The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.... ...Mark Twain.
Commentary of the Day - July 13, 2000: The School Improvement Debate - A No-Holds-Barred Analysis of School Reform - guest commentary by Mark Liberator.
There is a tremendous force that exists today to make improvements in education.  National and international tests have brought a need for change to the attention of parents, school administrators, teachers, politicians, local school boards and the media who report the results of said tests.

The need for improvement is hardly debatable but the methods and areas of change are highly controversial within educational communities. Some educators believe that school systems must make comprehensive alterations throughout the nation, states, districts, and schools. Others think that school systems are essentially sound but are in need of fine, well-placed adjustments. The problem is trying to decide which faction is right, or is that the real problem?

Politically speaking, liberal democrats seemingly love to throw more money into education as if school funding were the cure-all. Conservative republicans typically take the opposing view: less is more. Yet technology, an expensive and necessary component of a modern education, is key to every child's future. However, how much money can the American taxpayer afford to donate towards already bloated public school systems?

Beyond the debate over school funding, there are major steps that can be taken to make genuine school improvement. These steps include: increasing parental involvement, teaching children the value of their own education, conducting ethical school research, maintaining cooperative efforts between administrators, school boards, and teachers, and getting communities to become proactive.

Parents can help their children in many ways. They can take charge of local school systems by joining parent-teacher groups. They can further participate by listening and voicing concerns at school board meetings. Unfortunately, most people do not have enough time to do these important tasks.

Instead, parents can spend time with their children and monitor the educative process directly through them. As basic as it may appear, many parents do not insist on strict homework schedules early on in their children's educational careers. It may even be the general practice for many parents to use school systems as daycare centers. If that is the case, then those parents will get exactly the education they demand from their school districts. It is common knowledge that education begins in the home.

The parents who supplement their children's education with trips to museums, libraries, and other learning environments will see results through this reinforcement of education. Helping children choose what they watch on television and what they do away from home is obvious and important. Teenagers may complain about the supervision but it will certainly be worth the effort and even appreciated later on in life.

Another part of parenting that children will appreciate over time is learning the value of their own education. Students may best appreciate their own education and school system by having a voice in it. Becoming active in the student government could allow students to take ownership and pride in their own growth and in their community. The phrase "The more you learn, the more you earn" is ultra-important and correct. The only formula that best guarantees success is firmly based on learning:

1. the fundamental principles of every discipline (math, communication, science,...),
2. where to search for information,
3. how to manipulate technological devices,
4. the general steps involved in problem-solving--critical thinking, decision making, ...

Anyone who has spent any length of time in the work force knows that the most rewarding careers require following the above formula.

School districts have to follow well planned recipes to generate reproducible improvements. The instructions for predictable changes must be scientifically based which is surprisingly not the current standard within most districts. Too much of our current curricula is based solely on educational fads, not based on the data gathered from controlled studies but from the pages of educationalists' editorials.

Sure it is tempting to stand on a pulpit and cry for a complete change in education. However, what should the current model be replaced with and why? Incremental change can lead to systemic change that is healthy, even by total-model-change advocates. Unstructured change with complex public school systems can be detrimental or at best produce small packets of localized improvements at the expense of larger groups.

There are ways of handling this phenomenon in education. School districts are able to employ "pilots"--small groups designed to test the validity and reliability of educational practices. They can experiment with block scheduling, integrated instruction, team teaching, and other strategies. These pilots are under experimentation at many school sites.

Another means for structured change is through Charter Schools. Charter Schools are large scale pilots that can take on huge studies covering many variables. There are a large number of these schools already in place that have been operating for many years.

Since a system is in place to test various educational variables, how are the data handled? First, most of the pilots are hardly scientific. They are never compared with control groups--a similar environment that differs by a measurable set of identifiers, like class size, teaching strategy, or length of each class--which is a crucial element of every facet of physical and social science. Second, if they are handled scientifically and show quantifiable improvements compared to a control group, the benefits must be shown to outweigh the losses over time.

For instance, low ability students in the areas of reading and mathematics would probably show improvements if they were forced to take 2 hours/day/subject, compared to low ability students who did not take an increased reading/math load. However, many low ability students with an increased load would not be able to choose an elective that he/she truly enjoys. As a result, many such students would drop out of school because they may not enjoy any part of their daily schedule.

In other words, in the long haul what is best for the modern student? To learn about those and like factors, studies taken over a long time period, called longitudinal studies, need to be performed. As one can see, change in our school systems is a delicate endeavor and needs to be handled carefully to guarantee authentic improvement.

Sometimes authentic improvement becomes impossible due to a breakdown in the school board-administration-teaching force dynamic. These breakdowns are very common, so common that lecturers are making a living from peddling their methodologies and selling their books. Even school districts are using these educational gurus to get past impasses.

One such guru used the car industry to further his methodology of openness and trust with the power forces that be. He claimed that labor vs. management was the biggest stumbling block the car industry has to face. He showed how a new car company was breaking the mold, referring to Saturn. However, they appear to be having the same difficulties that The United Auto Workers (UAW) are having with Ford and General Motors. Management loves to wield control despite all their claims about shared decision making and trust.

Education must grapple with that beast too. Management loves to play the same game with school boards and teachers unions. They propose that a contract is "just a piece of paper." Later, when the contract is reduced to a towage pamphlet and a handshake, the real face of management is revealed. Labor concerns, which directly involve the welfare of students and therefore the community, fall to the wayside. We then get a school district that looks great on paper but is much less than perfect in reality.

Schools will graduate illiterates and car manufacturers will produce defective vehicles. No one but management gains in the long run. They cleverly use big corporations and school districts like stepping stones and move on to the next cash cow. Informed labor unions are the few stumbling blocks that these crooked managers may face. As in the case of The United Parcel Service (UPS), a strong, proactive union is key to avoiding the trickery imposed by management.

Communities can adopt a proactive stance and become more directly involved with their educational environments. Local governments should form partnerships with police agencies, teachers, parents, and business owners. Through a joint effort a community can combat gangs through anti-violence task forces. Business owners can demand to see report cards and diplomas to determine employability. Also, kids need to be aware of existing programs, like clubs, organizations, library programs, and athletics. Embracing volunteer programs, granted they get school credit for such service, could get kids to be more aware of the problems in their neighborhoods and to learn how to fix them.

One may find school reform to be completely fascinating in the years to come. Some educators are looking for grandiose changes that could very well require heightened taxes. Others believe that minor internal modifications need to be done. I personally would hate to see educators and politicians spend tax dollars and time where it isn't required. Local educators spend too much time and energy performing duties for state bureaucrats that are meaningless, based on the political wind of the day, and serve to justify the careers of these state bureaucrats.

My own teaching experiences tell this educator that the important differences can be made at the classroom level. Teachers with energy, diverse knowledge, and excellent classroom management skills are the traits that inspire students to learn. Teacher training could be re-examined and state testing for certification should be made more rigorous. However, the five steps that I have proposed are not money dependent. They are relatively easy to implement. They are also the most logical alternatives that have been proposed by modern educators.

In order to determine if your school districts are conducting business in a straightforward and logical manner, make sure your school boards have identified the following to guarantee genuine school improvement: increasing parental involvement, teaching children the value of their own education, conducting ethical school research, maintaining cooperative efforts between administrators, school boards, and teachers, and getting communities to become proactive.

About the Author
Mark Liberator is a high school mathematics teacher. He has been debating issues of school reform since 1995 when he was elected as the mathematics representative on a somewhat controversial School Improvement Plan Committee. He served as a Co-Chair of that committee for a year but continues to be the mathematics representative. He started teaching as a full-time mathematics teacher as of 1993 and maintains a high level of involvement on other committees and councils. This article appeared originally in The Liberator, "A Controversial E-zine for Freethinkers", which Mark publishes.  The IP thanks Mark for permission to republish his comments.
Although the Irascible Professor may quibble with a few of the points that Mark has made in the above article, he is in general agreement with sentiments expressed.  In particular, the notion that much more careful studies of the effects of various reform efforts are needed is a point well-taken.

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