Missing Kids

Today is the first day of a new school year here in the overly-large school district and the Washington Post, making one of it’s occasionally passes at playing a local newspaper, documents some of our changes. Actually, beyond a few numbers about how big we are, most of the article reads like excerpts from a press release about the superintendent’s Portrait of a Graduate project.

Anyway, I’ve ranted about the portrait a few times in this space but there’s one major problem with this plan that I don’t think can be repeated enough.

The “portrait” concept developed under the guidance of a 70-member task force of parents, teachers, principals and local corporate executives.

Seventy people and they didn’t bother to include any future graduates. No recent graduates. No students who dropped out of school. Not one member of the group that this plan will most directly impact.

However, there’s nothing unique about our district in this regard. Look at the whole school reform movement in this country and you will find few if any student voices. We have lots of politicians, rich business people, news personalities, philanthropists, technologists, occasionally a teacher or two, all manner of adults with proposals for “fixing” our “broken” education system.

But we never seriously include the kids themselves when making important decisions about their education.

And anything called “reform” will be meaningless until that changes.

Stuff That Needs To Go

MindShift recently posted “10 Things in School That Should Be Obsolete“, and managed to come up with a good, mostly different collection than those found on dozens of similar lists.

A couple were rather odd (Dark, indoor gyms? Large restrooms?), and I certainly can't argue with eliminating computer labs since I've ranted about that topic several times in this space.

However, two of the items mentioned are not only obsolete, their continued existence is also a major impediment to any meaningful high school reform.

2. LEARNING IN PRESCRIBED PLACES. When you ask people to remember a meaningful learning experience from high school, chances are the experience didn’t take place in a space designed for learning. Working in groups, while on a trip, while doing a project or learning while talking with friends – those are the lasting, meaningful learning experiences. Yet we don’t design schools to accommodate these activities and focus only on the formal spaces.

5. DEPARTMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS. In order to break down the size of schools and to allow students to learn across curriculum, it’s essential to organize schools so that teachers of various subjects are located together. This not only emulates how people work today — in collaborative groups — but encourages teachers to consider students holistically, not only as they perform in a specific subject.

Throwing out number four, isolated classrooms, as well provides a great start to creating those “21st century schools” we've been talking about since before the turn of the previous century.

It’s All An Illusion

One key assumption behind No Child Left Behind – and pretty much every major education reform effort of the past half century – is that a strong education system is essential to American economic growth.

However, as Larry Cuban points out, although multiple reports and even more politicians have repeated the mantra, even economists don’t have evidence to support it.

And current attempts to connect school reform and economic growth are nothing new. Remember our past love affair with Japanese schools?

Recall that in the 1980s, U.S. policymakers including corporate leaders looked to Japan with its remarkable annual growth and pointed to its schools as driving the economy. Educators, economists, and sociologists traveled to Japan to study its schools and contrast them—in highly positive terms—with U.S. schools. But the contrasts fell flat in the 1990s when Japan’s economy nose-dived for that decade until just recently. Few policymakers today use Japan as a model for U.S. schools.

So, if it’s not going to make us a lot of money, is there a good reason to pay for a strong public education system?

After all, there are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools. But not now with the three-decade concentration in educational policymaking on equating higher graduation rates and college attendance with economic growth.

Although you wouldn’t know it from visiting most of our schools, there IS more to a good education than getting a high school diploma and going to college.

Good Job… Keep Doing the Same Thing

In his weekly Post column, I actually agree with Jay Mathews’ assessment of the campaign promises on education issues being tossed around by the two candidates for Virginia governor:  Pleasant sound bites with little substance.

Whichever Virginia candidate wins will do his best for kids, even if much of what is being proposed is standard American campaign pap. Both want to raise teachers salaries, a wonderful idea, but neither presents a realistic plan to pay for that. Both support school-business partnerships to prepare students for the real world but don’t say how they are going to solve the old problem that neither business executives nor educators have the time or energy to make such plans work. Both want to reduce dropout rates but cite no examples of this happening recently in any significant way, given the drag of poverty on many children’s lives.

I have to admit that Mathews is also right when he says that Virginia already does a pretty good job of supporting public schools.

Unfortunately, that support is almost entirely in the context of the traditional educational structure.

Neither of the people running for governor, much less anyone else in the state political or educational administrative structure, is proposing anything that would substantially move teaching and learning beyond the process familiar to anyone attending school in the last half of the 20th century.

Charter schools don’t do it – the vast majority are just private schools being run with public money using the same curriculum and pedagogy.

AP and IB classes don’t do it – they still lock schools into a college-is-the-only-goal mentality using programs written by the even more tradition-bound university system.

Improving teacher quality is certainly a good idea but not if the plans are centered around enhancing teaching methods designed for students from 1965.

More standardized testing?  More crap is not better crap!

Yes, voters should feel good “about the great job Virginia educators have done” in the past.

But that’s no reason to keep doing the same thing, only more of it, and assuming that every other factor outside the school will remain static.

Oh, and paying for it with leftover small change.

Past Performance Might Predict Future Returns

Larry Cuban looks at one of the current hot topics in education reform, merit pay for teachers (what he calls “pay for performance”), and reminds everyone that there’s nothing new here.

In touting pay-for-performance plans, federal and state decision-makers fail to point out (or ignore) past efforts to link teacher performance to money that have been a series of disasters plainly seen by those who know their history. In fact, an honest reformer’s advice to would-be buyers of these schemes would be: The lousy record of pay-for-performance plans does, indeed, predict the future. [his emphasis]

Consider England in the late-19th century, the history of merit pay plans since the 1920s, and U.S. performance contracting in the 1960s. Using cash to spur teachers to get students to learn more, faster, and better, these plans stumbled repeatedly in narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and sowing distrust among teachers and administrators. Ultimately, policymakers abandoned the plans. Few researchers and knowledgeable policymakers would dispute these previous failed efforts.

Back in the early 90’s our overly-large school district tried a merit pay scheme.

And while I personally benefited from the program (full disclosure: I enjoyed having the extra cash! :-), overall it was a major waste, time as well as money, and did nothing to improve learning.

Paying individual teachers for the performance (aka higher standardized test scores) of students currently sitting in their classrooms is wrong in so many ways.

It ignores the educators who worked with the kids in past years as well as the other staff members in the school who are contributing to their learning now.

Much worse than that, it reinforces the traditional concept of the teacher as an independent contractor, working in isolation, solely and completely responsible for the learning of the children assigned to them.

Cuban is right that the current salary system used in most school systems, one where everyone gets the same based on the arbitrary factors of longevity and continuing education credits, is wrong.

However, any new system needs to get beyond the view of teaching as an individual process and focus on the collaborative effort that goes into any child’s education.