What’s Missing From This Portrait?

For the past few months our overly-large school district has been working on a big project called Portrait of a Graduate, which, according to the information page/press release, is supposed to produce “a guide to create a long-range strategic plan for the school system” for “our community’s expectations of what they want a graduate … to know and understand”.

Not a bad goal. Take a step back and completely reevaluate why we exist as a school system in the first place. Or am I reading too much into that?

Anyway, so who is involved in developing this ambitious plan?

…a task force representing parents, teachers, school administrators, community and civic leaders, and businesses is meeting in three facilitated sessions from October to December to examine new models of a 21st century education that is tied to outcomes in terms of proficiency in core subject knowledge and skills that are expected and highly valued in school, work, and community settings.

Notice anything missing from that “representing” list? Yep, no students. No future members of that graduating portrait. No young adults who actually graduated from our schools in the past few years. No one who dropped out of school.

Why is it that school reform discussions almost never include meaningful participation from kids, the people most affected by the decisions that will be made?

Certainly would make for a better, more accurate portrait.

Planning Your Life

In an interview at his alma mater, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about an assignment from an MBA course in which he wrote a plan for his next 25 years. It turns out his predictive skills were rather poor since “the plan was ‘reasonably accurate’ for 18 to 24 months after it was written”.

He told the students in the audience that the lesson he’s learned over time was that “the journey was not predictable, at all” and that “the only thing I believe you can do is prepare”.

The world is going to change many times, the environment’s going to change many times, the companies you work for are going to ebb and flow, you may wind up in the same company, you may not, you may wind up in the same career, you may not, you may wind up with the spouse you’re married to now, you may not.

A quarter century ago, someone who became a very successful business leader was unable to anticipate his life path more than two years out.

The world, both business and otherwise, moves much, much faster now of course.  However, we continue to operate our educational system as if we are completely sure of the knowledge and skills our students will need four to eight years down the line.

Short Term Thinking, Long Term Failure

Any other public school educators getting tired of being told you’re overpaid?

State and local politicians are loudly claiming teacher pay and benefits are bankrupting their governments, and a long parade of “experts” on the talking heads channels have declared us to be wildly over compensated (at least compared to the divine private sector), greedy, and don’t forget lazy.

Many of those same people make lots of noise when international comparisons of test scores show our students ranking in the middle of the pack but ignore other statistics showing teacher pay in the US also ranking low when compared to Finland, Korea and other industrialized countries.

They also want to change teacher compensation formulas to pay them based on changes in test scores, the so-called “value add” system, despite there being no evidence that such formulas (or the tests themselves for that matter) have any validity when it comes to student learning.

On the other side of things, one lone voice, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, tries to make the case for raising teacher salaries, starting with the common reasoning that, if we want to improve schools, we need to attract more talented, better educated people to the profession.*

However, his better argument, one that needs to be made more frequently, is the long term benefits that comes from investing in good teachers and good schools.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

During the economic mess of the past three years, we were told that the million dollar bonuses being paid by the likes of AIG, Bank of America, and other financial service companies were necessary so that they wouldn’t lose talented people.

The same “talent”, of course, that created the incredible risky investments that cause the crash in the first place.

Anyway, you rarely hear anyone saying anything about paying to retain talented teachers and principals, despite all the talk about them being the key factor to building a “world class” school system.

That’s because most people running business and government in this country are totally fixated on short term gains – the next quarter’s profits, the next election – rather than paying for long term public investments, ones that pay off in 10, 20, 30 years.

It’s why our roads, bridges, and public transportation systems are falling apart, why we continue to rely on increasingly expensive and scarce fossil fuels for energy, and why our school system is stuck with a 1950’s industrial model in this hyperlinked information age.

Considering that too many people in this country are worried about their day-to-day issues, I’m not optimistic about the short term thinking of our “leaders” changing anytime soon.

But something about our national attitude about planning for the future does need to change.


*Kristof weakens his case somewhat with the line “as measured by SAT scores” but that’s another rant.