The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe."...  ...Theodore Roosevelt.

Commentary of the Day - October 31, 2009:  Education Reform - Not so Much.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

We consult surgeons about surgical techniques, engineers about engines, and architects about skyscrapers.  But when it comes to fixing our schools, we consistently rely on people who have absolutely no firsthand experience with real students or classrooms.

No wonder education reform hasn't made schools better.

One of the latest salvos on the education front actually does specify ten steps guaranteed to "make schools world-class."  Two of its authors are former secretaries of labor, while the third, Marc Tucker, is president of the organization that commissioned the report, a position he attained by founding the organization that commissioned the report. Mr. Tucker gained prominence during the 1980s and the Clinton years when, based on his spotless record of absolutely no experience teaching in public schools, he championed a "radical" blueprint to "restructure" public schools.

From "outcome based education" and his New Standards Project to portfolios and rubric-scored assessments, Mr. Tucker was instrumental in foisting at least a decade and a half of bad ideas on American public education.  His organization preached high standards, but their restructuring initiatives in practice only lowered them.  Their favored assessment schemes, which are still with us, produce scoring data so unreliable that the RAND Corporation concluded they identified not "good" and "bad" schools, but "lucky" and "unlucky" ones.

Mr. Tucker and his coauthors introduce their ten steps by declaring that the United States emerged as the world's leader after World War II because we had the "best-educated work force," a contention that skips over the significant fact that we were also the only industrialized nation that hadn't been reduced to rubble during World War II.  They further assert that "today’s younger generation is the first to be less educated than the preceding one," a sad allegation that's probably true. They neglect to mention that it’s true in large part because of the past thirty years of education reform, reforms Mr. Tucker actively promoted.

In their view No Child Left Behind, the decade-long extreme and unsuccessful response to Mr. Tucker’s more than decade-long extreme and unsuccessful reforms, focuses on "minimum standards," a goal they consider "nowhere near enough" to the world-class goals they envision.  They don't explain how setting higher standards for students who currently aren’t meeting lower standards will solve the problem, but Mr. Tucker has always skipped that part.

The authors propose that we set higher licensing requirements so teachers come from the "top third of college graduates."  Since simply making it harder to become a teacher probably won't entice more people into the classroom, the authors recommend that teachers' pay should "rise a lot," a proposal that's likely to be more popular with teachers than with taxpayers.  It also ignores the reality that money isn't the reason most graduates don't want to be teachers.  Some people just don't relish spending their days with hundreds of other people's children, many of whom are less than eager to be there.

Mr. Tucker's team recommends treating teachers "like professionals," which means "putting teachers in charge of their schools."  This is a curious suggestion coming from a non-teacher who's spent the past twenty-five years telling teachers how to teach.

The authors advise replacing "multiple-choice, computer-scored tests," which everybody makes fun of, with "high quality, course-based exams," which sounds much better.  The trouble is it's really just restructuring code for the subjectively-scored portfolios and rubric-scored assessments that can't provide reliable data.

Armed with these meaningless numbers, parents will then be empowered to "choose freely among available public schools."  Whatever your opinion regarding school choice, there's little or no difference in the achievement record of charter and public schools.  Note also that private schools aren't an option under this plan, and that only "available" public schools are, which at the very least translates as only schools with room for more kids.

Any school where ninety percent of its students aren't "ready to enter college" would be "declared bankrupt" and all its employees fired.  Laying aside the absurdity that ninety percent of any student or adult group needs or could handle college coursework, who are they planning to replace everybody with?  It's not like thousands of competent teachers are waiting in line.  And even if you replace every teacher, you're still dealing with the same students.  Believe it or not, a lot of public education's problems are rooted in the children, their parents, and society at large.

To help "struggling schools," the authors prescribe federal "technical assistance."  There's nothing new about technical assistance.  It currently means your school didn't do well on the tests that can’t measure anything, so state officials are sending experts to show you how to teach right.  Unfortunately, the experts are typically non-teachers or ex-teachers who couldn’t survive in the classroom themselves, and they're usually armed with the same bankrupt reforms that helped cause the academic decline in the first place.  According to the ten steps, however, once the non-help comes from federal experts, all our problems will be solved.

The authors advocate a "range of social services" to be delivered at school as part of "students' school programs."  This utterly ignores A Nation at Risk's 1983 warning about the crippling "educational cost" incurred when schools are required to divert resources and time from academics to "personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve."

In short, the authors' ten steps toward world class schools for the future are really ten steps backwards into forty years of bankrupt education reforms that helped put us where we are today.

We don’t need new assessments.  Teachers, employers, professors, and parents already know our students aren't learning enough.  We don't need new restructuring regimes.  The labor of learning hasn't changed since Socrates and I were boys.  That's because the human mind hasn’t changed.

What have changed are our expectations.  Until we cast off our sense of entitlement, until we once more embrace hard work, until we demand decent behavior in our streets and classrooms, our schools and our students won't succeed.

The key to world-class schools is a world-class people.

That’s the first step we need to take.

2009, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.  

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP generally agrees with Poor Elijah's points.  But he thinks that one important point thaqt has been missed in the attempt to improve K-12 education has been the changing role of women in American society over the past 40 years.  Before about 1970 employment opportunities for female college graduates were greatly restricted compared to those for male college graduates.  As a result, many women who graduated in the top third of their college classes took K-12 teaching positions.  After 1970 other, better paying opportunities for female college graduates gradually became available.  Many of the best and brightest who might have considered a teaching career previously now were able to land much better paying positions in other areas.  Today, the vast majority of K-12 teachers still are women.  But, instead of coming from the top third of their college classes, today's teachers tend to come from the bottom third.  As Poor Elijah notes, better pay would help to attract better teachers, but there is little likelihood that the taxpayers would be willing to pony up the kind of money it would take to attract people who graduate from the top third of their college classes.  Poor Elijah's comments about the percentage of high school graduates who are capable of handling college-level work also are spot on.  In fact, it's demeaning to assume that the only road to success in society is a college degree.  While we no longer have nearly as many well-paying manufacturing jobs as we once did, there still are many vocations that offer decent pay without requiring a college degree.  Unfortunately, we have focused our efforts so much on preparing high school graduates for college that we have neglected vocational education almost entirely.




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© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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