Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What needs to happen to improve education in the United States

This post will return to the issue of education reform, largely because there has been an abnormal increase in the number of articles written about it in mainstream news publications in the last two months. One of the saddest things that one experiences when reading these articles is that the authors seem not to genuinely care about actually reforming the education system in the United States, which make no mistake need reform, but instead they only care about their supposed method of reform. Of course such a mindset basically dooms any sense of legitimate and successful reform to failure because these individuals tend to block out the flaws in their method and demonize certain elements in the current system that do not deserve such scorn. Those who truly want to solve the problem need to systematically look at the system, identify the flaws and then act to remove those flaws instead of citing some little trendy example that seems to work, but could never be applicable as a real solution.

For example most of these new articles lament the ‘horrible’ state of education in the United States and gleefully cite charter school organizations like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) or YES Prep as the model panacea. They dream that if only those horrid teacher’s unions could be abolished then everything would be perfect. Teachers would be judged on their performance using grades and standardized test scores giving ‘definitive’ proof of which teachers were competent and which should start looking for new jobs because without those pesky unions firing teachers would be as easy as adding 2 + 2. With the ability to fire teachers at the drop of a hat, teacher salaries could be increased attracting the best of the best to teach instantly improving the system and making the United States number 1 in the world again.

Alas, how unfortunate that reality must set in and awake Michelle Rhee and her allies from their perfect education world because such a dream world is far from perfect. The problem is that most reformers are so desperate for change they do not realize that the change they are seeking is in and of itself flawed. So where do the flaws lie in the ‘perfect’ dream of most reformers?

The first issue that many reformers seem to neglect is the very issue regarding the nature of teaching. Money is not the main attractor or detractor that determines whether or not an individual, who later would evolve into a good teacher, joins the profession in the first place. Most good teachers view the profession as a form of calling or an occupation of considerable importance. It is rational to believe that the substandard salaries that are given to most teachers may dissuade some from involving themselves in the profession, but to think that a dramatic increase in salary will magically flood applicant pools with individuals that are or will be effective teachers is less rational and more hopeful. The interesting issue is that an increase in salary may actually dilute the talent pool for quality teachers. A higher salary will indeed attract more applicants, but would those applicants have the appropriate drive and overall mindset to be an effective teacher?

The reason for the above concern is that the responsibility of teaching goes beyond what most people think. Frequent are the snipes about teachers only having to work 6-7 hour days and getting 3 months off in the summer; however, rarely is it mentioned that the quality teacher actually ends up working 12-14 hour days due to their involvement in running extracurricular activities for students and/or ensuring that the next day’s lesson is effective at instructing on the major points that need to be understood to master the given topic. Those 3 months off in the summer, good teachers spend them analyzing from a macro and micro perspective what went well the last year and what did not and for those things that did not go well what needs to change to foster improvement. Also if required these teachers, that reformers so highly value, attend workshops and training seminars to acquire new skills to ensure that their teaching efficiency does not decline with changing technology and changes in culture or society.

Of course those elements of teaching only involve the teacher. How does the requirement equation change if the pot is spiced up a bit by adding in the targets of the education? In most professions the working environment and clientele is rather homogenous as the given profession attracts and in some cases requires a certain personality to succeed. Thus person-to-person interaction is either very easy or very difficult, where those finding it very difficult quickly find themselves lacking a job. However, teachers have to interact with ‘clientele’ that run the gamut of personality traits including, but not limited to the eager to please ‘teacher’s pet’, the quiet and studious, the intelligent and arrogant, the apathetic and failing, the uncaring and rambunctious, etc.

Unfortunately that is not all. Teachers also have to interact with parents, which run the similar gamut of personality traits, but unfortunately do not always mesh up with the traits of their offspring. Add in other administration elements and a typical lack of funds due to local resident backlash against further increases to their property taxes and one can very easily see that good teachers require something much more than the offer of a large salary. Sadly most reformers do not seem to realize reality. They almost have the attitude that once the handshake acknowledging the acceptance of the job is complete the new teacher is magically imbued with the necessary traits to become a high quality, motivate the student no matter what, A or B grades for everyone instructor.

The focus on and adoration to quality programs like KIPP and YES Prep can probably be blamed for most of the delusions school reformers have about their solutions. The problem is that reformers look at a KIPP school and its successes, especially teaching Black and Latino students, who typically fair poorer on average in grades and standardized test scores in public schools. Then these same reformers look at what they regard as the gross failure of the public school system and come to the immediate conclusion that installing the KIPP school structure for the given public school will end the failure and facilitate success.

However, these reformers seem to neglect the simple fact of scales. For example the entire KIPP program consists of 82 schools [16 elementary (K-4), 55 middle (5-8) and 11 high schools (9-12)] with approximately 21,000 students whereas the entire public school system consists of over 64 million students. Even the least populous state of Wyoming has 4 times as many public school students (84,920) than the entire KIPP program. It is rational that a niche, which requires specialized talent can be very successful on a small scale, but cannot exceed a certain size and still hope for the same success with the same methodology. Such a niche is the KIPP program and similar programs, they look and operate great when they only involve 0.033% of the population; however, their model runs into significant problems when theoretically scaled up to meet higher population demands because of a simple lack of resources or time to meet those demands.

The cell phone stance is a great example of this point. The KIPP program advertises that teachers are instructed to carry cell phones so students can contact them to ask for help at any point in the day. Although on its face one may praise such an idea, the efficacy of such an idea changes dramatically with class size. The general 11-15 student KIPP class size allows for this idea, the standard 25-35 student class size for the generic public school significantly handicaps it.

The entire industry of charter schools falls under this niche umbrella. Outside of the very specialized programs like KIPP and Yes Prep, which are very small and almost need to be to generate their success, larger charter school systems have demonstrate no statistically significant improvement over the education offered at public schools despite their incredible support in the popular media. That niche characteristic is also why support for voucher programs as a means of school reform is such a joke. Voucher programs are so small that they will do nothing to help the flaws with the public school system and will actually be detrimental by pulling useful resources from the system. Suggesting that a voucher program is an element of positive reform for the education system in the United States is akin to suggesting that a bullet to the brain is a positive element for someone’s health.

Part of the problem with reformers is they are looking for solutions in the wrong places. If reformers are so eager to find a cut-and-paste example for education reform they should be looking at successful public schools instead of charter schools. The focus should be contained to the same genus. For example attempting to find a solution to the problems in the public school system in charter schools provides as little help as if a biologist trying to understand a disease in wolves looked at the uninfected local pig population instead of the uninfected local dog population. Unfortunately for reformers even looking at successful public schools will only generate broad based theories and possible solutions because of the eclectic and dynamic nature of public schools in general. However, these broad based solutions offer a place to start because one of the few things that reformers have gotten right is that reform is needed.

Before throwing around possible solutions to the myriad of problems reformers see with the education system, reformers tend not to ask the key question: what is the overall goal(s) of education? Until one develops an answer to that question proposing reforms is rather meaningless because the proposed reforms will not have a clear focus regarding their intended changes. So in order to get the ball rolling: what is the overall goal(s) of education?

Based on the actions and mission statements of various public and charter schools the intent is clearly to educate students attending the particular school; however, those statements do not go far beyond the nauseatingly general, similar in way to the generic medical student response of ‘I want to help people’ when asked why he wants to be a doctor. The problem with these broad statements is what do they really mean? There is a vast difference between providing the necessary level of education to be nuclear physicist and the education to be a radio broadcaster both in type of knowledge and amount of knowledge. For example despite the differences in type of knowledge the nuclear physicist needs to be able to think about certain issues and problems in a way that will never be required of the radio broadcaster. So if the goal is a focus on ‘education’ what type of ‘education’ should it be even in the most generic sense; the one required for the nuclear physicist or the one required for the radio broadcaster?

Overall despite all of the proclamations, it appears that most schools have one of two goals when it comes to education. First, instruct the students to the bare minimum thought to be required for the next grade level almost in a fashion of just getting rid of them. Second, instruct the student to a level required for college admission regardless of what particular level of college. Unfortunately neither of these goals are well defined with specifics, which makes it easy to claim success. Overall it is not difficult to get into college if one has the funds; if the only criterion for a successful educational experience is being accepted into college then attaining such a goal is relatively easy. However, such success may be relatively pointless, for there are many people that get into college that cannot think their way out of a paper bag. If advancing to the next grade level is the goal, success is almost guaranteed because individuals regardless of their true education level are almost never held back from advancing up the education ladder.

What would happen if education goals were better defined? Clearly a goal cannot be established for each individual or unique occupation because that would be silly and unproductive, but what about more defined general goals with specifics. To do this the first thing to do is ask the question: what is the first principle point of education, why were schools established in the first place? In a democracy for a country to reach its full potential its citizens must have the ability to analyze their situation and identify practical and reasonable solutions to any problems they encounter. Also citizens must realize that they are a single part of a much larger collective, thus it is important to consider the viewpoints and beliefs of other individuals and how they relate to society in general instead of characterize everything they do not agree with as a problem in society. It is the development of these abilities, which make up the origins and still remains the bedrock of the education system, thus it makes sense that these elements drive the goals of education. So how can these basic concepts be reconciled into a goal structure?

Although not the only way, one way is as followed:

Goals of Education –

1. Produce citizens that can make rational decisions, which will allow them to make positive contributions to society;

2. Produce citizens that can effectively form solutions to both qualitative and quantitative problems;

3. Produce citizens that can use both spoken and written word to effectively communicate their ideas and feelings to other individuals as well as understand and analyze the validity of the ideas and feelings of others;

4. Produce citizens that do not tolerate individuals that attempt to manipulate or deceive society for their own ends; further more produce citizens that do not tolerate those that practice and/or preach ignorance or idiocy for the sole purpose of satisfying their own personal beliefs;

To clarify the fourth goal, it is healthy and appropriate for well-meaning and intelligent individuals to debate on topics like the death penalty or legalization of certain drugs where there is legitimate evidence to support both sides of the argument. However, it is not appropriate and significantly detrimental to allow for the continuation of a ‘debate’ on topics that lack evidence to support one side, like discussions regarding whether or not climate change is driven by human activities. Arguing that human actions are not the primary driving force in climate change, to which there is no legitimate evidence of support, is akin to arguing that 2 + 2 is 6,891,957 instead of 4. Despite this simple and definitive reality the ‘debate’ of global warming still rages on. Thus the fourth goal seeks to ensure an end to these fruitless and time-wasting ‘debates’ because there really is nothing to debate.

So if those are the major general goals of educational institutions, what are the first steps to achieving them? The first goal can be achieved by acquiring a basic understanding of government/civics, history, contemporary social issues and math as well as detailed analysis of historical and practical cause and effect models and the methodology that was utilized in their development. The second goal can be achieved by extensive problem-solving analysis and the empirical practice of the scientific method on various topics. The third goal can be achieved through high quality language and grammar courses as well as a number of debates and discussions. Finally the fourth goal can be achieved through instant correction when a student makes a facetious argument and a follow-up challenge asking the two key questions to breaking the control of incorrect beliefs: 1. why do you believe such a thing? 2. what information/evidence would you have to see to convince you that your original opinion is incorrect?

Of course establishing goals and a general construct for achieving those goals is only the first step. There are many different elements that can still be debated on the grounds of whether or not they would enhance the efficiency of attaining these goals. That will be the motivation behind the next post regarding education, a critical analysis of how those elements need to be incorporated if they are going to be helpful to achieving the aforementioned goals of education. Overall if the education system is to improve reform will be necessary; however, to simply rest the outcome of reform on the illusionary laurels of generally flawed teacher evaluation methods and higher teacher salaries is a methodology that is doomed for failure when applied to the system as a whole.

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