Posted tagged ‘Child Poverty’

Education Reform and the Status Quo

February 8, 2010

  • “Education is the most important problem facing the United States today”
  • “Only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic.”
  • “The chronic shortage of good scientists, engineers, and other professionals which plagues us today is the result of time wasted in public schools.”

The above three quotes come from the father of the atomic submarine, Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1958.   In 1962 Rickover wrote the book Swiss Schools and ours:  Why Theirs are Better. He showed how much more was  expected of students in Russia, Switzerland, Holland, and England and why the United States was doomed to failure unless it fixed it’s chronically failing education system.  The students who were in American schools at the time are between about 50 and 65 and somehow we’re still not under Swiss domination.

  • “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”
  • “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

These quotes are from a Nation at Risk, which was published by the Reagan administration in 1983.   They looked at why test scores had dropped dramatically from 1963 on the SAT test and concluded that if we didn’t fix our education system immediately.  This is considered a watershed moment in modern education reform and a report was prepared in 2008 on the 25th anniversary that chided the nation for failing to implement the report’s recommendations.    What people fail to recognize is that in 1990, when George HW. Bush’s Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins commissioned Sania Laboratories to document the study with actual data they broke down the scores into subgroups and discovered that while the overall scores did decline, the scores of all the subgroups had increased.  When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased.  This is known as the Yule-Simpson effect in statistics and simply means that more minorities and lower income children were taking the SATs.  The report came out with little fanfare and was basically buried by people with a vested interest in showing how poor our schools were.

The students in school in 1983 are roughly between 30 and 44 today and speaking on behalf of my generation, I am delighted to say that we still haven’t ruined the country yet, although we did come awfully closes between 2001 and 2008.  My point is not that the tradition of education reform goes back to 1958 because anybody who has ever sat through an education history class knows that it goes back a lot longer than that.   My point is to show that wrongheaded education reformers warning that the sky is falling go back a long way.  In truth, the strength of our country has been our public education system whose rapid assimilation of a constant immigrant population into good citizens is a wonder of our modern world.

The only two sure ways to improve the quality of education is to improve the quality of the students and the teachers in our schools.   If people believe that the current wave of “reformers” like Michelle Rhee will do anything, but lower the quality of teachers then they are sadly mistaken.   Make teaching a desirable job and people will want to do it and work hard to succeed.  I predict there will be a mass exodus of teachers when this economy does finally turnaround.   Schools are too dependent on people working on their own time for free, for people capable of doing other things to stick around where they feel disrespected.

Improving the quality of students isn’t a case of taking the good ones out of the public schools setting like charter schools attempt to do either by selective enrollment or by quickly dismissing students who don’t “fit in” the way that KIPP does.  The countries that educate their children the best are those with the lowest rates of child poverty and the best child medical care regardless of parental income.  Sadly, we continue to lose sight of the real problem.   Schools don’t fail children, countries do.

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Why Teacher Accountability Flounders

November 30, 2009

“If you catch a man a fish you can sell it to him. If you teach a man to fish you lose a wonderful business opportunity.” -Groucho Marx.

There was a blog post that I saw on twitter today from the ironically named Charter School Insights blog.   The post was entitled Michelangelo with a fillet knife and in it, the author makes a very compelling case why people who gut fish should be paid different rates based on their abilities.   Unfortunately, his post falls apart when he attempts to make an analogy between gutting fish and teaching children.

The problem with accountability is that in a school system like Chicago which is controlled by the mayor, the mayor is really not accountable for the schools.   Voters elect candidates based on a whole host of variables and the quality schools tends to be a very small part of any big city mayoral election.   Underneath our mayor is the Chief Executive Officer.  Despite a record of failure, our CEO went to Washington to run the Department of Education.  No accountability there.  Then you have the people who write the curriculum, the administrators, the area officers–nope, no accountability there.  In fact, the only people expected to be accountable are the classroom teachers.

Can you imagine the public outrage  if Obama gave his speech on Afghanistan this week and announced that the problem wasn’t our strategy, but the lazy and incompetent soldiers on the ground?  If only the grunts are accountable, you don’t have accountability.  What you have is a great place to pass the buck.

One example of the lack of accountability is the math curriculum mess in the city of Chicago.   The city’s teachers are required to use an ineffective curriculum that is based on the idea of not teaching to mastery, but of cycling through different topics.   That means that at any time if you were to ask a 4th grader if she knew what three times 12 was, she could tell you, “That’s multiplication.  I’m familiar with that”, but probably couldn’t tell you the correct answer.   Why do we have this curriculum?  The main reason is because the person who developed it at one of our local universities had a high ranking position in the city’s math department.  He then retired and sold this program to every school in the city.  Can you smell the accountability yet?

From teachers of young students who are left to potty train their students to teachers of older students breaking up gang fights, there is a large part of a teacher’s day that is not measurable by any standardized test.   If we really intend to make a move for accountability, let’s start with Washington where they continue to completely bungle health care.   Let’s look at childhood poverty.   Finland is supposed to have the best school system in the world.   Here’s a chart showing childhood poverty by country and tell me that it makes no difference in a child’s education:

Now, lest anybody think that I am making up excuses for teachers and arguing that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable because of all the difficulties they face in educating our nation’s youth, I must say I am not.   When we signed up to be teachers, we signed up for this.  From our first day of student teaching, we knew what we were getting into.   It is the job of a school’s administration to get rid of bad teachers.   I am simply saying that it’s real easy to scape goat teachers and demand accountability from them, but if we really want to make an improvement in our schools, we need to be better than that.