Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Difficulty of Education Reform

I missed this editorial from a few days ago, in which Robert Samuelson takes on the current conceptions of school reform. His statistical arguments are a bit misleading, but I'll cut him a break and skip to his substantive criticism of reforms:1
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) "scalable" -- easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge "ineffective" teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.
I've mentioned before that what Samuelson describes is one of my biggest disappointments from the charter school movement. With few exceptions, the schools follow the same educational model as traditional public schools, perhaps modified by "more is better" - longer school days and more hours of instruction. That latter idea has some common sense promise, but comes at a price - you either overwork your teachers for the same pay they can get elsewhere, overwork your teachers for more pay to try to reduce attrition, or hire more teachers. That is, it's more expensive while offering nothing by way of innovation. It's not just that nobody has yet discovered transformative changes - it's that few are even looking.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
There is some discussion of student motivation, and the role of parents and community, in this recent thread and its comments. I don't want to get into the conceit of "We had it tough in my childhood; kids these days are soft, spoiled and selfish", as that has been pretty much a constant criticism of "kids these days" from the dawn of civilization. But I have heard the lament from many educators that parental expectations have shifted (it's the school's problem, not theirs, if their kids misbehave or don't perform well), and that the culture of "It's cool to be stupid" has crept from high school into college classrooms. To the extent that problems arise outside of the classroom, the current generation of reformers make things more difficult for the classroom teacher by in essence saying "So what? It is your problem, and yours alone, if your students don't flourish." Samuelson's impressions aren't much different from mine in that regard:
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened,2 the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Samuelson also reports that students "don't like school, don't work hard and [consequently] don't do well", which, it's fair to say, is simply a reflection of human nature. If you don't see value or reward in your work, it's an unpleasant chore to be avoided. How can a teacher, alone, overcome a community's general indifference to education?

Proponents of school reform are aware that there are kids and parents in failing school districts who desperately want a better educational environment for their children. There's some validity to the concept that better order in the halls and classrooms, and better maintenance of school buildings, will help to a degree. But if your goal is to markedly improve educational performance within a school, that degree is small.

Although to read the New York Times and Washington Post, school reform is a tiny footnote in relation to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's recent loss - that the real problem was his style of management. I'm more convinced by those who perceive his loss as a referendum on his school reform initiatives. That is, parents most affected by those initiatives turned up in large numbers to declare, "We're tired of having you rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and call it 'reform'. Where are the results? Why does my child still have to play the lottery to get a chance to be in a decent school?" It might not be unreasonable for him to respond that reforms take time, that his actions (including his mistakes) are well-intentioned. But how long are parents supposed to wait?

I'm not the only one who sees the centrality of school reform in Fenty's loss. Consider, for exmaple, Tim Pawlenty's whine,
“Mayor Fenty lost after the teachers' unions led a campaign against him and Michelle Rhee. Fenty's loss is further evidence that despite all their rhetoric about 'the children,' what the teachers’ unions really care about is getting more money for jobs they can't lose at schools that produce students who are not prepared to compete,” Pawlenty said in a statement.
D.C. parents didn't turn out to vote because the teacher's union told them that D.C. school reform wasn't living up to its promise - Pawlenty is offering them a version of, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes". Is Pawlenty as contemptuous of the voters of his own state as he is of those in D.C.? (Perhaps so.)

Update: Worth mentioning, the possibility that Rhee and Fenty "hurt their cause by overstating their success" and by "pushing forward some reforms that make no sense". I suspect that Rhee's venom, directed toward those who voted against Fenty, is a microcosm of why she's unpopular with parents who want reform - whatever her intentions, they want results, not complaints about how hard her work is or by implication that they're too lazy to support reform.

Update II: Eugene Robinson comments on Rhee's self-absorbed reaction to Fenty's loss. And some similar thoughts from Valerie Strauss,
[Rhee's comment was] the equivalent of saying that there is no use for anybody to hope that she and presumptive mayor Vincent Gray can come to some compromise to keep her here. The only question is when she’ll leave.

The problem is that she said it to an audience who watched a one-sided film that adores public charter schools and demonizes traditional public schools, (which still and always will educate the vast majority of the country’s kids).

The audience was packed with people who affect millions of kids and teachers and parents by passing laws, advising the president, shaping public opinion. And those people gave her an ovation.

Ignored was the fact that there is no scientific basis for her reforms, and some evidence to suggest that some of her key initiatives, such as tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, is counterproductive.

Forget the fact that the film’s assault on teachers unions is unfair; even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a true believer in Rhee, has noted that it is silly to blame unions, pointing out that the problems exist in states without teachers unions
(I'll note, however, that union job protections likely do make it harder to address the issue of underperforming teachers, as compared to whatever job protections are offered in non-union states and districts.)
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1. I do want to mention that a reasonable measure of student-teacher ratios should focus on the ratio of students and classroom teachers; when you include staff members who have no classroom role you distort the figure. And that suggesting that two teacher households are wealthy because they would be a six figure household doesn't address the issue of attracting and retaining teachers who have other professional job prospects.

2. I'm not sure what Samuelson is trying to get at with this bare claim.

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