This Week in Education: On & Off the Titanic

I just went through the last week or so of on-line featured articles from the on-line EdWeek edition of Education Week magazine and the Public Education Network. Looking at the state of the US institution of public education for youth from a parent’s point of view, it seems like there is still a fair amount of (to use some nautical metaphors) rearranging deck-chairs and still hoping that the water gushing into those holes in the hull being ripped open by that iceberg can be somehow contained to keep the ship afloat.

This is a very long post and kind of goes on and on trying to paint a snapshot of the public education gestalt in the US right now before I try to end on a very hopeful note.

    Rearranging the Deck Chairs

These are the stories that to me fit in the category of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Rupert Murdoch

In the EdWeek blog, “Murdoch Dives Into Ed-Tech Market”...

“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching,” said Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of News Corp.

Murdoch is a shrewd enough capitalist to know that there is lots of money to be made selling all that standardized educational materials for “e-learning”, particularly in an era when schools can’t afford enough “highly talented” flesh and blood teachers.

Rewards and Top-Down Control

In the EdWeek article, “Exploring the Human Element in Teaching Boys”

There is growing dismay that the U.S. education system spends considerably more and achieves less than that of many other countries. Over the past year, federal funding for the Race to the Top competition leveraged even stronger incentives for states to pass legislation holding teachers accountable for students’ progress — despite the lack of clear evidence to support the contention that corporate-based strategies such as merit pay and performance metrics lead to improved student performance.

The Obama administration is still trying to motivate states in a top-down control model to improve schools by offering rewards for a few “winners” which also produces a raft of “losers” in their wake. The article author goes on to say…

Our own work with teachers over the past 25 years leaves us skeptical that current educational reform proposals address the real basis of effective schooling: teaching approaches that produce demonstrably engaged and self-directed learners…

In other words, these grand bureaucratic solutions miss the point that education all starts with a self-directed student, not standardized programs invented by educrats with not connection at all with individual students.

In EdWeek blog piece, “Motivating 12th Graders to Ace NAEP: Try Prom Tickets”

But what came out, intriguingly, during today’s press calls about the latest results, is that schools, with NAGB’s blessing, are actually offering stuff to seniors to “motivate” them to do better on the famed exam known as “the nation’s report card.”… They’re giving them stuff. Think tickets to the prom. A coveted parking space in the school parking lot.

Some people might say, “Well, whatever works!”. But no, not whatever works! Its just the whole control by rewards paradigm again taking focus off the student/teacher/parent nexus. And why does this even rise to the level of a major national initiative and deserve an EdWeek mention.

The Swinging Political Pendulum & “Taylorism” Back from the Dead?

In the EdWeek article, “Full Cost of Professional Development Hidden”, exposes one of many budgetary problems in schools…

Cost. That would seem to be the most fundamental aspect of crafting a professional-development program. But as a number of researchers have discovered, school districts rarely have a good fix on how much they actually spend on such training — or on what that spending buys in the way of teacher or student learning.

As the public dollars dry up, and the Republicans are in ascendancy in more states, I see us going back to something akin to “Taylorism” and the “Scientific Management” of a century ago, when schools adopted paperwork in triplicate to appear to have business efficiency, taking the focus off the more critical student/teacher/parent nexus.

From the NY Times opinion page, “Who’s Qualified to Run New York City Schools?”, here’s former NYC school chancellor Rudy Crew, framing education in terms of top-down business engineering. Says Crew…

The production cycle of a third-grader learning the skills of reading comprehension is quite different from that of a magazine…

Happy that Crew sees education as different than running a magazine, but what the heck is the “production cycle” of learning how to read?

In “A trend that may be hard to reverse”, the Public Education Network highlights a article where noted university professor, Henry Giroux, calls out that…

The connection between schooling and public good has been replaced by a business model of schooling… a mode of authority and management that believes money is the only incentive for working hard, making knowledge meaningful, and understanding the dynamics of learning.

Again, just like a century ago, in a tight economy public schools have to make their case to the public that they are practicing business efficiency highlighted by top-down control. But it seems to me, as a century ago with “Taylorism”, its just the sound and fury of business platitudes that signify nothing.

The Unsolvable Conundrum

In the EdWeek blog piece, “Schools of Last Resort”, talking about a school choice program in New Zealand that in its implementation was helping good students get into good schools but was making things worse for the “hard to educate” kids.

What is also overlooked is that when students in their schools of choice do not measure up for one reason or another, they are often pushed out. This can happen in a very subtle way. When this occurs, they return to their original schools, which become the schools of last resort. I use that term because traditional public schools cannot by law also push out underperforming students.

I suspect many of the “hard to educate” students are in the wrong kind of learning environment and don’t want to be there. Expecting teachers to somehow magically make these kids want to learn or somehow force them to learn is just poisoning the classroom environment for the kids that want to be there. We can’t abandon these “hard to educate” kids, but we somehow have to engage them in calling out what kind of environment they need to learn, rather than our current hypocrisy that it’s somehow the teachers fault.

    Trying to Keep the Titanic from Sinking

And now that the Great Recession has come to roost on state and federal school spending, who is getting stuck in the middle assailed from all sides?

Turning Schools into Workhouses?

In the EdWeek article, “Eliminating Recess Hurts Kids”, the laser focus on improving test scores by increasing “seat time”, may be leading to dehumanized sweat shop like conditions in schools where students are denied breaks (that is recess). In a suburban New England town…

Our excellent superintendent had the unenviable task of moving from one acrimonious evening meeting to another in the opening weeks of our school year, trying to explain why, since standardized-test scores haven’t met the designated benchmarks, the schools have been mandated to eliminate morning recess and force the children to spend their midmorning time swotting up on their academic skills… The thinking is that more minutes in the classroom will enable the youngsters to sharpen their minds and raise their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS tests.

And speaking to that top-down control mentality of educational policy…

This is not a new idea, but it’s a patently boneheaded one—a virtually perfect example… of why establishing educational policies from on high is a pointless practice, however well-intentioned.

Getting More for Less out of Teachers

In the EdWeek article, “Class Sizes Show Signs of Growing”, citing that no research can categorically confirm that less kids in a classroom improves the learning environment (though it seems intuitive that it would), lack of that confirmation is important right now so that states can increase class sizes due to shrinking budgets and not feel like they are doing a dis-service to their kids…

Secretary Duncan pointed to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group representing major industrialized countries, showing that several high-performing Asian countries have higher average class sizes: 33 in Japan and 36 in South Korea, compared with the estimated 25 students in the United States.

Seems to me, the larger classes get, the more the “hard to educate” kids will poison classroom environments, and the less real relationships teachers will be able to have with students, substituting more scripted curriculum instead (including that now provided by Rupert Murdoch’s new assets).

In the EdWeek article, “Bill Gates on School Budgets: Cut Wisely, Change Pay Schemes”, Gates is advocating that though the goal is highly qualified teachers, there should be no pay bump for teachers with graduate degrees. So rather than cut back on classroom days with furlough’s we can simply pay teachers less. And to make up for those dialed-down salaries… what else, rewards…

Gates, speaking at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual policy forum in Louisville, Ky., called for moving away from systems that pay teachers based on seniority or obtaining master’s degrees, which he says haven’t been show to raise student achievement… Rewards for teachers “don’t have to be gigantic” he argued, and in fact, even modest incentives would change the culture of school systems.

In EdWeek blog piece, “Duncan: Stop Paying Teachers Like ‘Interchangeable Widgets’”

From a parent’s perspective, [Duncan] said, he would prefer to put his child in a class that had 26 students and an exceptional teacher rather than a class with 22 students and a mediocre one.

Though I agree that teachers should be paid more for having larger class sizes, the Education Secretary is again putting unrealistic pressure on schools to hire all top-notch teachers and for all teachers to be exceptional (with an implied “or else”).

From the Public Education Network synopsis of a Time magazine article, “The (next) coming storm”

Andrew Rotherham writes that teacher pensions threaten the fiscal health of many states, and like the savings-and-loan crisis or current housing-market woes, insiders see trouble ahead.

The whole national aging teacher population will be putting additional downward pressure on school funding and teacher compensation as well.

Wrangling those Cats

In “Gauging the IMPACT”, the Public Education Network highlights a Washington Post article reporting that…

The District of Columbia’s most affluent ward has more than four times as many “highly effective” public schoolteachers as its poorest ward, The Washington Post reports. These data derive from rankings under the district’s new evaluation system, IMPACT.

Practically speaking, why would most teachers choose to work in schools that have already been tagged as “losers” rather than “winners” and are full of supposedly “hard to educate” students. There is an unrealistic and even hypocritical mythology out there that teachers should increasingly martyr themselves to work in impossible working conditions, even if the cause is a compelling one or it might earn them a few more dollars.

    The Good News

Finally, what I think is the best news of the week from the EdWeek article, “Teacher-Led Schools Flip the Script”, maybe even a solution in waiting to many of schools financial woes.

With school districts and education leaders on the lookout for break-the-mold schooling models, the concept of the teacher-led school has received an increasing amount of media attention recently. Teacher-led schools, usually run by groups of teachers known as teacher professional partnerships, vary widely in structure and academics. What they have in common is that they upend the traditional school hierarchy and put teachers — rather than administrators — in control of decision making.

According to Joe Graba, co-founders of Education Evolving, a Minnesota-based think tank that advocates rethinking traditional learning environments…

We think of a school as having first a governance structure and a learning program. It’s possible to have a teacher-led school with almost any kind of learning program. Although, in teacher-led schools the teachers tend to create more student-centered learning programs, since they’re responsible for the school. They quickly realize that the more they motivate the students to take responsibility for their own learning, [the more] they increase the likelihood of a school being successful.

So how do teachers divide their time between instruction and administrative duties? According to Garba’s fellow think-tanker Ted Kolderie…

They don’t call themselves teachers. They call themselves advisors.

There ya go! “Teachers” are beleaguered underpaid drudges who are more and more the scapegoats for a failure of a massive top-down hierarchical educational-industrial complex. We’re now “advisors”, and we partner with students to foster self-directed learning instead… despite “the man”!

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