Sunday, August 28, 2005

What's Wrong With Schools

For, well, probably as long as there have been public schools, people have been quick to complain that various things are "wrong" with them, and to propose sweeping "reforms" or "solutions" which... usually aren't empirically researched, but instead fall into the category of "that feels right" or "that sounds good". Meanwhile, teaching colleges focus on preparing teachers for the status quo. And even within the realm of high-end private school education there is little to no real innovation, let alone an effort to research alternative educational models and their effectiveness. At best, research seems directed at "how to keep doing what we are doing, but improve it."

Where there is genuine research (e.g., "children learn better in kindergarten through third grade when class sizes are limited to 20") it often appears to be misinterpreted (e.g., "all elementary school classes should be limited in size, because children will learn better") or reinterpreted around budgetary concerns ("we're limiting class size to 28, so children will learn better").

Meaningless proposals are often tossed around as if they represent great wisdom.

Higher standards for teachers! Well, great... but how many school boards have policies of not hiring the best applicants?

Higher standards for teaching schools! Well, great... but if you cut down on the number of students accepted into education programs, how will we respond to a worsening teacher shortage?

Pay teachers more! Well, great... who is going to pay this money, again? And how do we know it will affect school quality - how much more do you have to pay teachers before you start attracting additional people to the field? (And if you draw people to the field on the basis of income, are you sure they will be better teachers?)

Oh, this is a good one... Make the best teachers work where they are most needed, in the worst schools and classrooms! Because the best teachers will rejoice at the opportunity, and won't simply apply for jobs in a different school district. And there's no better way to draw in top quality candidates from other fields of study than to promise them jobs in failing schools.

We need teachers who inspire the students! Inspiration is great, but I don't recall ever having a teacher who I thought could be trained to be more inspirational. I personally experienced many highly qualified teachers who were not inspirational, but were nonetheless very good at teaching. And some teachers, across the spectrum of subject matter competence, are amazingly adept at squeezing any enthusiasm right out of their students.

More competition between students! The Economist recently criticized teachers for disfavoring competition in school, whatever that means. Are we speaking about competition between students, or a student's internal effort to improve (competition with self)? Is the proposal that we would be better served by making all classes harder? By grading on a curve, such that students were forced to compete with each other for their grades? And what evidence is there that increased academic competition would work? (My high school's football team was among the worst in the city when I first enrolled, and had not improved by the time I graduated - competition failed. But the school had a great academic record.)

Equalized funding per student! It is presumed to be unfair when an inner city school has lower funding than a suburban school, but funding alone explains nothing. There are poorly funded school districts which perform well, and well-funded school districts which perform poorly. While equalizing funding can create new opportunities in poorly funded school districts, it's not a magic cure. Guess who has the most time to interact with, support, mentor, and teach children? Hint: It isn't their teachers.

Standardized tests for everyone! And perhaps mandating standardized tests to gauge student performance is, to some degree, necessary given the status quo. But too much testing becomes counter-productive, as teachers "teach to the test". And a system in which an excellent school can be given a "C+" grade for not improving, while a substandard school can get an "A" for improvement, is ridiculous.

Mandatory homework! Because... busy work helps kids learn? Is there any evidence that mandatory homework policies have improved student learning? My anecdotal experience is that most "mandatory homework" takes the form of busywork - stuff that either doesn't have to be graded, or is easy to grade, and consumes the required amount of time. Meanwhile, the kids who would in theory most benefit from homework often don't have the support at home to help them with that homework.

It has been commented that the "Three R's" have been supplaced by the "Three S's" - sit down, shut up, stand in line. With zero tolerance, and muddled, muddied "reforms", that doesn't seem likely to change. I once hoped that the charter school movement might inspire some true innovation, particularly where charter schools were partnered with teaching colleges. Unfortunately, there doesn't really seem to be any interest in driving true reform and innovative teaching methods.


  1. I would like very much to read the article that prompted this blog. Would you please send information to

    Thank you.

  2. Somebody in Bath, Maine neither reads many of Aaron's posts nor likes to do her own homework.

    If he was inspired by a particular article, he would have cited it. He's funny that way.

    I fear, Allison, that you will have to go and do your own research.