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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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Many of the most pressing social problems we face are embedded in the loss of community, in dysfunctional families, in unaddressed behavioral and situational problems of children. Some consider these spheres of life to be beyond the purview of public policy, and too expensive to address even if government could or should be used to address them. I think this is mistaken on all counts, and more profoundly than immediately apparent.

First, the unaddressed (or under addressed) behavioral and mental health problems of children, and the unstable or unsafe family environments in which many find themselves, end up being extremely costly to society in the long run, both monetarily and socially. These under addressed problems are implicated in poor educational performance, delinquent and future criminal behavior, and a myriad of related problems that reduce individual productivity, increase economic and social burdens on society, and reproduce themselves generationally.

Second, our current programs tend to be piecemeal, reactive, and both fiscally inefficient and of more limited effectiveness than necessary. This is not a set of defects that we cannot substantially improve upon, and, in fact, there are many advances taking place right now which are doing just that. By placing ever-increasing emphasis on coordination among services and agencies that perform interrelated services for children and families in need, we reduce the costs of fractured and redundant services performed by seperate agencies with unconsolidated administrative costs. Those costs are far greater than providing oversight boards which help to coordinate and consolidate these overlapping services. By doing so, not only is the fiscal efficiency of providing services greatly increased, but also the outcome efficacy of these services, for when schools and juvenile justice agencies and mental health providers and child welfare counselors and others involved in addressing individual children’s needs are engaged in those efforts in better coordinated ways, all do their jobs more effectively, and contribute to a more effective regime of service provision.

Providing such proactive services more effectively, addressing the behavioral health challenges that so many of our youth face, helping to ensure that each child has a safe and nurturing permanent family environment in which to grow up in, and coordinating these efforts with both juvenile justice agencies and public schools, not only increases the present and future welfare of those children, but also reduces both the costs of reactive solutions to the problems thus avoided, and the costs to society of the problems themselves.

The costs of the relative failure of our educational system, for instance, are enormous, on many levels, costs that can be dramatically reduced through improvements in the effectiveness of our schools. And the enormnous costs of having the dubious distinction of being the nation, of all nations on Earth, with both the highest absolute number, and highest percentage of our population incarcerated, are perhaps directly tracable to our failure to address the childhood problems that lay the foundation for that unfortunate statistic.

Improving our proactive services to children and families is an up-front investment in our future, cultivating productive and well-adjusted members of society who contribute more to our collective welfare and less to our collective suffering. And even marginal gains on that dimension promise enormous future fiscal savings. It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

But the potential to improve the quality of our lives, and the prospects for our children, do not stop there. Increased community involvement provides one more pillar to the structure of improved support to children and families, increasing the vigilance with which problems are identified, the informal neighborly assistance and interventions with which they are avoided or mitigated, and the positive human capital with which child development is cultivated. Implementing robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs is one easy step we can take to increase the strength of our communities, improve the quality of education our children receive, and provide our youth with a greater number of positive role models to emulate. In addition to such benefits are the benefits of increased informal mutual support in times of need, and just as an ordinary part of life, each of us helping one another out just a little bit more, because we have spent more time working together as members of a cohesive community.

There are no panaceas, and I do not mean to imply that the policy agenda I am outlining would solve all of our problems, would magically make all children well-behaved and studious, and all neighbors helpful. I am suggesting that, as always, we can do better or worse, we can improve on our current social institutional framework or not, and we can strive to increase the opportunities available to our children for their future success, and our improved shared quality of life.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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