Life's Better Ideas

Occasional links to, and comments on, ideas that I think will make this a better world, and remarks about things that need fixing, too.

Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Hard Choices, session 3

I'm taking a course at Denver University, Hard Choices in Public Policy. The instructor is former Colorado governor Richard Lamm.

Today's class covered Education, which was also the focus of my previous post. The general consensus was that there's not much the schools can change that will improve things. Also, the modest experiments in the private sector haven't demonstrated significant improvements either. We discussed a lot of cultural factors including race, class, lack of good role models in minority communities, the women's movement, how Vietnam and Watergate seem to have changed society, not necessarily for the better.

The next class is on crime and punishment.


Blogger Seth said...

"...there's not much the schools can change that will improve things."

That's absolute nonsense. There are plenty of education, psychology, and cognitive science researchers who are studying how people learn and how instruction can be designed to help students to learn more effectively, teachers to teach more effectively, and schools to assist students and teachers more effectively. Solid scientific research backed up by hard data, that actually *is* improving education, bit by bit.

But just like it took centuries to reach the point of effective modern medicine, it will take decades and possibly centuries before research-driven curricula can produce the dramatic results we all want to see.

Right now, we're just *starting* to figure out what the right *questions* are in the field of education. But there are plenty of proven educational innovations that can be adopted by schools, but bureaucratic rules, testing requirements, school design, and ingrained resistance to change all stymie real progress.

So don't fall into the trap of thinking that schools can't do anything to make things better. They can.

7:51 PM  
Blogger goyishekop said...

Stepping back for a moment, I'll agree with both Seth and David (or maybe it's Dick).

And disagree with both of them.

Looks to me, from having lived through everything from the New Math to Invented Spelling, as though there's essentially *no* resistance to change in the schools. And if those sorts of changes were going to generate big improvements, they would have.

Lest we fool ourselves into thinking that educational fads are a thing of the present, both my parents had to know Latin before they could get out of high school. When I was a kid, my father would occasionally spit out, distractedly, "Amo, amas, amat. Amamos, amatis, amant."

Doubtless my grandmother, for whom Greek, too, was a graduation requirement, babbled rote-memorized Attic conjugations from her own childhood.

Farther back? In the 1800s, Abe Lincoln went to a "blab school," in which he read all his lessons out loud, all day long -- an educational fad that had dropped out of fashion long before my grandmother's time. Socrates had to study rhetoric.

"Well, at least we've advanced beyond blab schools!" I hear myself saying. Right. I'll let you know when I can write a speech as good as the Gettysburg Address.

Edu-fashions come and go, but none of them seems to make a huge improvement.

People now deride Ed schools, and the research that comes out of them. This isn't new either: my mother said that the education program in her 1930's Normal school (a now-unfashionable word for a teacher's college, uh, university) was a joke. I'd bet her mother, also a teacher, said the same thing about her educational experiences. "People who can't teach, teach teachers."

In summary:

(1) Educational fashions sweep through ed schools the way artistic fashions sweep through art schools. "If this is Tuesday, it must be time for a new approach to teaching reading."

(2) Elementary and secondary schools reflect those changes in fashion.

(3) The changes are all pretty much worthless -- they don't much help or hurt.

Teachers, on the other hand, do make a difference. Jaime Escalante performed. We, each of us, can probably name a Jaime Escalante or two from our own school days.

My seventh-grade social-studies teacher would work himself up to the point where he'd jump up on a desk in the front row, and start screaming and pounding his pointer on the wall so hard that it would shatter into several pieces that flew across the room.

We couldn't wait to go to his class.

Today that behavior would get him fired. But I think today he'd just take some other outrageous approach that would also work. As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards say, "It's the singer, not the song."

Why have, by everyone's measure, skyrocketing costs been met with plummeting school performance? I'll suggest this is just a change in the teaching pool. The cause? Women's rights and the rise of teacher's unions combined with an anyone-who-can't-do-anything-else, ed-school admissions policy.

Smart women can now say, "Should I become a teacher, or CEO of Hewlett-Packard? Hmm." Dumb women can now say, "Should I join the AFT or work at MacDonald's? Not MacDonalds. I'd have to learn so speak Spanish." (Yes, women. Look at the sex-ratios in your local elementary faculty.)

Is there something schools can do? The conclusion seems inescapable: Sure. Outcomes dropped and prices rose quickly. This could be reversed quickly, too.

Is there a way besides rolling back womens' rights? Sure, too: smarter teachers. How could we do that? Same way we do in the rest of our economy, where productivity is increasing.

- Incentives: Pay by performance, not seat-time.

- Evaluation: Test teachers, not just students. In my local middle school, I'd guess you could find a lot more students than teachers who know what a prime number is.

- Cut dead wood: Remove tenure and replace the bottom 10% of the old hires with the top 10% of new grads every year for a decade or two.

- Make the work itself compelling: let teachers teach in schools that fit their own, personal ideas about education. That means schools have to differ from one another: choice schools, magnets, focus schools, charter schools, ...

- Eliminate poor working conditions: Cut bureaucracy and make-work like crazy. Let teachers enforce discipline in their classrooms. Remove disruptive students. Permit more homogeneity of ability, instead of grouping kids by age.

- Let schools fail: Give parents vouchers and close schools that don't attract enough students. Tell the teachers and administrators at a school that hasn't worked, "Bummer. Guess you'll have to find a new job."

- If public schools won't improve, slash the budgets. In the educational free-market -- parochial and other private schools -- per-pupil costs are lower, for comparable or better outcomes.

(I can't square this last, long-standing observation with "the modest experiments in the private sector haven't demonstrated significant improvements either." If I can't find a better car, finding a cheaper one that performs just as well is still an improvement.)

Of course, perhaps I'm mis-parsing David's "there's not much the schools can change that will improve things." I'd *love* to see longer blog entries about these classes.

8:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home