well as to fund professional development and classroom support for individuated instruction, all in schools in with a large percentage of low income students (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16153823?source=bb).

That’s all fine and good, and it can only help, but it’s not an approach which goes to the heart of the problem. It concerns me to see continued and increasing focus on the same old mechanistic, reductionist approach to public education that has persistently and increasingly failed for generations now. Education is a challenge which involves what goes on in the home, what goes on in the community, and what goes on in the media, as well as what goes on in the schools. And it is an endeavor that requires great attention to the unmeasurable foundations of the human imagination, in order to build strong measurable edifices upon it.

I have no objection to this approach as one tool in the toolbox, but if we’re going to start giving school districts sudden boons of millions of dollars to get it right, let’s give it to them to teach parents how to better play their part, and to involve the community in a more holistic, day-and-week-and-year-and-life long shared enterprise. Let’s use it to address the problem where it resides, in our homes and communities, in our astoundingly rampant anti-intellectualism, in the soil in which we hope these little saplings of human consciousness will grow. Because it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the growing lights you turn their way; if their planted in bone dry and depleted Earth, they’re potential is limited at its very roots.

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