"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Friday, June 25, 2010

Everybody wants to get into the act!

I have worked in two career fields about which everybody else thinks they know something : entertainment and education. And I can tell you, having lived on both sides of both fields--Everything You Know Is Wrong. In fact, in the entertainment field, even for insiders, the golden rule was coined by writer William Goldman back in 1983: "Nobody knows anything." Obviously, that doesn't mean that writers don't know how to put words on a page or a cameraman doesn't know which way to point the camera or that studio executives don't know how to park in their reserved spaces. It just means that nobody really knows what works, what's going to work, why something worked in the past. In entertainment, success is a fluke.

It's not quite so bad in education. We actually do know what works. The problem is that it's not quick and easy. I'm always skeptical of the Ross Perot types who, when speaking about an area in which they have no expertise (government finance, for instance, or education), say, "It's just so simple." What they're really saying is: "I'M just so simple. I haven't the intelligence or patience to develop or understand complex or long-range solutions. So I'm going to treat difficult social challenges like I was Ron Popeil with another amazing gadget to solve all our problems."

I just finished reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch, a research professor of Education at NYU, a blogger for Education Week, and, in earlier incarnations, involved in various school reform efforts from the political sphere, most recently a cheerleader for accountability and choice right up through the adoption of No Child Left Behind. The bulk of the book summarizes a series of attempts at school reform over the last 20-30 years, none of which were backed up by prior research and NONE of which have made documented undeniable improvements in schools. These initiatives include:

1. Hijacking of the movement for rigorous and uniform curriculum by political operatives with their own non-educational agendas:

2. Centralization and top-down management of school boards and districts (most notably in San Diego and New York) combined with insistence on conformity to unproven teaching techniques.

3. NCLB and its "measure and punish" method by which states invent their own standards (and frequently fudge them), apply tests (paid for by local districts) and close "failing" schools, without money or plans to repair the "broken" schools.

4. Free-market solutions such as vouchers and the misuse of charter schools, to punish and de-fund public education, without providing alternatives at an equal or better level.

5. Immense foundations, such as Gates, swooping in and picking pet programs to fund and de-fund at well, dictating procedures and solutions without research or results to back them up.

Let me repeat: There is no evidence that ANY of these systems HAVE WORKED or WILL WORK. They are mostly based on the pet theories of powerful people who have not spent their life in the classroom or in education research. They are mostly of the Ross Perot, "I was successful in one field, so let me apply the same procedures in every other field, because everything in life is (a) Simple and (b) Exactly Like Everything Else. And many of them are based on management principles derived from Harvard Business School case studies, the work of Tom Watson and others, and come down to the re-arrangement of the organization chart, in order to insure that everyone is reading off the same page.

But, this hasty and shallow analysis doesn't even work ON ITS OWN TERMS. Let's imagine General Motors is making lousy cars. (Hard to imagine, eh?) And Toyota makes reliably good cars (and it does, accelerator pedal problems notwithstanding). Let's say GM wants to emulate Toyota's practices so as to result in better cars. On what planet do we think that changing the size of the factories, re-adjusting the organizational chart and closing factories that make bad cars will improve the quality of a single car? Obviously, the proper course of action is to examine the entire quality process of constructing the car. It means STARTING FROM THE OTHER END. We need to study how learning happens, in order to make some conclusions about how teaching can facilitate that. Making sure everyone is uniformly applying an unproven method might make an orderly factory floor, but it does not insure quality.

The most pernicious theory is that free-market forces will improve education. But a beginning economist will tell you that competition is not a cure-all. We had competition for police and fire services 150 years ago, and the result was a lot of unpunished crime and burnt-down houses. Markets give you efficiency, but will neglect unprofitable areas of the market. In education, this means the students who are more expensive to educate, usually because they have special needs. And in fact, those are students who are selected out or "counseled out" of private and charter schools who want to keep their test numbers high. Moreover, competition will not give you the HIGHEST quality, only the highest quality at the price point the consumer wants. School reform via free-market is as flaky and unfounded a theory as the flakiest 1960s "let's roll around on the floor and get in touch with our feelings" educational theory that people on the right complain about. In one well-documented case in New York City, a single building was split into three competing academies, and they immediately fell into squabbling about the use of resources, which brought about the destruction of all three schools.

And research shows that the ideal high school size is about 600-900 students. Smaller than that, schools cannot provide the diversity in courses, advanced placement, athletics or performing arts programs sufficient to put a student in a competitive position for college placement. (Not to mention the lack of a fully-rounded school community experience.)

Moreover, this theory has brought about the misuse of charter schools. As they were originally envisioned by Albert Shanker and others, they were meant to be educational laboratories whose successful results could be examined and adopted, in whole or in part by conventional public schools. They were to work in parallel with and in collaboration with ordinary public schools, perhaps even physically housed within them. Current practice pits the charter schools against the district schools, siphoning off students and resources, sapping the conventional schools without providing reliably superior results for the charter students.

I am not anti-charter school: I began my teaching career in a charter school, and it is probably the only reason I am at all competent in a classroom today. I was in a supportive and nurturing environment, surrounded by other experienced teachers who believed in what they were doing and were commited to it, and transmitted their experience and commitment to me and to our students. Our charter school provided a unique resource to our students, many of whom were overlooked or mishandled in their home districts. We did not "counsel out" the students with learning difficulties--in fact the obverse was in effect. Struggling students were "counseled into" our lottery. And though we don't produce a crop of geniuses, and many of our students finished their time with us without reaching grade level, everyone of them received individual and individualized attention. Every student was the subject of specific care and focus, and could earn a place in the community we built there. I had always hoped teachers and administrators from our sending districts would come visit and observe us, that we could compare notes on what worked and what didn't. But most public school teachers have been taught to fear charter schools by their unions, and now we are all in this adversarial position which is to destructive to both types of schools (and which is just what I believe a lot of anti-public-school politicians want).

I am sorry to see the President, who strikes me as a practical, results-oriented person adopting the airy-fairy theories of a lot of people in suits. (I think the theories look more attractive if they're presented by people in suits instead of people in teaching clothes, but they're still just theories.) So we are still stuck with NCLB, and the government seems to be doubling down on it, even though its results are demonstrably counter-productive. Our educational standards have gotten lower and lower each year NCLB has been in force.

And the principal goal, to ensure that EVERY STUDENT will be proficient by 2014 is obviously ridiculous. Does GE promise to make EVERY JET ENGINE perfect? No--even GE, with the Six Sygma standard, permits a fail rate of .006. That's pretty darn low, but it's not zero. We all have eyes and ears and we all come into contact with children. Even without examining for all their concealed problems--family issues, mental health, etc.--it's obvious that not every child will become a proficient student. If you ran a company, would you guarantee that every customer will be satisfied and that every worker will be effective by 2014? You'd have to be crazy. We all know there will be people who will never read or do math at "grade level."

We can still educate everyone, but we need to decide what we want to teach, which means we have to know WHY we're doing it. And the solution, Ravitch suggests is a curriculum. The curriculum movement got derailed 25 years ago, and it has never really gained traction since. I wrote earlier about the Governors' Conference proposed core curriculum, but it doesn't seem to be making much news these days. The best, most logical, and most practical curriculum sequence I ever read was for music, but it presumed that a district would have a general music curriculum in place for every grade. Fat chance. So the 7th and 8th grade curriculum (which I was responsible for) made no sense without the K-6 curriculum having been mastered. That would, of course, make sense in math or science or even literacy, but given the current mania for testing, no one thinks much about what we want to teach except for the basics.

So all we are worried about is the basics. And since we have begun focusing on just the basics--literacy and numeracy, the numbers have been going down steadily. Now what does that tell you?

1 comment:

  1. You do an almost foolproof imitation of somebody who actually knows what he's talking about. I wish you Had Somebody's Ear.