Thursday, January 10, 2013

On PBS's article, "The Battle Over Education Reform"

This past Tuesday, PBS's Azmat Khan wrote about K–12 education reform as part of the Frontline series, The Education of Michelle Rhee. I have not yet watched the series, so perhaps some of the things I talk about below are addressed there. But the article, anyway, at once summarizes the divisions in ed reform and illuminates why this frustrating debate is going nowhere.

One of the most contentious movements in ed reform now is the charter school movement. Charter schools started as grass-roots, small-scale alternatives in communities important to the individual founders. This was its state when I taught in San Francisco at the turn of the millennium. Nowadays, many charter schools are run by large networks with a central office resembling something between a business and a school district. These networks are often backed by wealthy foundations and, with some notable exceptions, the teachers are not unionized.

And therein lies the hullabaloo. Where some see innovation and opportunity, others see privatization and carpetbaggery. In the public discourse, at least, there are pro-charter reformy types and anti-charter teacherly types, and never the twain shall meet. Of course, there is a multitude of nuanced opinions one may have, but those are not given much breathing space.

So back to the article. Khan describes charter schools' structure, their financing, and their promise as well as their pitfalls, and then summarizes the carrying on in the edusphere about whether charters yield better results than traditional public schools.  Pro-charter folks say the data favors charters;  anti-charter folks say the (same) data doesn't. This horse-race calling is never ending. It's  also an empty proxy for philosophical differences and territorial disputes. Isn't this data based on test results? Test results are a tiny component of what makes a high-functioning school. Educators all know this, whether they are charter school supporters or detractors (though charter school funders and policy-makers don't seem able or willing to understand this, and that unfortunate ignorance has railroaded  education policy for the past twelve years). What about student safety? What about teacher safety, for that matter? What about study and work conditions? What about facilities condition and management? What about orderliness, clarity of function and purpose, a caring tone combined with an expectation of excellence? Children's needs, and schools' success along a multitude of vectors, are poorly represented through test scores, to say the least. Test scores being equal, one school might still be vastly preferable to another.

It seems to me two things have to happen: first, policy-makers, legislators, and the wealthy people and institutions who invest in schools these days need to develop a better understanding of the uses, and especially the limitations, of testing; and secondly, as the article mentions, folks on all sides need to get serious about culling the stuff that works at charter schools and applying it to the traditional public school system without either side starting a spitting contest. Until then, charter-lovers will use incomplete, interpretable data points to make the claims that benefit the beliefs they already have, and charter-haters will do exactly the same, with the same data, and nothing will change.

Next up: teacher reforms. The article outlines the discussions around teacher tenure and tools for evaluating teacher quality. I'm not going to get into how flawed evaluating teachers on children's test scores is--that's been discussed enough elsewhere, and the Khan article doesn't dwell on it either. It spends more time talking about attempts to improve teacher training programs, which I'm glad to see, but there's another big piece here that is missing and that just doesn't come up much in the discourse.  There is little acknowledgement that the last century's working conditions are not conducive to this century's expectations, and that last century's attitudes about teachers and teaching are disrespectful and out-of-touch in the lens of this century. Yes, let's ensure smart people well-suited to teaching enter the profession--but let's also be honest about the disconnect between what America expects of its teachers and what America thinks of them and provides for them.

Those are the two most controversial items, and the ones for which the debate simply must be reframed lest we hurt ourselves with all the gnashing of teeth and cracking of knuckles and hitting of heads against walls. The article also touches on character education programs and the search for the best way to instill values such as curiosity, self-control, and grit (note to funders and pols: not testing!), and on the strategy of improving schooling through deep investment in whole communities, such as with the Harlem Children's Zone.

Khan notes that some question whether investment in a community's health, nutrition, and safety is "the practical way forward." I was dumbfounded by this--what could the argument against healthy kids growing into adulthood in an environment relatively free of violence, uncertainty, and fear possibly be?--so I looked at the Brookings Institute report Khan cites and...I'm still processing it. I guess that is a blog for another time.

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