Friday, December 3, 2010

Taking a Step Back in Education Reform

The education reform movement has existed for decades and yet when using the trend in national test scores for 8th and 12th graders vs. their international peers as an evaluation tool the movement has been a failure. Ignoring the irony of using these particular test scores to evaluate the education reform movement, the movement seems unaffected by this reality and continues to plow ahead blaming any ‘failure’ on bad teachers and inflexible unions that they claim are destroying any reasonable chance to educate the nation’s children. Sadly the very methodology of the education reform movement is more to blame for their failure than any teacher’s union, yet a sense of groupthink and cognitive dissidence has allowed that flawed methodology to continue unabated. So before any real widespread education reform can occur, the flaws must be removed from the rationalities used by education reformers.

The chief flaw facilitating the existence of all of the remaining flaws is that ‘problems’ in schools are typically judged on a relative level over an absolute level. What does this mean? Starting off with a question: why do most people believe the education system is broken? That belief typically springs from the simple comparison that international students perform better on a series of tests than U.S. students. If the current education system were exactly the same with the only difference being that U.S. students performed better than students from all other countries would there be any significant outcry regarding a ‘Crisis in Education’… it would be highly doubtful. Unfortunately this competitive comparison attitude also impacts the reform movement.

Most members of the reform movement do not look at specific education elements as problems because they are ineffective on an absolute level, but instead because they are not similar to what a foreign country may do. Basically x is a problem not because it has been determined that it detracts from the educational experience, but because country x does not do it and country x scores higher on international tests than the U.S. One may question the problem behind a strategy that involves copying elements from successful education environments to replace elements in less successful education environments. What is bad about replacing supposedly ineffective educational strategies with test supported more efficient strategies?

There are some significant concerns with this mindset. The most important element is that students are not static interchangeable parts, different methodologies work differently at educating different students. Ironically this chameleon element is frequently cited as a trait for quality teachers, yet while the teachers are supposed to be chameleons most reformers seem to believe that the education structure in which they work should be static and one-size fits all. A second problem also relates to the question of similarity. One cannot simply plug in a solution without determining how that change will affect other elements of the education environment.

Therefore, effective school reform must come from examination of whether or not an element works or even if it is necessary for a particular school. Thus, more incentive needs to be placed at the local level to identify these problems in an accurate and objective manner. Some might argue that such an ideal was embedded in ‘Race to the Top’, but the evaluation method applied to judge ‘Race to the Top’ applications seems to demonstrate that no in-depth ‘problem’-‘solution’ linkage was required. Without first having significant analysis of problems, generating effective solutions is difficult and instead one is left with generic broad solution suggestions that look great on paper, but their ability to actually solve the problem is unknown because they are not formulated to address a given problem in a specific situation. The educational reform movement is so intent on finding national solutions to the perceived education crisis that they will more than likely continue to make limited progress.

Scapegoating of teachers has eliminated the most important voice from the conversation. To assume that a vast majority of teachers are not committed or interested in ensuring a meaningful and effective education for U.S. children and teens is illogical and just plain wrong. Thus, where are mass public surveys to the nation’s teachers asking what they feel are the biggest obstacles to facilitating the instruction of a high quality education? This disconnect between those with front line experience and those that sit in the ‘general’s tent’ far behind the lines is an important reason why most of the proposed solutions are in conflict with what could actually work.

For example when asked ‘What is the one thing you could change in your school’ how many teachers would honestly answer ‘Well, our school is so hopeless we need to nuke it and start over by making it a charter school.’? It would be surprising to find any teacher who would give such an answer and yet such action is one of the primary responses of education reformers. Some critics would argue that of course teachers are not going to make such a suggestion because their number one priority is to protect their job; however, such cynicism does not make sense. Such cynicism stems from the general lack of respect individuals give the teaching profession. One wonders how teaching went from being a highly respected aspect of U.S. society to garnering almost no respect at all? Any one that believes a majority of teachers want to teach in an environment that is not striving to maximize its potential is simply a fool. Such a lack of respect and empathy for what teachers have to do is another aspect to why a number of educational reforms fail.

Overall one of the most important aspects of education reform has not been addressed, what those directly responsible for the education of U.S. children and teens, teachers and education administrators, believe to be the problems. Due to the lack of involvement of the principle actors in education in the future evolution of the education system one is not surprised by the gridlock that exists between the so-called reformers and the unions. To facilitate true education reform the next action must involve taking a step back and understanding that there is a standard deviation on those ‘mediocre’ U.S. test scores which generates an average for student performance. Not all schools perform as poorly as those scores indicate while not all schools perform as well. After this realization the path to real education reform can then begin with the following steps:

1. Each state should compose a survey for all of its teachers asking for input regarding education reforms; some sample questions should address (but not be limited to) the following issues:

- What do you believe is the best thing that your school does to support education?
- What do you believe is the biggest obstacle to improving the educational environment in your school?
- What do you believe is the most important thing that will change and/or influence the educational environment in the next 5 years?
- How is the general student attitude when it comes to learning and why does that attitude exist?

2. The federal government should require (pursuant to receiving any federal funding) each state to do a complete and objective audit of their educational budget to identify any points of overhead waste or general inefficiency in the distribution of funds. Note that this audit is not to make any judgments regarding whether program x should be viewed as wasteful or not, but instead simply account for all of the funds, track how they are distributed and determine whether or not those funds could be distributed more effectively.

3. Each school district should hold a conference to discuss the results of the surveys and develop a plan of action, including a prospective new financial budget for addressing the obstacles pointed out in the surveys; each district then bundles a monetary request to solve these obstacles into two categories: ‘need’ and ‘want’ which will be presented to the state;

While the above points cannot guarantee solutions to the problems with education there is a higher probability to develop solutions with the above method than the current strategy being executed now. Removing the ‘national’ element from the solution set should allow for greater flexibility and precision in applying solutions at the local level appropriate to the environment. Granted while the focus of solutions on a local level is important, it would be unwise to completely eliminate the federal government from the process. The development of national education standards should be the prerogative of the federal government. However, although the federal government should decide what U.S. students need to know, it should not dictate the methodology used by schools to teach that requisite knowledge.

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