April 18, 2010
Education Reform Solution Paper
Reforming education isnt an easy task. Scholars for years have tried to find the best ways to shove knowledge into our minds. Every year we buy fresh pencils and journals just so we can go learn the same information, the only thing thats different this time is that we look at it from a new perspective, and try to learn with a deeper insight on the subject. All subjects are the same, whether its mathematics, reading or sciences, theres always a harder way to find the simplest solutions. Some blame the television for breaking our concentration, some would say that we dont eat the right foods so on and so forth. These so called conclusions are desperate attempts to get a personal opinion well known. Our own government can??™t agree on a solution to reform our education system.
Since the first Clinton Presidency, Republicans and Democrats do not have really different educational agendas. Neither of the two major parties has any genuinely new ideas on education. No matter how revolutionary they may sound, the respective plans amount to insufficient improvements of what is already there. The last major legislation No Child Left Behind, or NCLB for short or ???nicklebee??? ass some people referred to it as, enjoyed wide bipartisan support at the beginning, even though Democrats have voiced stronger opposition to how it was implemented.
President Barak Obama??™s plan for education reform boils down to making minor amendments to the No Child Left Behind? act, and starting a few new initiatives such as recruiting more teachers and providing more learning for students at risk. Obama also plans to put more federal funds in after school, summer, and outreach programs, and in teacher training. Since his election, however, all his focus seems to be on reforming health care. Many Democrats also believe in school choice, although they tend to limit choice to public and charter schools. Many Republicans would like to extend school choice to private schools, and this more radical version of school choice is known as school vouchers. The idea was pushed by every Republican administration since Reagan, but so far has not been implemented. The idea is very simple: choice will create competition among schools, and competition will lower costs and improve quality of education for all. This works in other industries, why should it not work in education The objections against school choice can be reduced to two major ones: (1) It breaches the wall separating church and state, because public funds can be used for religious education, and (2) it takes resources away from struggling public schools: instead of fixing public schools, school choice would destroy the system of public education.
The first objection does not seem to be well grounded. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Cleveland??™s voucher program. Besides, many democratic countries (Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden) have implemented voucher systems without becoming theocracies. Australia and Canada have used public funds for their Catholic systems for decades, and those two countries have not become less democratic.
The second objection is more difficult to dismiss. Indeed, it is likely that school choice, if widely implemented, may disproportionally benefit upper and middle class children. Lower class and minority children may find themselves trapped in failing schools with even fewer resources. Middle class children will flee to charter and private schools, taking public funding with them. There is an additional concern: for any competition to work, consumers must desire better services. With K-12 schooling, it may or may not be the case. If you are planning to send your children to college, good schooling makes a lot of economic sense. However, if your kids do not have a good chance of attending college, or are not interested in doing so, you may opt for easier, less challenging schools. This has nothing to do with cultural attitudes, or any ethical flaws. Poor people realize that high school diploma can be somewhat useful, but knowledge gained in high school is not really useful. If that is the case, competition will not work as intended. This is not a small point, and casts much doubt on the entire school choice solution. The public has a strong interest in funding public education. To remain competitive and democratic, we need strong universal elementary and secondary education. The taxpayers should fund K-12 education, but there is no reason for governments to own and operate schools other than ensuring equal access and quality for all students. I think this could also be done by directly paying to families if their children demonstrate achievement. And then, if they need help with learning, the family will decide what kind of help at what expense their children need to learn: a school, a tutor, or an on-line learning community. This solution seems to make a whole lot of sense, and is almost equally popular among both Democrats and Republicans. Even the teacher unions support the general thrust of the current accountability reform, although they often disagree with how it is implemented. Similar ideas have swept around the world, and many countries are implementing something similar, under different names
The idea is very simple and can be reduced to three steps. One: establish clear curriculum standards; spell out what kids should know and able to do in every grade. This is done to ensure that schools can be compared to each other, and that curriculum does not get watered down. Two: design an independent testing system. Indeed, those who measure achievement should be different people from those who teach, otherwise there is a conflict of interest. Because student achievement reflects on teacher??™s performance, you cannot really trust the grades, can you You want builders and building inspectors to be independent of each other, right Well, it should be the same in education. And three: create clear comparisons among schools and districts, and tangible consequences for both good and bad schools. In other words, public funding should imply public accountability. We should pay schools not for trying to teach, but for demonstrating actual results. It does look very logical, and very convincing, which is why there exists broad public support for accountability reforms, although there is significant opposition to it among teachers. There is much variation among states on implementing the reforms. No Child Left Behind act, with all its problems, for the first time provided a federal framework for the reforms, without implementing national curriculum standards. Most of the criticisms of accountability reform are actually criticizing deficiencies of implementation rather than the fundamental idea. For example, many teachers and parents complain that the emphasis on testing creates pressure to ???teach to the test.??? However, all teaching should be towards some ???test,??? otherwise it is simply not purposeful. Just because many tests are poorly designed, and emphasize memorization does not mean we should not assess how much learning occurred. In other words, it is an argument not against testing, but against bad testing. So, the criticism is fair, but it suggests improving assessment, not abandoning accountability.
Another very fair criticism is that focus on core courses reduces the breadth of curriculum. For example, if much emphasis is placed on reading, writing, and math, then social studies, arts, and science are often sidelined. So, kids may end up reading fluently, but not knowing much about anything, and unable to comprehend what they are reading. They can apply mathematical formulas, but have no idea what those mean in real life. Again, this is very real thing, but it suggests redefining core curriculum, rather than abandoning accountability. Accountability reform as an idea (not necessarily as practice) looks very strong. Yet, there is a glitch. There is a very obvious vulnerability to the whole scheme which is quite easy to see, but it receives very little attention. The solution is entirely Soviet; it is based on administrative control, rather than on self-interest of involved individuals. In schooling, two main parties are involved: students and teachers. You can pressure teachers as much as you want, but if students have little interest or motivation to learn, there is very little a teacher can do to make them. Of course, we all hear stories about these amazing inspiring teachers who change the lives of students. The assumption is often ??“ ???why can??™t they all do that??? But when you see Michael Phelps compete at the Olympics, you do not wonder why can??™t everyone swim like this, do you What makes you think teaching is easier There are amazing stars of the profession, but you cannot expect everyone be a star, can you
There are no miracles in education. We compel millions of very different kids to come to schools, spend some 13 years there whether they want it or not. We put regular people in charge of their learning. What makes you think you can keep all kids engaged and interested just by sheer force of teacher??™s personality Just like in the Soviet economy, if the workers are not motivated to try hard, no amount of administrative control will help. Capitalism works not because its managers are so smart, but because there is an incentive for workers to perform, and an economic need to hold a job. It is truly amazing to watch the most radical free marketers to try to regulate education to death, while trying to unregulated the rest of the economy as much as possible.
At first glance, the accountability solution makes a lot of sense, and can bring limited, but significant improvement. It cannot fundamentally improve education, because it does not provide any real incentive for students ??“ the main workers of the educational industry ??“ to perform. And as I said before, for upper and upper middle class kids, the promise of college and a good job works to some degree to keep them at least somewhat compliant with schooling. For lower class students, the benefits of a high school diploma are truly minimal; the benefits of solid high school-level knowledge are entirely fictional.
A number of educational proposals, old and new, have one theme in common. They make curriculum engaging, and relevant to student lives. Such proposals include various forms of experiential learning, learning by doing, creating something, participating in meaningful projects. They also include various ways of motivating students by example, by being sincere and fair with them, etc. Progressive education works. Some of the most successful teachers and schools have been using one or another Progressive approach. Most of really deep thinkers in education in the last hundred years were progressives. Many ideas of Progressive education have entered the popular culture through such movies as ”Dangerous Minds,” and ???Freedom Writers.??? I want to make it clear; we are talking about a lot of different approaches, only loosely related to each other. The term ???Progressive education??? is disputed for being too general. In my opinion, there is a common thread among all these different solutions, namely their take on motivating students to learn by making both the curriculum and the process of teaching interesting, engaging, and relevant to student lives. Some of the criticism of Progressive education again has to do with faulty attempts to implement it, rather with the core idea. For example, Progressives are often accused in watering down curriculum and lowering the standards. However, you can imagine education both engaging and rigorous, can??™t you Everyone should understand the difference between criticizing to improve and criticizing to abolish. Sometimes people want to abolish, but in fact bring up only points that call for improvement. However, there is a glitch in the Progressive education solution. First, it seems to work well among middle and upper class students, many of whom are already motivated to learn. With many notable exceptions Progressivism does not seem to be working well among lower class children. In poorer neighborhoods, more traditional, more authoritarian forms of schooling combined with high expectations and a lot of testing are working better. This is an awkward fact no one can explain well, but it cannot be ignored. The other problem is that learning with Progressive methods takes longer than your traditional ???memorization and regurgitation,??? book-based methods. It does not really matter at elementary level. In middle and high school, there is simply no time to learn everything through interesting, engaging, and relevant projects. You can change someone??™s life, but you cannot make them learn Algebra and competent writing and chemistry and a foreign language and history. While some of schooling can be made very interesting and relevant, no one was able to make all of it interesting and engaging. The truth is, learning involves much hard work, and work is different from pleasure.
Many things political candidates are present as self-evident truths are simply false. Many people believe these myths, despite the evidence, just because the sound good, or are likely to be true. Let me point out to some:
1.? ? ? ? ? More schooling equals more education. Not true, the number of years or hours spent in school does not necessarily reflect the level of education. Quality of schooling is more important than quantity, and quality is very hard to measure.
2.? ? ? ? ? ? Better resources (more funding) leads to better education. There is no evidence to support this claim, although many people tried to prove it.
3.? ? ? ? ? Smaller class sizes improve student achievement. While there is some controversy about evidence, there is no clear proof that reducing class size works. Even if it is a factor, it is likely to be a very weak one.
4.? ? ? ? ? Experienced teachers produce better results. Teachers with higher educational level produce higher results. Both are not proven. The teacher quality is actually very important; better teachers produce much higher results than others, but teacher quality should be measured directly; you cannot tell a good teacher from a bad one by years of experience or the kind of degree she or he has.
Interestingly, many policies are implemented without clear evidence that similar policies work elsewhere. For example, the accountability movement in the United States seems to bring modest improvements, but accountability reforms in individual states and the national No Child Left Behind law were implemented before this evidence was available. Much of educational reform is done on blind faith, just because it sounds good. Both New York City schools and Washington, DC schools pilot programs that pay students to learn. Mexico and Brazil have programs that pay families whose kids go to school. This is, by far, the most radical, and the most promising solution to the educational underperformance of American kids. In my view, these programs are not radical enough, because the sums paid to kids are nowhere near to what the public spends on education. In the year 2006, school districts in the United States spent an average of $9,138 per student. New York State??™s average is almost $15,000, although the City??™s expenditures are a little lower, at about $12,000 in the 2004/2005 academic year. We??™re talking very serious money. Just imagine that the money would be paid not to schools but to the families directly, if the children can demonstrate learning. If the family has the skills and motivation to teach their own kids, they pocket the whole $15,000 a year. If they cannot, they may hire a tutor or sign up with a school of some sort, and share the learning income with those schools or tutors. Pass a test ??“ get paid. This would put the incentives to where they belong ??“ with students themselves. We can provide all kinds of incentives to teachers, but if children are not motivated, it is not going to work. Education is not consumption; it is hard work, and it benefits us all more than it benefits about half of all K-12 students. This is why we??™re subsidizing it in the first place. We should treat learning as any other job: if the society as a whole benefits from basic education, and is willing to pay money for it, why not pay directly to those people who actually need to learn For the educational system to become more efficient, we must stop paying for attempting to teach, and start paying for proven learning.
Is it possible to implement You bet. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other testing agencies have decades of experience in administering tests on mass scale. Those tests do not need to be primitive testing of facts; they can include sophisticated measures of thinking, writing, and computational skills. Testing centers can be cheaply set up wherever there is internet access; each kid can have an account that keeps track of tests and of money paid to the student. Will it leave behind poor children Not at all; in fact, it will put resources into the hands of poor parents, and allow them to find the best educational solutions ??“ with or without schools. We can also index payments in such a way that children with disadvantages such as poverty, non-native speakers, or with disabilities ??“ receive higher payments than those kids with advantages. That will attract more talented teachers and tutors to poorer neighborhood, and create incentives for better specialized services for kids with learning disabilities. Hyper-vouchers are the way to go. America has a history of radical, bold innovations. It has not been a part of our educational system for a while, but perhaps now is the time.
1. ???No Child Left Behind??? Congressional Amendment, (2001). < http://nochildleft.com/>
2. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) < www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2001/2001_00_1751>
3. Dangerous Minds [VHS]. Dir. John N. Smith. Perf. Michelle Pfeiffer, George Dzundza, Courtney B. Vance. Walt Disney Video, 1995. VHS.
4. Freedom Writers (Full Screen Edition). Dir. Richard Lagravenese. Perf. Hilary Swank. Paramount, 2007. HD-DVD.