Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Money For Nothing: is the Best Education Policy No Policy at All?

Now stop a moment. Don't let the title scare you. I haven't switched parties, I am not going to write a piece about gutting or disbanding the Department of Education (if we are going to start slashing cabinet departments, Homeland Security is the only genuinely expendable department that immediately occurs), and I am certainly not going to talk about defunding public schools. I believe there needs to be a federal involvement with education and that we should certainly not be spending less money. I'm simply not sure I believe in education 'policy.'

President Obama started outlining his education plan all the way back in March, but I did not write a piece on education then because I wrote two pieces on foreign policy, one on health care, and a couple polemics against GOP attacks on the EFCA. I've continued to be primarily occupied with political polemic throughout April, however, and I feel a pressing need to get back to the kind of meaty policy wonkery that motivated me to start writing in the first place. The most important issues (in my mind at least) may be health care and the economy, but I have written on both those topics quite a bit and I haven't tackled education aggressively yet.

I'll start with some of President Obama's ideas, which include: incentivizing teacher pay based on student performance, ending state limits on charter schools, and lengthening both the school day and the school year.

As it happens, I have reservations about the first two and outright oppose the latter two.

I am all for raising teacher pay across the board, improving the pay scale for experienced teachers, and adding incentives for the best teachers choosing to go to the worst schools. I think all three of these things are good idea. Nor do I have a real problem with ending or modifying teacher tenure, though I do believe this must be looked at carefully. There are benefits to tenure as well as negatives and a more judicious granting of tenure and a more aggressive willingness to weed out bad apples before they are tenured might be far more appropriate than simply ending tenure. Still, the question of whether to retain, eliminate, or modify tenure is not the pressing issue to me that it is to either teachers' unions, top-to-bottom reformers, or hard-line conservatives opposed to spending money on education.

My biggest reservation is the idea of incentivizing teacher pay based on 'student performance.' Now if you are one of today's current crop of gung ho back-to-basics school reformers, this may offend your sensibilities on a vast scale, but it needs to be said: None of the currently en vogue methods of measuring 'student performance' has anything to do with actual education. Neither classroom grades nor test scores measure what a kid has actually learned. The former measures the child's ability to go through required motions to pleasure authority and the latter measures the child's ability to negotiate modern standardized tests. What is more, in the case of the latter, there is the very real and valid concern that teachers are teaching the test rather than educating students. This is already a concern because of No Child Left Behind, and it was a serious concern among many teachers and parents even before that.

Standardized tests do not measure students' level of education, they measure a student's ability to take a test. As a great example, former New Jersey Senator and basketball star Bill Bradley had a miserably average SAT score... and yet he was a Rhodes scholar. Take a moment to think about that: if standardized tests were really an accurate measure of education then such a thing would not be possible. Yet our educational culture relies more on standardized tests than ever, not less.

As for grades, many elementary, middle school, and high school grades are based on completing and returning homework more than any other factor. Much of the homework is tedious and redundant to students who are actually learning in class and the brightest, most successful classroom students are the least likely to feel a pressing need to wade through pages and pages of the same books they covered all day at school. They blow off the homework and their grades suffer. Yet they have actually learned more than anyone in the classroom, which is precisely why the homework is so tedious for them.

Consider as well that many of the quasi-literate, dumbed down, historically ignorant high school graduates of whom we all complain have successfully navigated their time in school without failing. They all got decent grades and decent test scores and managed not to learn anything despite it all. Not so easy to track 'student performance' as it first appeared, is it?

Charter schools are a more difficult issue still. The conservative knock on charter schools is that they are expensive, while the liberal knock on charter schools is that they drain money and talent from 'regular' schools. Many charter schools are highly successful and I understand why the urge to eliminate limits on such schools is so appealing. But the final word on the issue is this: if charter schools are really so great, why the bloody hell aren't all schools charter schools?

If charter schools work, which they appear to, why is it a question of simply building more? Why are we not converting all of the schools in the country to the charter school model? If such a thing were done, then the liberal knock on charter schools would vanish. They would not drain money and talent from 'regular schools' because there would be no 'regular schools.'

The dirty secret is that charter schools are primarily so successful because the deck is stacked in their favor. The admission process is extremely selective, students who are not considered likely prospects for academic success are not allowed through the door. Students who do not meet the performance standards are not kept in charter school programs but instead dumped back into 'regular' schools. Thus much of the success of charter schools is manufactured.

This not to say that transforming the school model from the traditional system in place today to the charter school model is not worth doing. It can be argued that the working model of the charter school is far more versatile and fosters a far better atmosphere than the standard school model. It is simply important to understand that not every student is going to get straight As, regardless of the school model. Regardless of grades, however, every student can learn. This is the real issue, and the obsession with grades and test scores has obscured this. Many of the reasons public education fails so many of our students can be found in traditional public schools, particularly in poor communities. Changing the model has always shown great promise. The problem is that no one has ever changed the model, they have simply built schools using a different model and allowed the same old problems to continue with the rest of the system.

So you see, more charter schools is not genuinely meaningful until we are willing and able to convert the entire public school system into the freer model.

Which brings us to the two portions of the White House education plan which strike me as the most counter-productive: lengthening the school day and the school year.

We are warehousing our students as it is. Parents get less time with their kids, kids get less genuinely free social time (instead having their socialization experience replaced with regimented, formalized experiences which can affect their entire social outlook for the rest of their lives), and a great deal of non-productive time in which kids are simply sitting in school being bored by minutiae already serves to beat our kids down. I went to public school and can heartily attest to the effects of institutionalized bullying (and let no one tell you differently, the school system create an environment that encourages bullying and punishes the victims rather than the bullies, because it is the victims disturbing the faculty and administration routine), teacher apathy (and the powerlessness of non-apathetic teachers to to act on their better judgement), and administrative group-think. Subjecting our kids to more of all that is not going to improve the situation. It is going to aggravate it. School violence will increase significantly.

The biggest problem with the American school system is not in the schools, though it colors nearly every aspect of the schools. The biggest problem with the American school system is the idea that children can be standardized. Every child is a unique individual with unique needs. While huge class sizes, overworked or burnt out teachers, standardized tests, and reams of homework may be real problems that aggravate the attempt to treat kids like interchangeable spare parts, they are the symptom and not the disease. The disease is the belief that education can be systematized, that one magic system can apply to every kid, that individual effort and attention are not necessary, and that the student has no part in the education process. This is an institutional, cultural problem embedded deep in school administration. In the mind of the workers in the average school district office, they are the education system and the school and students are an afterthought. My mother tells a story in which, during tough economic times, a school district made the decision to cut teachers' salaries... and then outfit the district offices with the newest and most expensive copy machines. This kind of thinking, the notion that kids and teachers are supernumaries, is at the root of the problem.

Much of this is rooted in the idea of 'education policy.' Education policy is all too often geared to the idea that systems can be applied to all children and produce immediate, miraculous results. Fads, conceptual gimmicks, and just plain silly ideas have been espoused with rabid devotion, all without understanding that in a free society we are mentally and spiritually whipping the capacity to operate in a free society out of our kids. We have corporate schools to fit the corporate economy, and frequently it becomes difficult to tell the place of work in adulthood from the school in childhood.

The federal government should set academic standards, set teacher standards, police school district programs to make sure that children learn real science, real history, real math, and real literacy rather than broad conceptual images of these things, and above all else it should make sure the public school system can afford to operate. But setting policy from the top down has proven increasingly ridiculous.

The best people to decide education policy may be the teachers in each indvidual classroom, and in a free society the best thing we can do may be to give them the freedom to do it and get out of their way. Maybe, then, we can blame the teachers' unions if we don't like what we get. As it stands now, we have only ourselves to blame.

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