We Can Fix the K-12 Educational System

| comments

"The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions"

Some good-intentioned, but misinformed, folks in our state legislature, on the editorial board of the Seattle Times, among the very rich, and in some major foundations are now hell-bent to "solve" the education problem with a devilish brew of charter schools, teacher assessments, union bashing, and "ed reform" ideas.  These folks are well meaning but don't address the real problems, and their solutions will quickly fail while crippling efforts to make real improvements. (In fact, the jury is already in for a number of their failed panaceas--like charter schools and small high schools).  The Seattle Times has reported and opinionated about the conflict over "ed reform" including the debate in the state legislature and the unhappiness of the frustrated ultra wealthy (e.g., Nick Hanauer) in getting their way:  see this article as an example.

We can solve the K-12 education problem, but we need to throw away ideas that quick fixes and "market reforms" will do the trick.  We need to get down to basics and become willing to learn from countries that are successful.  This blog will describe a different approach, one based on fundamentals.  Some basic tenets I believe are important, include:

1.  No more jumping from one edufad to another
2. We need to define exactly what we want kids to know
3.  We must insure that teachers have deep subject knowledge of what they teach.
4.  Teachers must be respected and given substantial autonomy
5.  Education approaches must be guided by empirical testing and research
6. Ed schools need to be reformed and improved.
7.  Pre-school education is a critical component of future learning.
 8.  All kids are NOT going to college, and that is NOT a problem. K-12 education should be flexible to allow varied directions.
9.   Good education costs money

So lets talk about these points:

 1.  Enough of edufads
Education seems to be full of snake-oil salesman, promising a miracle cure that doesn't take a lot of hard work.  Charters schools, Teach for America, new math, whole language reading, discovery math, integrated math, assessment-centered teaching, small high schools...the list is endless.  What virtually all of these have in common is that they are adopted or applied before there is robust evidence of their value.   We wouldn't do that with medicines, why are we willing to try out unproven remedies on our children's education?  Many of these edufads are pushed by the ultra wealthy.  Just because someone is rich as Midas, that does not mean they know anything about education.  And the editorial board of certain newspapers (hint:  Seattle T---S) is particularly irresponsible in pushing fads (and bashing teachers).

2. We need to agree upon and define what we want kids to know

Our state and the nation require clear, well-thought-out standards and curricula that describe with great specificity the knowledge and skills we expect our children to possess upon graduation.  Many states lack this.  In Washington State we have made great progress in some areas (like our new math standards), but we still have a long way to go.   University educators and businesses in our state should have substantial input to these standards; in the end they are the ones that will have to deal with K-12 graduates.  Today, a new edufad is taking hold in the standards/curriculum domain:  the Common Core standards devised by an independent commission under the auspices of the National Governor's association.   They are generally poorly written. The math standards of Common Core are inferior to our state standards, but State leadership is jumping on board in the hope of getting Race to the Top cash. (see my previous blog on Common Core)

3.   We must insure that teachers have deep subject knowledge of what they teach.
This sounds obvious but is not true in many cases.  We must insure that all teachers know the subjects they teach at a far deeper level than they are providing instruction.  Elementary school teachers must be competent in middle school math, middle school teachers should be competent in high school math, and high school math teachers need to have college level competence (such as being a math major in college).  Same for other subjects.  You can only teach well when you have subject-area knowledge well beyond your instructional level.  There is a fixation on assessing teachers among some "ed reform" types.   Ok, why don't we begin by testing teacher competence in the subjects they will be teaching, before they enter the classroom and when they move to different grades/subjects?  I can't imagine the teacher's unions objecting to this!  Ed-reform advocates don't seem interested in teacher knowledge, and even push ideas like Teach for America, in which essentially untrained teachers (5-weeks!) are thrown into the classroom

4.   Teachers must be respected and given substantial autonomy

The "ed reform" folks, including the Seattle Times, The Gates Foundation, and the Ed-Reform lobbyists (Alliance for Education, League of Education Voters, etc) are really big on assessing teachers by measuring student progress.  Many of them are into micromanaging what a teacher does in the classroom (Bellevue's past superintendent Riley was particularly excessive in this domain).  Teachers that don't improve student progress are given more training or let go.  Many of these assessment activities are blatantly disrespectful of teachers and ill-informed.  Some are obvious attempts to weaken the teacher's unions.  I am acquainted with a lot of teachers and they are some of the most altruistic people I know, working long hours for modest pay.  The percentage of incompetent teachers are small.  And considering the substantial correlation between student background and their progress in school, no assessment program that I know of is viable.  Teachers need the flexibility to do the best they can and adapt approaches for the varying students for which they are responsible for.   The leading nations in education (e.g., Finland) follow such an approach.

5.  Education approaches must be guided by empirical testing and research

   Education must be guided by scientific, empirical methodology, rigorously testing various approaches (curricula, teaching methods). In contrast, current teaching approaches bounce from fad to fad and education "research" is not rigorous and is highly subjective.  The National Academy of Sciences evaluated education research on math teaching methodologies and found that none (repeat none) of them met basic standards of statistical rigor.  The Academy also suggested that schools of education begin teaching their students proper statistical methodologies.  Lets say there is a debate on how to teach math.  Fine, try various approaches in classrooms with kids of identical demographics and see what works.  Then adopt the best approach system wide.  Keep this testing and replacement going and eventually schools will get much better.  Here in Seattle the administration seems content to squash experimentation.

6. Ed schools need to be reformed and improved.
 A major part of the problem lies in U.S. education schools. Many fill their curricula with theoretical concepts and material that is more appropriate for a social work program than for education.  Many see their role not as educators, but as agents for social change.  I have direct experience with this:  my wife went through two local education school programs.  In addition, I have had many reports from local teachers saying the same thing. Relatively little time is given to classroom management and subject mastery.  And what ed schools call research, would not be considered research in most university departments of science and engineering.

7.  Pre-school education is a critical component of future learning.
 The educational establishment likes to suppress a basic fact of education--the highest correlative with student performance has nothing to do with the classroom...it has to do with the family backgrounds and demographics of the kids.   The educational and family situation before they enter Kindergarten or first grade has a huge impact on their performance in school.  It is thus critical that we do all we can as a society to provide less privileged kids with substantial support and enrichment before they enter school (WAY BEFORE), insuring their basic health needs and that they receive the intellectual stimulation and advantages that their peers in wealthier families enjoy.  There is substantial evidence that Head Start and similar programs have a positive and lasting influence on disadvantaged students (e.g., here)

8.  All kids are NOT going to college, and that is NOT a problem. K-12 education should be flexible to allow varied directions.

There is a lot of talk about college prep and that all students should be given an education the will prepare them for college work.  But the majority of students are not going to college, and our K-12 system must recognize that. There are so many good jobs in building our society and maintaining the complex technology upon which we depend--and many do not require a college degree.  We are not serving these students well today.  We have stripped technical and job-skills training from our schools, and we are failing to provide many of our students with general skills (essential math and communication skills for example) needed in many jobs.  So many times I have heard from master carpenters and tradesman who complain that new employees lack the basic math skills needed for such work.  And in many districts that ideas of tracks, in which more motivated or gifted students are allowed to move ahead faster, is considered to be some kind of right-wing, fascist plot.

9.  Good education costs money, but we need to spend it wisely.

 Quality education is not cheap.  Ask any teacher: smaller class sizes make a real difference, one reason well-to-do folks send their kids to private schools.  We need to pay our teachers salaries that reflect the highly educated professionals we expect them to be.  And our schools must be safe, positive surroundings that are properly equipped.  And the number of children in classrooms need to be reduced.

Here in Washington we are 38th in per capita spending among the states, while we have one of the most educated populations, with many employed in high technology industries.  Not good.

But to be fair, our state and the U.S. on average spends far more per pupil than nearly every country in the world...even countries doing far better than we in educating their kids (e.g., Finland).  Part of this is certainly our varied demographics, but quite frankly we waste a huge amount of money...money that could have been spent in the classroom.  Seattle is a prime case in point.  First there is the loss from extensive corruption and mismanagement (which led to the exit of several superintendents over the past few years).  Then there was the multi-decadal waste on busing, which only succeeded in permanently damaging the district and sending families to the suburbs and private schools.   We have wasted HUGE amounts of money on thick, colorful textbooks that often had little pedagogical value (sometime I will blog about the corrupt textbook publishing industry).  The district has had a large bureaucracy of highly paid middle managers and "curriculum specialists"  and nearly worthless "math coaches."  And on the state level we wasted a billion dollars on a useless WASL exam and hundreds of millions on questionable training programs for teachers in the latest "research-based pedagogy."  

So let K-12 education clean up its financial house, reduce waste, and then our society much insure that the necessary funding for a first-class education is in place.

We can either deal with the fundamentals of our problems....as suggested above...or keep chasing the latest edufad.  To use a meteorological metaphor, edufads are similar to getting rich by finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow--sounds good and is awfully appealing....but you can never get to the end of a rainbow.  And we won't properly educate our children unless we are willing to do the hard work, guided by facts, with sufficient resources.

Support Local Public Radio:  Pledge Drive at KPLU
KPLU has been a wonderful new home for my weekly weather segment.  Please support them if you listen to their excellent programming.
Share this article :
Support : Creating Website | Johny Template | Mas Template
Copyright © 2011. The Weather - All Rights Reserved
Template Created by Creating Website Published by Mas Template
Proudly powered by Blogger