Saturday, February 14, 2009

Making Teachers Less Like... Windows Vista?

I'll give Bill Gates credit for directing a huge amount of money, through his foundation, at education reform. And I very much appreciate his effort to try to determine what works instead of resorting to fads or politics. But when he writes,
The private high school I attended, Lakeside in Seattle, made a huge difference in my life. The teachers fueled my interests and encouraged me to read and learn as much as I could. Without those teachers I never would have gotten on the path of getting deeply engaged in math and software. . . .

How many kids don't get the same chance to achieve their full potential?
I know he's not proposing that public schools be brought up to the standard of his private high school, currently costing well over $25,000 per year in tuition and fees. But his findings in relation to the most successful public schools, supported by Gates Foundation grants, are interesting.
But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools.
Gates observes, "We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school" - I suspect that plays a role in why charter schools were more likely to be successful. They have the opportunity to start fresh with administrators who were better positioned to try something new, and perhaps also much more interested in doing so.

Honestly, I've seen school administrators in public school systems enact policies that seem designed to stifle innovation, and make the extraordinary more ordinary, either because they don't understand alternative models to education or (in my cynical view) because it's more work. Also, while charter schools don't discriminate in who they admit, there's going to be some self-selection both in terms of the parents and kids who are willing to tolerate extra rules or requirements, or even to overcome the lethargy that keeps them in the default neighborhood school. They also get to recruit teachers whose philosophies align with their own.

Consistent with the Washington Posts editorial stance, Gates argues that this means we need more charter schools.
Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed.
Yet let's be honest here. School funding levels are only part of the picture. I suspect it's a "donut hole" phenomenon, and schools like Lakeside or Sidwell Friends establish that extremely high funding can bring additional benefits to their students, but there's a basic level of funding beyond which additional dollars don't seem to have much impact on student performance. The fact that charter schools on the whole aren't outperforming, or are underperforming, public schools has less to do with funding and more to do with the fact that the people who set them up don't always share Gates' zeal for quality and performance, or don't have the requisite skill set to turn that interest into reality.

When the idea of charter schools was first raised, I found it very intriguing. I saw real potential for experimentation and improvement. But the reality is, building and running a school is hard work. The amount of institutional lethargy behind institutions of higher learning (particularly schools with large teaching colleges) was perhaps not surprising, but was disappointing - I haven't seen any real leadership from that direction. Some charter school entrepreneurs seemed (and seem) more interested in providing an alternative culture (e.g., charter schools that follow a particular religious model) than a better educational model. Some appear to be driven almost entirely by profit. There are true believers out there, but there don't seem to be as many as Bill Gates appears to believe.

Also, unless charter schools have equal responsibility - no indirect subsidy by letting their students use sports facilities or play on sports teams at nearby public schools, equal responsibility for special education students, etc. - they shouldn't get equal funding. I'm not arguing that some states or school districts don't underfund charter schools, as that appears to happen with some regularity, but mere inequality of funding does not of itself mean that charter schools aren't equitably funded.

Gates speaks of improving teachers:
One of the key things these schools have done is help their teachers be more effective in the classroom.
It's no surprise that the best schools, public and private, support their teachers and help them achieve, maintain and build on their classroom effectiveness.
Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school.
I hate "research shows" lines tossed out like that, with no indication of what the research actually means. If you compare an AP math class to a remedial math class, you're going to see a huge difference in performance between the two classrooms. But for all we know, they may be taught by the same teacher. And if they're not, it's not an indictment of the teacher who's working to bring the unprepared kids up to speed, but results from the fact that they're in a classroom full of kids whose math skills were far below grade level from day one.

The teacher in the remedial classroom may in fact be the better teacher. The worst math teacher I ever had taught honors math at my high school - I was stuck in her class for 11th and 12th grades. Our class performed despite her, not because of her, yet we still significantly outperformed the school's other math classes on standardized tests.
Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving.
So teachers are like Windows Vista, but want to be more like Windows 7? I joke, but I agree with this:
So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so that the average quality goes up.
I just hope they also spend some time looking at administrators.

I applaud the notion of having 90-100% of high school students graduate ready to enter college. However, I think it's more important to our nation that we help a young potential Bill Gates graduate from a public high school, as ready as Bill himself was to... drop out of college and co-found a cutting edge tech company. These goals don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I don't see any way to pretend otherwise: with enough time, energy and resources you may be able to get 90% of the kids in any given high school ready for college, but unless you're assuming that the smartest and most capable will "take care of themselves", you can't afford to lose them in the shuffle as you focus on raising the common denominator.*
* Thomas Friedman argues in favor of an open door policy, bringing in more entrepreneurial immigrants. I'm all for trying to attract students and innovators from around the world, to study and set up shop in the United States. No doubt, even if we forget the role of education, particularly sciences, maths, and other difficult disciplines not directly associated with Wall Street riches, and the importance of nurturing the next generation of leaders in scientific disciplines, other nations will not.


  1. I'm not sure I agree with the goal of having 90-100% of high school students graduate ready to enter college.

    I think that we might do a better job of preparing our children for the new economy if we started doing a better job of pushing vocational education and toughening the standards for entering/completing college.

    I'm sure that colleges would like to see an increase in students - just so that they can pad their bottom line - but I'm not sure what good that would do the rest of us. Other than debt and an arbitrary check in the box I'm not sure what colleges are doing for a lot of their current students when it comes to getting/being prepared for a job.

    If colleges ever started taking 90-100% of HS graduates, they won't really be doing what a college should do. For that matter, if 90-100% of HS grads are "college material" why bother having admission standards for college?

    It seems to make more sense to me that we move back to a system where a HS degree indicates the ability to join the work force and a college degree the ability to enter a profession.


  2. Being ready for college doesn't prevent entry into a vocational program. Also, many modern vocational programs also necessitate a skill set more traditionally associated with college programs. So I don't see anything wrong with having "90-100% college readiness" as a goal.

    To the extent that you're arguing that there are competing goals, including not losing track of kids who would benefit from preparation for vocational training (or even bona fide vocational training) as part of their high school curriculum, or that we need to consider costs as well as benefits when allocating resources between programs, certainly, I agree.

    Is there a tension between the idea that we should maximize the number of "college ready" high school graduates, and the fact that some of those "college ready" kids would better benefit from programs other than college? Perhaps. No doubt, some kids who are ready for college (including some we don't have to "worry about" even within the current system) should do other things... vocational training, starting their own business, working for a few years to get into a frame of mind better suited to college, dropping out of college to start Microsoft... that sort of thing.

    But having close to all high school graduates complete 12th grade with the skills you're supposed to have at the time you complete 12th grade - and isn't that what we're really talking about here - is nonetheless a worthy goal.

  3. Although it also begs the question, "What skills are they supposed to have when they finish 12th grade?"

    A knowledge of world and American history? (Which I'm guessing less than 10% do?)

    A good grounding in Latin?

    A knowledge of a "living" language other than English?


    Knowledge of the American Government and legal system ("What is consent?")

    The ability to program a computer?

    The ability to use Microsoft Office Applications?

    The ability to draw whatever the heck the food pyramid looks like this week?


  4. I think those are valid questions. I think the simple answer is that they can complete standardized tests at the 12th grade level (or would that be at the level of an entering college freshman). But how that translates into actual performance, you got me....

    Knowledge of American government? Nope. I understand that high school civics classes don't emphasize the workings of government. But you don't need that information to be college ready - I've been told that most colleges are dropping American Government as a required freshman class. (Read it and weep, you poly sci major.)

  5. I'm with CWD...I don't like that goal, either. It is unrealistic for some kids, esp. mine. Some kids with VI/low vision can be successful in college, but many others cannot. Just based on professors that I knew in school, I can't picture many of them making the necessary accommodations. The ones that I knew wanted to chalk and talk for about, oh, 10 hours a week, have their 5 hours of office hours and then hang out and enjoy their six figure salary. (I know, I know--bitter much? :)). This is not to say all professors are inflexible--I'm thinking of some of my professors at the schools I went to.

    I am a huge fan of vo-tech, which many of my kids can do despite vision problems. I am also a huge fan of knowing civic responsibilities. When I taught adult ed government, I frequently had students tell me that they wished that they had had that sort of class "early on" (whatever that means). And I wouldn't mind some "life skills" classes like we had back in the day. (I know, I know--how to pay for all of this? Sigh).

    You already know how I feel about charter schools, so I won't belabor the point.

  6. Ah ha! This is what we can use the "bill-yuns and bill-yuns" of dollars in the stimulus plan for . . . we can rework the infrastructure of the education system.

    First, we build the walled boarding/military academy/penal colony type schools that Aaron has discussed in the past. This stimulates the construction industry in places like the UP, it provides work for administrators, educators, and prison guards; and it gives us a place to send all of the children that we are trying to take out of their homes/enviornments and give a "fresh start" on life.

    Next, we hire construction workers to build walled parking lots for all of the inner city schools (and unless you've worked in the DPS where you had to park on the street and pay "local people" protection money, you probably think I'm joking about this one . . .)

    After securing the parking we renovate the structures themselves (I don't have a study to prove it, but I'm guessing that adequate ventilation, heat, etc. promote both learning and employee retention).

    Next, we hire large numbers of new teachers to instruct in topics like American Government, Citizenship 101, etc. We try to keep the political slant to a minimum, but since its my plan I say that when we have to slant it we slant it toward the classic liberal model (as in Hobbes, Locke, Rosseau, TJ, Ben Franklin, et al.) The new teachers will help us reduce the pupil to teacher ratio and possibly create additional "work" time for teachers to plan, prep, etc.

    We could teach topics like "How to dress and act for a job/job interview", "How to understand the tax code", "Civil Rights", along with criminal justice topics, etc. We would wind-up with an electorate who actually understood how the government is supposed to work as well as what their rights and responsibilities were as citizens.

    It will absolutely never happen, but it would be one of the few things that they could spend my tax dollar on that I wouldn't complain about (much).


  7. I do a happy dance every time I go out and see my little Yaris is still sitting, enjoying the parking lot.

    I'll teach the How to Dress for a Job Interview and How to Interview class. I'll also teach the Social Networking in the 00s class.

  8. Cool, I was hoping to teach the Citizenship 101 and crim. law classes (Aaron says I don't qualify to teach the "How to Dress" or anything involving the word "social.")

    Now we just need ten thousand more people and the billions and billinos of dollars from the stimulus plan.


    PS - Hope the surgery went well for your student.

  9. Thanks, CWD. His mom has my cell phone, and I haven't heard anything, so I am assuming that no news is good news! The kids are so brave that I can't stand it...!!!

    PS: If by "how to dress" class you mean "how to dress in Birkenstocks all summer and Doc Martens all winter", I'm your girl

  10. CWD's "how to dress" class might include sessions on "the football jersey as fashion wear," or "rolling up your sweats - don't be afraid to show off those sweatsocks." But seriously, I think Chris could do a good job teaching kids how to dress for context - "Don't be afraid to develop your own fashion statement (or lack thereof), but here's what you do for work, and here's what you do for an interview."


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