Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Basic Facts About US Education

Do you agree or disagree with the 25 basic facts about education identified in this post?

Let's establish some of the basics which seem obvious to me:

1) The American educational system sucks.

2) It particularly sucks for poor and minority kids

3) It has sucked in approximately the same way for at least forty years.

4) The institutional barriers to not sucking are apparently insurmountable with the current interest groups in place.

5) It is extremely segregated by class, race, and income

6) It is extremely hard to recruit and keep good teachers

7) As a result, the schools with the most attractively upper middle class parents and children get almost all of the good teachers

8) The main reason that it is hard to get good teachers (outside of rural areas where it is hard to get good anyone to move there) is that their pay, unlike that of other union workers, is at the bottom of the distribution for their education level.

9) Given that the pay is at the bottom of the distribution for educated professionals, one of the primary attractions of the job is its short workyear and near-ironclad job security. Short of molesting the students or screaming racial epithets at them, it's awfully hard to get fired from a teaching position.

10) Jobs whose primary attraction is short hours and the difficulty of getting fired rarely attract the cream of the crop. The best teachers are either those few gifted passionate souls who want to teach, or women who are trying to match their schedule to that of their children. The latter group is shrinking; the former group has always been small.

11) Any meaningful reform of the school system that actually improves them will need to pay teachers much more.

12) Paying the current group of teachers much more will improve their standard of living immeasurably, but will do absolutely nothing for the students.

13) Therefore, coupled with higher teacher pay must come the ability to get rid of substandard teachers

14) This is not remotely feasible within the existing system

15) The programmes which have been shown to work best with disadvantaged kids are the ones that are heavily scripted, involve lots of repetition and rote learning, and otherwise make life no fun for the teacher.

16) These programmes are rarely implemented, implying that teaching disadvantaged kids to read and do math are somewhere well down the priority list of your average school district.

17) Monopolies are rarely responsive to their customers.

18) School board elections are not a particularly good way to gather feedback on school performance, but other than lawsuits, it is the single mechanism currently available to school districts. School board elections are a particularly bad way to gather feedback in very large, dysfunctional polities like cities.

19) A school where parents may pull their children at any moment is a school that worries about pleasing parents and children.

20) The government cannot hand out money without making sure schools meet basic requirements, like having a building, teachers, and some students. Any voucher programme will also have to periodically test kids to ensure that they are making progress.

21) This is not the same thing as imposing the same set of elaborate regulations on everything from teacher hours to eraser purchasing that currently hamstring public schools, and then complaining that voucher schools don't do any better.

22) Current teacher certification standards are lunatic protectionism promulgated by education schools collecting fat rents for slapping a laminate veneer of professionalism on educators. Any one I have ever met who has done a real degree, and then sat through education classes, has attested to their utter lack of useful content. We have math teachers who are very good at making posters about race, and very bad at math. The way to teach someone to teach is to give them some elementary child psychology, and then have them practice on actual children, who will illustrate the folly of listening to professors of child psychology. "Teacher standards" are the absolute last thing we should be imposing on voucher programmes. Principals are pretty good at figuring out if a teacher can teach.

23) Any voucher programme will have to offer bonuses for educating difficult kids: poor kids, kids with emotional problems, kids with learning disabilities, and so forth. Otherwise, those kids will end up stuck in a ghetto. On the other hand, if you get the pricing right, you don't need to worry about lotteries and so forth.

24) To hell with rich people: if you're in, say, the top 5-10% of the income distribution, you ought to get the same help educating your kids as my parents got, which is to say none.

25) Some people will be worse off under this system. There is no change ever that leaves every single person better off. This is not a reason to avoid change.

Let's see if we can narrow the focus a bit. Are there three which you absolutely think are egregiously false? If so, why do you think they're false?


Anonymous said...

Dear Darren:

Oh very well, you talked me into it. Here are three, that are indeed false if taken as stated.

1) The American educational system sucks.

Response: Actually, for most places in America, and for most kids, the systems works quite well and provides educational opportunity sufficient to make America the most free, prosperous and dynamic nation in world history. I always find it fascinating that most of the politicians decrying our horrible education system were themselves educated in that system, yet are loath to identify themselves as drooling morons as a result of their "poor" educations. Apparently they are the only folks immune to the horrific negative effects of American education.

Are there places where the system works poorly? Of course. One can easily point to a variety of inner city school districts, for example, run by school boards who are far more interested in policital purity, machine politics, self enrichment and political correctness than in effective education. Add in students who spend as much time in jail as school, non-existant or utterly uninvolved parents, horrendously incompetent management, and it's hardly surprising that things don't work. But this is an argument for cleaning up that which doesn't work, not denigrating that which does. The mechanisms to make these systems work exist. That people in some places choose not to use those mechanisms properly is not a blanket condemnation of American education.

The entire American education system sucks? Not even remotely correct--or honest.

2) It particularly sucks for poor and minority kids

Response: Upon cursory examination, this makes sense, and is, no doubt, in certain places true. But this assertion relies on the falsehood that schools are entirely responsible for the educations of individual students.

Student and parental involvement is at least as important as the opportunities provided by schools. If this blanket assertion is correct, how do we explain the exemplary performance, across the nation, of Asian students? Certainly not all of them are enrolled in outstanding schools.

If a given school is providing an appropriately professional educational opportunity for all of its students, then those students who do not do well, poor, minority or otherwise, bear primary responsibility because they are choosing not to take advantage of their opportunities while most students at the same schools do.

Culture, too plays a significant role. Ask Bill Cosby. But not many folks seem to want to talk about that, do they? A great many poor people, many of them minorities, have worked and studied hard and have built successful lives for themselves while their bretheren have wallowed in racial, grievance and victim politics and have gone nowhere. America makes possible rapid upward progress for those willing to work hard and our educational system is a major part of that road to success.

Again, such blanket statements are gross over-generalizations. Remember, all generalizations are bad (ar, ar).

13) Therefore, coupled with higher teacher pay must come the ability to get rid of substandard teachers

Response: Higher teacher pay? Of course. It's not a panacea for fixing every problem, but the business model does apply in at least one area of education: You get what you pay for.

There may well be school districts who have negotiated foolish union contracts that make it hard to fire incompetent teachers. But lack of political acumen or courage on the part of school districts is not the same thing as a blanket, across the nation inability to fire bad teachers. And even in such districts, administrators with some intestinal fortitude can renegotiate contracts. No union contract is forever, no perk need be everlasting.

I suspect that in most of America, such ridiculous contracts don't exist. Certainly in Texas where I teach, there is no unionization whatever, yet some administrators still whine about how hard it is to fire teachers. This is an eloquent commentary on the incompetence and/or laziness of those administrators as Texas law provides only the most rudimentary due process rights for teachers, and only after a three year probationary period. There is no such thing as tenure. This is the case in, I suspect, most states. And even in my school which has a low staff turnover rate, principals have no difficulty whatsoever in relieving poorly performing teachers.

I have never found a competent principal who was unable to remove an incompetent teacher. If they are truly incompetent, the evidence necessary to remove them will be easily gathered and documented. If not, perhaps they're not so incompetent after all.

Bizarre union contracts may well be the rule in places like the People's Republic of California, but they are certainly not the case in much of the rest of the country. Again, quite the over-generalization.

Thanks, as always, for the good blogging and have fun with this one!

Ellen K said...

I have heard much of this rhetoric before from conservative radio. Some of it, I realize, comes from the protective monopoly of union labor. One of the worst things that teachers have done is to align themselves with unions. Unions have done next to nothing to improve education and a great deal to impede it through supporting subpar educators who are members and upholding and demanding rules that protect those with little ambition or ability. That being said, I think for what we are mandated to do, which is to educate EVERY child who comes through the door regardless of race, religion, learning disabilities, socio-economic class or gender. Our problem is that we are trying to be all things to all people. We cannot truly educate when we are too busy supporting political agendas and addressing social needs rather than teaching reading, writing and arithmatic. When those function moved into the classroom is about the time that true educational superiority was jettisoned. But the good news is, we can have it back. It isn't going to be easy. Since my reply will probably be long, I will put it on my blog.

allenm said...

1) Uh, yeah.
2) ditto.
3) sigh.
4) Close but a clean miss. The barriers to not sucking are incorporated in the concept of public education. Given some time, it'll always suck and sometimes it'll start to suck right away.
5) That's the way it was designed. What do you think the point of a school district might be? Certainly not efficiency.
6) To work for an organization that's structurally indifferent to job competence? What a shock.
7) People prefer to work where the conditions and the pay are good? What a shock.
8) ditto.
9) Yeah.
10) See 6.
11) And you know this how?
12) Yeah.
13) ...which'll require a fundamental change to the structure of public education. I won't hold my breath.
14) Ah, I see I'll have company not holding my breath.
15) Yes, the methods that are tediously effective aren't used because the more romantic, but less effective, methods appeal to people who make decisions without concerns about effectiveness.
16) There ought to be a Nobel Prize for appreciation of the obvious since it seems to such an uncommon skill.
17) It's practically the point of monopolies.
18) Yes and yes.
19) Yes again.
20) The disbursement of all government funds is a function of political power. That means funds can damned well be handed out without meeting basic requirements. Also, anything you value, you measure.
21) To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Bureaucrats live in a tidy world of people who report to them and people they report too. If you go looking for bold explorers look somewhere else.
22) Rent-seeking is not evidence of mental illness. It's a rational response to the situation. If a different response is sought the situation should be changed since human nature is notoriously incorrigible.
23) Which means that kids'll arrive at school with a price tag hanging off of them ala Minny Pearl. I'm sure that can't possibly lead to some sort of mischief. You can't get the pricing right. Providers will always overstate, funders will always understate. Mandate a price and it's always wrong. If not this minute then five minutes from now.
24) Yes.
25) Yes.

Darren said...

Allen, you sound to me like you think the problems we have are intractable, or at least that the schools can't solve them.

EllenK, you pushed my button on the union issue. I don't *want* unions doing *anything* about education. Here in California I'm compelled to give money to a union of which I'm not even a member! Unions should be working for the pay, benefits, and working conditions of their members and nothing else! But if they did that, it would be proven how ineffective they are--so they veer off into leftwing politics.

David Foster said...

mike..."for most places in America, and for most kids, the systems works quite well...I always find it fascinating that most of the politicians decrying our horrible education system were themselves educated in that system"...the system once worked better than it is working now, and most of the politicians who went through it did so 20-40 years ago.
I suspect that most politicians also came from homes in which parents were reasonably literate and supportive of education.

Ellen K said...

I work in Texas, one of the last Right to Work states. I can see that for some professions, unionization was an attempt to improve working conditions. I also think it was a serious mistake for teachers to "deprofessionalize" themselves by organizing as a union. I have read the NEA publications, and it is right in step with the Democrat/Green party platforms. I think as such, the NEA and many members of the left have pushed social issues and social responsibilities onto the shoulders of school districts. Free lunches, free breakfasts, before and after school care, medical care and so on have eroded the educational budget. The district from which my youngest will graduate this year was an inner ring, blue collar suburb. We have been overwhelmed by immigrants-legal and not- from Mexico, Vietnam, China, Pakistan and many other nations. By law we have to educate these children and provide the language support. We have one kid in a class that even the ESL teacher, who is from Mexico City-cannot understand. How can we teach and how can we be held accountable when parents expect the system to be Big Daddy and they expect to not have to do anything at all? And yet if you asked the union officials, they would say that it was more important to educate those children than the average kid down the street. If the union wanted huge support, they would come out on the issues of less extracurricular activities, more class time and better insurance and compensation. But no, they would rather rail against NCLB, the president and play the political games. And that is what I meant about the unions doing little or nothing to improve the lot of their rank and file members. I in no way support the union structuring curriculum or dabbling in local matters. I am glad I don't have to belong. I am part of a small state organization that has legal help and liability insurance.

Anonymous said...

What, nothing about curriculum? What about fuzzy math, feelgood science, PC history, whole language and all the other fads?

It seems like the last 40 years has been a process of making good worthwhile subjects appear more "relevant" and more "fun" to children and their bored boomer parents. No one questions the premise, because the parents or the politicians or the school trustees remember being "bored" in this or that class or that they were not good at math or science. So they buy into all these crappy new proposals.

The fad curricula have spread to the farthest reaches of the country; the tiniest district in Montana is not protected from the reach of progressive ed. In fact, they get stuck with it much longer.

So actually I don't blame the teachers, students OR parents. Get a good solid curriculum and stick with it.

Ellen K said...

Education has been trendy since I was in a "New Math" class in third grade. I still have issue with math and I think a great deal of it has to do with finding the "tricks" of solution rather than the logic. And that's what has happened with reading -Whole Language-as well as a number of core classes. Rather than getting all cutesy, how about we teach the meat of the subject and stop playing games.

allenm said...

Darren, I have come to the conclusion that, long term, the problems of public education are intractable. Shorter term those problems are vulnerable - and I do mean vulnerable - to remediation but only with luck, pluck and unusual competence.

Look at the exceptional people that are necessary to create the exceptional situations; the Jaime Escalantes and David MacEnultys. People so good, dedicated and, let's be honest, lucky, that they can stem the tide of indifference temporarily and locally.

How much of an impact do they have beyond their classroom or school? You know the answer and it's "zero".

How odd is that? A championship tennis player can count on lots of high-paying students crowding his tennis camps. The hotshot stock market maven can count on his $1000-a-pop seminars being full. A fighter pilot can become an ace and an ice skater can win a gold medal. And all of them will have books hitting the best seller list propelled by all the professionals and all the amateurs who are anxious to glean any crumb of insight or information.

Is there anything in those examples that reminds you of public education?

That institutional indifference to educational outcomes isn't a problem to be solved, it's structural. The system can be altered to make educational excellence more likely but as long as the word "public" is part of the description all the current problems now will persistently reassert themselves. Budgets will go up, accountability will go down and results will diminish.

Not because it's the fault of any particular group - teachers, kids, administrators, parents or school board members - but because just by acting like perfectly ordinary human beings they'll be channeled by the education system to actions and decisions that result in a lousy, inefficient, expensive education system.

Anonymous said...

alright, i def. disagree with number seven mainly because Rio Americano is considered a "rich kid" school and yet I could name several teachers who should not be educators to begin with. Several teachers at Rio lack the necessary skills it takes to be a good teacher and as a result, students suffer. So the next time someone says that all of the rich kid schools get the best teachers, they need to pay a visit to Rio.

Darren said...

Present company excepted, right? =)

(At least I hope so!)