Why American Education Reform is Doomed (Part 1)

March 15, 2010

I don’t know exactly why this is, but education reform seems to be a hot topic in the news again (this happens about once every six months). Most recently, I saw that a Rhode Island school fired all of its teachers because the students were performing so badly. President Obama called this accountability. I have been stewing on this whole topic for a while, and I think it’s time I offer some in-depth analysis of everything that gets thrown around. This is lengthy and so, I’m going to offer it in three parts. Today, I’ll give a general introduction and talk about teachers and funding inequities. Tomorrow, I’ll address socio-economic issues, and Wednesday, I’ll have a post about possible solutions and the problems in how we measure the US educational system.

Part 1

All education happens in schools. This is the sentiment. Of course, if you ask anyone from President Obama to your local school board member, you will be told that, of course, there are other factors that are just as important. But, when it comes to policy, the sentiment is always the same: Blame the schools. Or, more specifically: Blame the teachers. This is the easy answer, but it is also horribly misguided. I will attempt to show, in several blog posts, that as long as attempts to reform the US education system insist on focusing solely on what goes on in schools, they are doomed to failure. Let’s take the issues one at a time…

Teachers

Teachers are the big scapegoats. To hear virtually any policy-maker tell it, all of our educational problems would be solved if only we could get rid of those bad teachers. It is a shame that I have to write about how absurd that is. Where do you work? Can you think of someone who doesn’t really do anything and is a drag on the company, but somehow, continues to be employed? I bet you can. Chances are more than one person leaps to mind. Yet miraculously, the company you work for continues to exist. You continue to have a job. The world does not come crashing down. Yes, there are bad teachers. I work with some of them, but most teachers are actually pretty decent at their jobs. Education is exactly like any other industry. There are inefficient employees, but they do not destroy the system.

There is a perception out there that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed. This is untrue. What is more accurate is that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed in an unreliable way. Let’s say you are a brand new lawyer. Just hired. Let’s also say that small firm you work for has hired nine other new associates. So there are ten of you chomping at the bit. Now, let’s say that your boss is masochistic and tells you that she is going to assign each of you a different case. The two of you who perform best will be given large bonuses. The two that perform the worst will be fired. You will be measured by the size of the settlement you win for your client. On the surface, this might sound fair, but then you are assigned your case and you look at the evidence and see that it is overwhelmingly bad news for your client. It would take a miracle to get any money in a settlement. However, you overhear the guy next to you talking about the tape recording he has of his client being sexually harassed. Starting to seem less equitable, isn’t it?

This is the problem with assessing teachers based on standardized tests. Some of us teach AP classes. Some of us teach kids who are barely literate. Some of us teach kids with two supportive parents at home and some of us kids who watched their brothers get shot in a gang fight and whose single “present” parent is actively involved in the drug trade. Now, let me ask you a question, how is it a reasonable to assess teachers based on how the students they see maybe five hours a week score on a standardized test? I’m not saying a decent assessment using standardized testing isn’t possible. I’m saying that every single policy proposal I have ever seen comes nowhere near grasping the inherent difficulties and inconsistencies in trying to shape such a teacher-based assessment. That’s why the whole assessment thing is kind of a sticking point for us.

There is more, of course. Have you heard the rhetoric that comes from legislators? How would you feel if everyday, your boss came in and said to everyone, “Basically, I think you all stink at your jobs. I’m going to ask the board of directors to implement an inequitable evaluation procedure that will tell me who stinks the most. And then I’m going to fire those people.” Doesn’t set your world on fire, does it? So, yeah, you can assess us. I don’t mind that at all, but how about you work with us. Listen to our concerns and we’ll listen to yours and then we can come up with something equitable and we won’t have to go on strike or anything crazy like that. But don’t come in telling us how it’s going to be when you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and expect us to jump on board. We aren’t crazy. If you want reform to succeed, you have to work with the people who will be affected by it, not bully them.

Teachers are, for the most part, altruistic people. We get expensive, advanced degrees so we can go do work that pays only okay, but makes the world better. Don’t talk down to us and don’t try to claim we only care about our own interests. If that were true, we wouldn’t be teachers.

The Real Problems

But, as I pointed out very early on. Teachers aren’t really the problem here. Certainly, not the main problem. Really, there are two major problems. Funding and Student Population. I’ll look at the first one today and have a long post on the second tomorrow.

Funding

The most obviously inequitable aspect of the American education system is the way it is funded. The vast majority of public schools are funded almost exclusively by local property taxes. What does this mean? It’s not hard to figure out. If you live in a wealthy area, property taxes will draw in more money. This will result in schools that can pay for nicer facilities and better teachers. If you live in a depressed area, your schools will constantly lack funds. Your children will not have books. Your teachers will be those who can’t get a job elsewhere.

One very, very easy step in fixing the American education system would be to implement a funding system that at least approaches rationality. Think about this. The poorest schools are in the districts with the most difficult populations. No-freaking-wonder a bunch of schools are failing. It’s like being asked to walk a St. Bernard with a piece of dental floss while the person next you walks their toy poodle with towing chain. Current federal programs are no help as they end up disproportionately awarding funds to schools that don’t need help.

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