School Reform

I have been spending a lot of time in the last few months reading about the school reform movement.   There is a common understanding in the US that our school system is failing.  That begs the question as to what one means about school system in a country that doesn’t have a national curriculum and that has 50 independent state systems (and those state systems aren’t one system per state either, in a state like NJ each city has its own education system subject to state guidelines).   Anyone looking at data would probably alter that statement and say that many suburban schools are doing fine, but large urban schools systems are not. The question for the public is how to fix them and how much it will cost. In NJ people are suffering from very high property taxes and the cost of schools is an issue.   If we can cut cost, so be it, if not we need to find a way to generate more tax income from other than house prices.

Even though I didn’t pay that much attention to it when it was proposed, I was familiar with the “no child left behind” regime.  Given where it came from, Texas, and who proposed it, George Bush, I was skeptical of its value (Texas is not a high performing state).  The premise of NCLB is that the teacher is the biggest problem with performance and by testing the students we can locate underperforming schools and underperforming teachers. 

The Some time ago, I saw a program on NPR about Michelle Rhee and her experiences as chancellor of the D.C public school system.   Michelle Rhee was the poster child for school reform for quite a while but quite a bit of luster has been removed from her halo recently once it was revealed that test scores for her school system were faked.  Diane Ravitch, a well known education historian has both written and spoken quite a bit about Rhee and the reasons for her failure.   Ravitch used to be on the conservative side but is now soundly in the liberal camp.  (The word conservative and liberal aren’t quite accurate since so many reformers are Democrats, but the money behind the reform movement comes from big business controlled foundations.) 

If I might summarize Diane Ravitch’s arguments they are fourfold. 1.  Imposition of a high stakes testing regime creates a temptation to cheat.  2.  The idea that US schools are routinely bad and that they are getting worse is not demonstrated by data, in fact US schools have been improving over time.   The international testing shows little since the US has never been a high performer on international tests.  3.  Entrenched poverty has far more to do with poor education results than any other factor including having bad teachers.  4. The idea that bright people can come in an make more of  a difference than experienced teachers has no basis in fact.

I would mostly agree with Ravitch, in particular her criticisms of reformers like Rhee and her distaste for dilettante efforts like “Teach for America”.  Where I part company with Ravitch is when she seems to lump all reformers together.  There are basically 2 kinds of reformers. 1. The conservative ones, like the Walton foundation who wish to cut the cost of schools by destroying unions.  So they favor charter schools (non-unionized schools who have cheap teachers and inexperienced teachers). 2. Tech oriented ones, such as Bill Gates, who assume that given the high cost of education, that more use of modern technology can make it cheaper.  Gates favors things the are easily defined, such as mathematics and sciences.  I don’ t know if he even considers the importance of music and the visual arts.  There is also an implicit understanding that the new format school may not produce the same things as the old format school much as new technology changes both the method of production and what is produced. For example, we have books with better picture but cheaper binding than in the distant past.

The Gates foundation favors well trained teachers in larger classes.   What puts both reformers in the same boat is that neither has a tried and tested method of improving education.   I have a lot of sympathy towards Gates’s idea, that if one devotes resources to solving a problem, one can get close to solving it.  The downside is that most initial proposals are crap (anyone ever use windows 1.1).  The other downside is that problems with education are not as easily stated as the requirements of a software application.

Korea, have larger class sizes than other systems that do well  (ie: Finland).   The tech oriented reformers by and large do not have experience as educators.   All of them went to elite colleges, some of them, like Gates, came from wealthy backgrounds and have no personal experience with ‘failing’ schools.  In my own case I went to Catholic schools for my primary and secondary education.  I did go on Saturday’s to the Saturday Junior Art school run by the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. This was a Newark run school so it was subject to  all the ills that the reformers talk about. There was certainly corruption in Newark, at least in the purchasing area.  My experience  at the public school was entirely positive.   This was all going on while Newark was falling apart.   The schools at that time could still teach well. 

My own take on the issue is to be suspicious of the school reformers offering simple answers.  So many of  people involved are simply looking to make a buck.  There is an article  on a few days ago about the cost of providing Ipads in Los Angeles.  E-Textbooks will not be cheaper in the long run than paper books.  The testing proposals seem to be driven by the needs of those who make testing software to have easy to produce and grade tests. 

Where I agree completely with Ravitch is the contempt she has for the high stakes testing movement, that is the idea that teachers are judged by how well their students do on single tests, a single test whose performance is made worse because it doesn’t affect the students grade at all.  I have nothing against having some standardized tests (after all if the US is providing the money they might want to see how the kids are doing).  

There is a pernicious idea that testing and competition by themselves will improve schools.  There seem to be no reform proposals that actually discuss teaching. (I won’t discuss Common Core, since it seems to be a rather amorphous curriculum not something the changes how people teach.)   I haven’t seen an real ideas how to lower costs of education by adding computing technology to the classroom. The only way that will increase effiency is if the class size is increased, something Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates must be aware of when they proposed it.  I will note that in my own field, web development, all the courses are classroom based very few professional  computer training is via software.  I don’t think I have ever seen a software training class with more than 20 people in it.

We need to decide if we wish to provide an efficient old style education with limited resources or provide more resources appropriate to a more demanding modern curriculum.

This entry was posted in Economic policy, education. Bookmark the permalink.