Giving up control of education

By Felix Salmon
June 30, 2012

For me, one of the more interesting tracks of the Aspen Ideas Festival is the series of conversations about education. Aspen is the natural habitat of America’s overconfident plutonomy: the kind of people who are convinced that since they have been successful themselves, they are therefore qualified — more qualified than education professionals, in fact — to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. The ultimate example of this in recent weeks was the firing of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, by rich trustees who had no substantive beef with her at all. Instead, they just didn’t like her reluctance to sign on to various inchoate strategies, which sound great in a mass-market leadership book but which are unlikely to be particularly helpful in the context of a venerable educational institution.

These people have all read their Steve Brill, and have watched (or even funded) Waiting for Superman. They’re generally convinced that bad teachers are The Problem, and seem to think that that reforming the nation’s education system is a task somehow akin to akin to remaking General Electric. Measure everything, work out who’s good and who’s bad, and fire the underperformers: half of the problem is solved right there. Then, look at the great teachers, the inspirational ones, and the ed-tech innovators. If America’s remaining teachers just take a leaf out of their books, and start doing the things that work really well, that’s the other half of the problem addressed.

This year, however, the tone of the discussion was different — not least because the American Federation of Teachers appeared on the list of corporate underwriters, alongside the likes of Ernst & Young, Mercedes Benz, and Pepsico. (And Thomson Reuters, too.) The AFT is all too often considered to be some kind of reactionary force of darkness, interested only in ensuring that all teachers, no matter how bad, have jobs for life. But with the AFT literally setting the agenda at Aspen, that changed in constructive ways.

Education is horribly complex, but I think it’s still possible to put together a stylized model of the main forces at play. The dramatis personae would look something like this:

  • The kids. Everybody claims to be working for the sake of the children, and accuses everybody else of ignoring their needs. This is possible because, until now, the kids haven’t really had a voice of their own. But that might be changing. Even if they don’t have some kind of formal seat at the table in Aspen, the ed-tech revolution might well see them engaging with apps and websites and other students in their class and around the world, essentially voting with their attention spans and with the data they collectively generate. And while much of that activity will be imposed on them by parents and teachers, much of it will come from the kids themselves. The study of how children choose to interact and learn is going to become much more empirical and quantifiable, and the consequences for education can only be positive.
  • The parents. Can be stereotyped into two broad categories: call them active and passive. Active parents would be the educated middle classes, who helicopter their kids, second-guess their kids’ teachers, and take a very active role in their kids’ educations, often choosing where they live on the basis of how good the local schools are perceived to be. Passive parents would be much more prone to simply outsourcing the job of teaching their children to the school system, leaving it to do its job, either because they don’t feel that they know better, or because they’re simply too busy or overwhelmed to be able to engage with their children’s education in such an expensive and time-consuming manner.
  • The teachers. Everybody agrees that teachers have an enormous influence on educational outcomes, although just how enormous is very hard to quantify. They like job security (don’t we all), and generally work extremely hard putting together lesson plans together using resources provided not only by their own school or school district, but also ideas and tools they find online. It seems reasonable to assume that the more they believe in what and how they’re teaching, the more enthusiastic and successful they’ll be.
  • The teachers’ teachers. Education schools have one main role: to turn students into effective teachers. They also have a secondary role, of researching what works and what doesn’t in education. By all accounts, they’re not doing a particularly good job at either of these. The latter might (or might not) be improved with more funding for primary research; the former is harder still to improve. AFT chief Randi Weingarten’s latest big idea is to implement a kind of bar exam which all teachers would have to pass, whether they went to a formal teacher’s college or not — essentially moving the idea of test-based teaching up a notch from the classroom to the teacher academies.
  • The management. Everybody from the principal, to the school board, to the mayor, to the state education department, to the federal education department, to the president of the USA. Collectively, they control the very large amount of money All of these people have ideas about what works, things that they want to change, and political and managerial constraints on what they can realistically achieve. They also tend to want to consolidate power wherever on the chain they happen to sit.
  • The unions. Have a long history and a path-dependent future. No one would choose to have four-inch-thick contracts and the kind of adversarial relations with local politicians that we see in all too many American cities, including New York and Washington. But it’s entirely reasonable that teachers should have a union to represent their interests in the face of various managerial meddlers, most of whom in one way or another want to exert power downwards onto teachers. In many cities with Democratic party machines, the teachers’ unions can have substantial power.
  • The ed-tech crowd. The educational possibilities inherent in a networked world of students and teachers with tablets and broadband are enormous, and we’re only just beginning to glimpse what might be achievable. Ed-tech people come in both for-profit and non-profit flavors; both of them tend to be very excited and bullish about America’s educational future, certainly once schools get properly wired.
  • The reformers. Tend to be rich, well-intentioned, well-educated, and self-confident; they’re a bit like super-concentrated active parents, who are interested in the wellbeing of all kids, rather than just their own. They often love their own kids’ teachers, but are convinced that many other kids suffer greatly under bad teachers, and want to rectify that. They’re not shy about exerting their own substantial political influence, and in principle they’re happy to find common cause with the ed-tech crowd.

It seems to me that although there are always tensions between the management and the unions, the real fight here is between the teachers and the reformers. Both sides try to capture the management, with various degrees of success, and the result is all too often unhelpful fights and squabbles rather than constructive engagement and grown-up attempts to make sustainable and incremental progress.

One big axis of tension is between the long-term view of the teachers and the unions, on the one hand, and the shorter-term view of pretty much everybody else, on the other. Is it possible to radically transform an entire educational system during the tenure of a single elected official, or before your tween enters high school? Realistically, no, it isn’t. Good teachers and good principals stay in the same place for decades and tend to take a long view of things; politicians and parents and children and venture capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of luxury. As a result, they tend to want to do big, drastic things which could have immediate results, whether it’s nationwide testing, or vouchers, or charter schools, or a multi-billion-dollar wiring of classrooms, or a mass culling of underperforming teachers, or a large-scale move onto some trendy new online educational platform.

Such moves are always politically difficult, and that’s probably a good thing. There have been educational revolutionaries for as long as there has been education, and no system can work in a state of constant turmoil, with a succession of bright ideas replacing each other in a chaotic and endless process. Most of these ideas have been tested on a relatively small scale; almost none of them have shown lasting results at a large scale. Which, admittedly, is partly due to the fact that measuring results is incredibly difficult.

Which brings me to what I think is the greatest promise of the ed-tech crowd: the ability to collect large amounts of empirical data. This isn’t happening yet. But as technology inexorably enters America’s classrooms, a fabulously rich source of data should emerge, and will be a wonderful means by which to judge the competing claims of various different schools of educational thought. “Try everything,” said Eric Schmidt in his Aspen session, “and measure it”. Which seems like a great idea to me. It’s not easy: it will require, for one thing, the ed-tech crowd to come up with generally-agreed standards for anonymized educational data, and a universal agreement that all data should be made public — on an anonymized basis — rather than being kept secret on the grounds that it’s valuable proprietary information.

But there’s a really big problem here, and that’s the strong move on the part of reformers to fire underperforming teachers. The first thing you need to know if you want to fire the underperformers, of course, is who those underperformers are. And the best way to find that out is to use all that lovely new ed-tech data. As a result, teachers tend to be very suspicious of any attempt to collect data about them and their students: they fear that such moves are a means of collecting dubiously-reliable empirical evidence which will ultimately end up getting many of them fired.

In theory, teachers should be fine with sharing anonymized data; the only problems arise when that data is used in things like performance reviews. But in practice, once data starts being collected on an anonymized basis, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before principals or school boards or some other part of the management decides that the data is the obvious place to go when they want to start firing bad teachers. Even if the data wasn’t collected with that use in mind.

As a result, my feeling is that the ed-tech world should converge quite aggressively on a set of anonymized-data standards, and spend quite a lot of effort explaining to various management types that the data is great for comparing teaching methods, on an aggregated basis, or working out which technologies are getting the most enthusiastic uptake — but that it should not be used for comparing teachers, on an individual basis.

In which case, how should bad teachers be fired? I do have sympathy for reformers and parents who put that action at the top of their to-do lists, and I’m even willing to believe the assertion, which I heard a few times at Aspen, that a handful of bad teachers can end up significantly bringing down the performance of an entire school. At the same time, however, if you look at say Finland, or some similar educational system with very high outcomes, you’ll also find almost no teachers being fired. Or, to put it another way: if bad teachers can bring down the performance of a school, then good schools can bring up the performance of all their teachers. Look at the various super-principals who get occasional gushing media coverage: they can turn around schools, given time, and generally don’t need to fire many or even any teachers in order to do so.

Super-principals don’t scale, of course. But unless and until there is robust empirical evidence that the firing-bad-teachers approach significantly improves educational outcomes, my feeling is that it probably belongs in the “quick fix” bucket. And I’m suspicious, on principle, of all quick fixes: some of them work, but many don’t. And all too often the teachers who end up getting fired aren’t actually the worst teachers after all.

Zooming out a bit, I suspect that whether and how we fire teachers is not going to be the main determinant of future outcomes. And indeed I think that all of the efforts of the managers and the unions and the reformers are going to be much less important than any of them think. Instead, I’m most excited about the idea that all of them can get disintermediated, and that students and teachers and parents, from the bottom up, will start adopting new educational technologies which could end up having a profound effect on how America’s children learn.

A lot of ed-tech companies, quite naturally, are focused on selling their products to school boards, and on capturing some part of today’s substantial textbook budgets. I’m sure that some of them will find success that way. But I’m more interested in the technologies which bubble up from the students and the teachers and the parents, and which might then ultimately get ratified by the management, long after they have been broadly adopted in practice.

Places like Aspen tend to attract educational revolutionaries, many of whom give good speech. Some of them will end up inspiring teachers and students; others won’t. But I don’t think we should be trying to pick winners here. The only large-scale, top-down thing I’d be inclined to embrace would be wiring classrooms; everything else should be pushed down. School boards will empower principals, principals will empower teachers, and teachers will empower students. Instead of one-size-fits-all, we’ll have a vibrant, heterogeneous system customized not only to states and cities but even down to the level of the individual student. It will involve much of the current management giving up their power and control, but it’s probably inevitable, sooner or later. Let’s embrace it, and trust that the less we try to control the way we educate America’s kids, the better educated they’re going to end up being.

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Comments
40 comments so far

T

Posted by http | Report as abusive

“School boards will empower principals, principals will empower teachers, and teachers will empower students.”

Surprisingly, this is well stated. Those schools I’ve seen that produce the best results are those that treat their teachers with professional respect. Teachers are empowered to do what they believe will best help students to learn, supported with supplies and training, and defended against the occasional crazy parent.

There is surely a better way to guide and motivate students than the traditional test-driven grading scheme, however. Empowered students would surely choose something different.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The metaphor my mom always uses to describe education is the dentists office. You can have the greatest hygienist, a super dentist and great administrative staff, but none of it will help if you eat lots of candy and never brush your teeth. Americans work really long hours- their kids need some of those hours to learn from their most important role models how essential learning is. Time and attention from any engaged adult will work though, and you tend to get the engagement you pay for. So, unless there is some extra money in the household to buy some early childhood education (either in a class or with a stay at home parent), there isn’t a lot the school system can do. You know, leading horses and all that.

We also pay teachers really badly. Do you really expect top performers to sacrifice remunitive careers to teach the ungrateful progeny of the masses because it’s a nice thing to do? Sure some folks do that, but it’s selfish and foolish of us to expect it.

Posted by http | Report as abusive

You should have made this about six posts. Just a couple of things:

>> In many cities with Democratic party machines, the teachers’ unions can have substantial power.

What you said about unions was actually pretty reasonable before you included this zinger. Explain to me why your initial statements on the value of unions should include the exercise of political power. You can’t, and still support the rest of what you said.

Have you ever spent any substantial time with professional educators? I don’t mean teachers, I mean people who teach teachers. Their language is almost incoherently full of process terminology, so much so that they often aren’t understandable. They’re really not inclined to think in terms of results. Anytime education can inject results into a discussion has to be good.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

“Is it possible to radically transform an entire educational system during the tenure of a single elected official?”

Actually, yes. Whether you like it or not, most people would agree that Bloomberg did that in NYC.

Posted by StevenHodas | Report as abusive

I think we need to apply Salmon’s tech ideas to health care, as well, to give us information on the best approaches and treatments.

Just as the internet has provided an information explosion, usefully defined and collected data could provide explosions of improvements in education and in health care.

You’re on to something, Felix.

Carolyn Kay
http://www.ManyYearsYoung.com

Posted by CarolynKay | Report as abusive

Your logic is probably faultless Felix. They went down the common standards route in the UK a few years ago and all that happened was so called “difficult subjects” were not taught any more, and students were taught to the exam, not to the subject.

On top of that you have human variance to contend with – and I mean of students, not teachers. Of course you get gifted teachers; and you equally get rubbish teachers. But to really discover if they are underperforming you have to wait so long for a statistically significant sample of students to mount up that their career will already be half over before you can say if they are any good. And by then of course, all the other variables will have changed too – the teacher got better, the technology improved, the catchment area of the school changed, the socio-economic mix in the school’s catchment area changed, and so on. So again, this supports your view.

I think kids should be able to leave school and spell well, be able to do mental arithmetic, and be confident speaking to a group of people. I don’t think they need to know what a Fibonacci Sequence is though. But what is most important is to engage with and motivate the kids to have fun learning: then real education can begin.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

While not a vaccine against bad outcomes, technology is a huge driver of positive results in Maine. All our middle schoolers have received Macbooks in the 7th grade. Transformative in this man’s opnion.

Will it make up for 180 classroom days a year vs 220 in SKorea… no it won’t… but it’s still a nice plus.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

A couple of comments from a former public-school teacher regarding the issue of firing underperforming teachers.

1) How do you decide who decide who is an underperforming teacher? Through classroom observations? Test results? Parent feedback? Some combination thereof?

Test results don’t provide accurate data unless those taking them are giving 100% (rarely the case, especially in middle school and high school), and unless both a pre-test and post-test are given. So the reason both individual teachers and their unions are very suspicious of standardized testing is because of how testing is being misused.

2) How much influence do teachers actually have over student outcomes?

In most public schools, middle and high school teachers only teach a given student for 40-50 minutes as part of a group of 25-35 students. So they have very little time to work with individual students. On the other hand, students are under the supervision of their parent(s) for 6-8 hours per day. No matter how good a job the teacher does or does not do in the classroom, its the parents who influence what the students eat, how much sleep they get, whether or not they do their homework, and how they spend their free time. So whatever influence teachers have over student outcomes, the influence of parents is undoubtedly many times greater. When I was teaching, I lost count of the number of times I had to deal with irresponsible parents who blamed me for their child’s poor academic achievement instead of looking in the mirror.

3) If you fire underperforming teachers, who are you going to replace them with?

It’s not as if there is a long line of people desperate to enter the teaching profession. Teaching is extremely stressful as well as being woefully underpaid, which is one of the reasons it is estimated that roughly 40% of all new teacher leave the profession within their first three years. In many cases, firing an underperforming teacher means either not replacing them, or replacing them with another underperforming teacher, neither of which lead to an improvement in teacher quality.

Just some food for thought….

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

@y2kurtus Excellent point. As well as the number of days in school per year, how long is one of those days? In the UK they are much shorter than in Switzerland for instance where the earliest class for a 16 year old might start at 7.30am and the latest not end until 6.30pm (with some free periods in between mind you).

I think technology in the classroom is revolutionising education – and so it should. The US is doing a great job here http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/ 06/26/san_diego_school_district_buys_26k _ipads_for_students.html
I think the UK is a bit behind because of cost reasons but the new Academy Schools are shaking things up (there’s a sweet video at the end of this link):
http://www.apple.com/education/profiles/ flitch-green/

However, I have also heard of really expensive electronic whiteboards being installed in classrooms and then not being used because of lack of training for the teachers, or lack of aptitude, or just darn’ resistance to anything new.

If education is to change, you have to get the teachers on your side, and threats of them being sacked is going to be demotivating for the good teachers too. Increasing paperwork won’t give you better teachers either, it’ll just chase out the good, inspirational teachers who just happen to be bad at form filling.

If anyone is in any doubt, read “Who killed Change” by Ken Blanchard (of One Minute Manager fame). Applying those principals indicates that for the most part, teachers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

“I don’t think they need to know what a Fibonacci Sequence is though.”

@FifthDecade, a student who hasn’t seen the Fibonacci Sequence likely has a very poor math background. It isn’t that the sequence itself is important, but it is one of the standard examples of:

(1) Recursive patterns, iterative calculation, and proof by induction. (Hugely important in basic programming.)

(2) Inductive reasoning. (Here’s a scenario, develop a formula to model it.)

(3) Exponential growth without obvious exponential form. (Something beyond the basic penny-doubling and compound interest formulas.)

In fact, I would venture to assert that you’ve demonstrated one of the greatest flaws in education today — you are viewing it as a set of basic skills to be mastered, entirely ignoring the essential fact that learning is a PROCESS that itself needs to be learned.

Your curriculum of the three R’s, without any “extraneous” tidbits like the Fibonacci Sequence, would be stultifying. Education needs more exploration, more inquisition, more active reasoning. We have more than enough facts already.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

This whole fire under-performing teachers based on data is a canard.
First, define under-performing.
Next: Data has to factor in *extensive* background of the students the teacher may be failing to teach — as opposed to kids that need to be taught differently in a manner that the teacher in question can’t do. That is, the kids themselves may have no choice but to underperform, so surely that would have be filtered out of your screening of the teacher.
It’s rare teacher who should be tossed. That said, my kid had one who should have been drawn and quartered before firing because he was *by objective standards* that bad.
Anyone who thinks that firing teachers is any significant solution is ignorant or dishonest.
Then there’s the whole issue of corrupted curriculums, pursuant to which kids are taught far too little of what they need to know and too much imbecilic garbage. Hello, Nessie, disprover of evolution!

Posted by ComradeM | Report as abusive

@mfw13, excellent points, and ones that I can vouch for from my own decade of experience as a public school teacher.

There are several reasons I left.

(1) Most obviously (and the safest public excuse), I needed the time to raise my young family. My son was born in November, and I continued to teach full-time through June — five classes, 125+ students, and 50+ hour work weeks. It isn’t just the hours. Teaching is emotionally draining if you invest yourself in the individual success of your students. With my wife returning to her full-time job in September, I knew I needed to cut back.

(2) The pay was mediocre. A $60k salary is fine, but there wouldn’t have been much left after taxes, child care, commuting cost, and the self-funded pension. Almost as profitable to work with a dozen students individually as a tutor, deducting commuting costs before taxes and arranging the schedule to avoid child care. The health care benefits were nice, but redundant given my wife’s employment.

(3) I was frustrated with the system. The summer before my final year, I spent a week in a workshop on standard-driven education. Like all education movements, much of it was empty buzzwords. But embedded in that were some great ideas that I was eager to implement, yet didn’t have the time for while teaching 125+ students. An assembly-line workload demands assembly-line techniques. Again, this is emotionally draining for a teacher who actually CARES.

(4) Lack of support. There were a couple negative incidents that year with parents. A budget vote in which the request for increased staffing (smaller class sizes) was turned down. A slew of negative publicity complaining about the “cushy” jobs that teachers have with the “extravagant” benefits…

I’m back teaching again, but on my own terms this time. The $15k salary (for two classes) is chump change, but I’m working with smaller groups, and in an environment where the students and parents share my goals. I won’t pretend that it is all bunnies and roses, but at least I have the support to do what I believe to be necessary.

That “extravagant” pension, designed to trap teachers into continuing for 30+ years in a job they no longer love? I withdrew my contributions from the system (they kept the investment returns) and have invested them privately at a 12%+ IRR over the last eight years. It is liberating to work for the love of the job instead of always worrying about the money.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@TFF You seem to be developing a habit of misunderstanding my posts lol!

The point I was getting at was identifying what is most important for the kids to have a complete understanding of when they leave school, and for me, being able to manipulate numbers in your head, to really understand their relationships with each other and be able to do simple stuff like adding up, subtracting, multiplying and dividing in your head – as well as an understanding of percentages – is more important than knowing what the Fibonacci sequence is.

As an employer, I need to know the simple stuff is perfect, because that is what the majority of what most people come across in their normal everyday lives. Being able to spell words, know their times tables, and understand how percentages work should be guaranteed knowledge when kids leave school. If they know what a Fibonacci sequence is as well, then fine, but if they only know that and can’t do the simple stuff then we can’t afford to hire them simply because they won’t be able to spot mistakes in their own work – and mistakes cost us money.

I find it amazing how many people can’t get the idea that if you add 25% to a number you have to deduct 20% to get back to where you started. Yet that is more likely to affect anyone dealing with money than a lack of knowledge of the Fibonacci sequence. I’m not talking about learning this by rote either, I’m talking of understanding WHY it works that way. There’s lots of potential excitement for youngsters with numbers – just look at the magic of the number ‘nine’ for instance: multiply any other whole number by 9 or a multiple thereof and the sum of the individual digits will always add up to 9. And so on…

To me, it’s like building a pyramid. It won’t turn out right if some of the basic foundations are not completely there. The first layer should include all those things most often needed in later life. As you go upwards, the maths becomes more complex, and fewer and fewer life-occassions will need any knowledge of it. Eventually you get to a level where there is practically no everyday use for it, unless you are a specialist mathematician.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

@FifthDecade, my apologies for misinterpreting your intent.

I can agree wholeheartedly with, “I’m not talking about learning this by rote either, I’m talking of understanding WHY it works that way.”

But I don’t think you can get there by focusing the curriculum. In fact the more we focus the curriculum on these basic skills, the less understanding students develop.

For example, consider the divisibility rule that you cite? Most students encounter it some time in their elementary education. But very few students even have the tools to understand WHY it works, because the underlying mathematics has been dropped from the curriculum in an attempt to better focus on the development of basic algebra.

If you really want to support math education, put people who are mathematically proficient into the elementary schools. It is rare to find an elementary teacher who understands any of the mathematics curriculum beyond the rote level, and even when you do, their students only benefit from that expertise for a single year out of their education.

We also need to do more with concrete manipulatives, less with pencil and paper. Hours spent performing long division on a bead board may seem like “wasted time”, but it builds an understanding of the process, an understanding of place values, and proficiency with basic multiplication.

Understanding is something that grows within a student, as they approach new problems and develop their own shortcuts for old ones. It is student-driven, not teacher-driven. Additional drill with percentages will just lead to bored students who STILL can’t use percentages in a real application.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

if we want to use data (which makes sense) to determine how well teachers teach, we also need data to tell how well a student can learn (at their very best). and then we also need to throw in how well does management do in support of teaching? and how well each parents are doing in support of learning (to many seem to not care how well their kids do, some treat schools as nothing more than a fancy dare care, some see no value in education at all, and then there are those who value it greatly, and impress on their kids that value) . then how well does the school actually do in support of teaching (have heard of stories where teachers have to buy school supplies on their own dime. because schools couldn’t/wouldn’t buy supplies). unless you account for every variable (student aptitude, parental support, management support, school funding, teachers academics, environment, etc), you really can’t determine how well teachers are teaching. because we are talking people (students are still people) and not some sort of metal, where if you apply force x (heat etc) you get result y. doesn’t work in education. My father was a math professor, and back in 60s he was complaining about how bad students were educated. and if you go back you will see that in the 1900s we were complaining about how well students were educated. and in the year 2100, we will still be talking about it. we may get better (we have since the 1900s, consider that the average American wasn’t a high school graduate), and we will, but because it will be hard, doesn’t mean we should stop either. cause that part of the reason we are still among the leaders of the world.

compared to 1900, our education system is many light years better. compared to the 1960s, almost as much better.

but we most keep striving to get better.

Posted by willid3 | Report as abusive

Any Douglas Adams fans?

Before you can come up with the Ultimate Answer, you need to ask the right Question. The Ultimate Question.

Surely education is a fundamental experience and any civilized society would place it as one of the top national (universal really) priorities. It should be fair and equitable and accessible to all. It should help create a level playing field.

Things are a bit twisted today. The culture revolves around mindless consumption, instant gratification, infinite distraction, the accumulation of wealth far exceeds that of knowledge. You only have to look at the bloated financial sector to see how much talent has been lost to greed.

The privateers, the free market fundamentalists simply want to create profit maximizing machines. Not fully formed, enlightened human beings who feel a sense of social responsibility and have a good sense of morals and ethics.

The attacks on teachers (one thing market fanatics have been successful at doing is turning working people against other working people, meanwhile collecting heft pay packages for wrecking economies, jobs, looting and thieving from the public) is ridiculous. What exactly are under-performing teachers? Who creates that measuring stick? Bean counters do. The system is so broken that many teachers have left their jobs as well because it’s too much to take. Working with young human beings is not like bean counting or making paper profits at a bank.

The ultimate question that our society can’t ask because the values our culture and society espouses revolve around are mindless consumption, selfishness and wealth accumulation.

What is the purpose of education? Are we having children who are simply going to wind up being profit maximizing machines? We will put them on the consumption track and hope they make enough money to fill that bottomless pit that is mindless consumption as the way to a better life?

We don’t care about education anymore, we only pretend to.

It’s not banks that should be too big to fail, it should be education and health care.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Question for the ed-tech enthusiasts…

If you had all the technology in the world, what would a high school Calculus class (not AP) look like?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@TheUSofA

From what I know, doctors in the US are already the best paid in the world.
Teachers at every level are also among the best paid in the world.

Education and health care are ALREADY too big to fail by that account.

The problem with education seems to root from bad (or non-existent) education at home and then at the community, neighborhood level first.

You can double education expense, and use any technology, management scheme, organization. If you don’t fix the problem at home and in the community/neighborhood, I don’t think you can solve anything.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

@trevorh, for the last three years I’ve taught at an inner-city Catholic high school. The families care enough to scrape together the $5k-$6k tuition, but they otherwise face all the home/community problems that other inner-city students do.

Yet the school works. In four years, we prepare them for college. It requires a continual focus on culture AND academics, and we couldn’t possibly make it work with 25+ kids per class, but it works.

Doubling education expense is easily sufficient to solve even the toughest problems — but you need to hire MORE teachers, not simply pay the existing ones twice as much for an impossible job.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@TheUSofA You make some good points. IMO the reason why politicians focus on banks and not education or health care is simply timeframe. If something has a high likelihood of failing before the next election campaign, it gets attention; if, like education, it might take 12 years or more to produce failed output, well, that’s so far in the future that nobody will notice so it won’t affect the election. As for costs, for similar reasons it’s easy to squeeze education to pay for tax cuts.

Society does seem to be suffering from the delusion that markets can only ever, and will forever, continually go up; and that taxes can inexorably always go down. While markets can at least provide an income without needing to grow, taxes have to pay for services that suffer from price inflation. While effort is put into reducing taxes without cutting those “Big Dick” items such as Military spending, ‘soft’ spending areas such as education and healthcare will always be under pressure; but without long term attention to these areas, decline will surely follow, as any company that fails to invest in new products or new skills for its workers shows.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

Some interesting tables and statistics here (though consider the source when reading the commentary):
http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/econom y.pdf

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Just look up Finland… stop testing, pay the teachers and train them like doctors, make being a teacher a respected profession rather than some where between pond scum and lawyer. Might take 15-20 years to completely change the culture of education, but the results don’t lie: Finland, when asked to participate in global standardized testing, has scored in the top 3 each of the last three years (1st, 3rd, and 2nd).

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

The USofA has it right: we need to ask the Ultimate Question first… and Salmon seems to think that the purpose of collecting data is to prove which school of educational thought is best– i.e. which school of thought will result in higher test scores… We are measurement crazy because we are trying to find some method that will work for all students when what we need to do is find out how to engage and teach EACH student… and that requires a different set of “data” and a different approach to education. We need to abandon the one-size-fits all approach and find out what approach works for each individual student. Our goal should be to create self-actualized caring adults. You can’t achieve that goal the mechanism we have in place or by adopting one school of educational thought.

Posted by WayneGersen | Report as abusive

Felix, your dismissal of the UVa brouhaha, dismissal of the “reforming class” and their ideas, and quandary over the role of teachers’ unions are all of a piece.

The real issue for all these players is the same: the easy money train has been derailed, and now we have added the need to reduce cost to the ongoing (Herculean) task of making our schools and universities work better.

Real reform must incorporate serious labor and cost-saving mechanisms. Sullivan resisted that; teachers’ unions resist that. Taxpayers and reformers push back against them. But it is then easy for the old guard to cry foul, for the sake of “the children.”

All that I know for sure is that the current system cannot go on.

Posted by LadyGodiva | Report as abusive

Felix, You seem to think, ho hum, we’re all so bored of stories about the big bad teacher’s unions, which really aren’t so bad. You’re wrong. They are that bad. Deal with it.

Posted by solotar | Report as abusive

Felix, great piece but I wish you had covered three critical issues left out:

1. The role of poverty and student/school performance. If you remove school test data based on school lunch takeup, the US PISA scores are among the highest or the highest. Nothing you covered in your piece addresses poverty and its impact on students, parents, schools, and their communities. It also would appear that non-poverty schools are doing fine and should be left alone.

2. The role of public education in US society. With home schooling and charter schools added to private schools, without much debate we’ve moved from an educational system where everyone is equal to an education system where what you can buy or manage to do makes you more equal or less equal.

We’ve traded a school system that forces kids to interact for years with other kids from different economic and cultural backgrounds to separate school systems based on economics and cultures. That’s not healthy for a democracy. And it was explicitly worried about by the people who created the US, if their opinions matter. Inequality in education only reinforces elites and reduces (or eliminates) the future choices of all our kids.

3. School is more than rote and classroom education. Think about what you learned in school. My most telling experiences came not from a book or research. It came from interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

For example, senior year high school I had an ethics teacher who made us read Playboy in one class then forced us to answer a series of questions that made it clear how artificial the photos really were (e.g. what did the model do before and after this shoot? Does this person have parents, brothers and sisters, cousins? Do you think she’s interested in you personally when she doesn’t know you? Who wrote her biography here?). Naturally we were all thrilled but then dismayed and amused as we went through the process. It taught us how fake the media really is, how much of the media is about eyeballs and stimulating reader emotions to drive sales.

You cannot measure these teacher/student interactions yet they are the most powerful and long lasting. And often they’re what distinguish great teachers from good teachers. The role of data in education is profoundly limited.

These three points are critical to the education debate, even more than what you chose to focus on (which is more micro than meta). Maybe next time you can address them. It’s interesting, given this piece reports out a conference, that it also appears none of these three issues were discussed.

Posted by FredFlintstone | Report as abusive

@LadyG, I hear you on the “gravy train”.

Yet as FredFlintstone states, we are seeing an increasing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”. The wealthy congregate in their cloistered suburbs, which have sufficient resources to do the job well. The poorer towns face a far more difficult challenge, yet operate with tighter funding.

You can’t provide equal educational opportunity unless the funding is proportional to the challenges faced. I hesitate to argue that the money should be taken away from the wealthier towns (since their schools aren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury either), but the urban districts would definitely benefit from greater staffing in support of a broader mandate.

OBTW, my school shared this video with the kids last month. Some powerful messages, as Fred suggests.
http://www.missrepresentation.org/

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

“School boards will empower principals, principals will empower teachers, and teachers will empower students”
Trickle down education.

Posted by regalbeagle | Report as abusive

TFF,
Agreed that the general trend is for the haves to get more and the h-nots to be lost. HOWEVER…some of the best, most innovative schools are in tough neighborhoods (e.g. Harlem) where radical experimentation is welcome (we’ve got nothing to lose!). I can also attest that some of the wealthiest public school districts get incredibly poor value for money. I have seen tens of millions squandered down a rat hole over the past decade. Had to move to a slightly less well-off town that had better leadership (that’s at the superintendent, principal and school board level) to get what I was looking for. Money does NOT equal quality. If it did this would all be easy. It is not.

Posted by LadyGodiva | Report as abusive

@LadyG, agreed on both counts. There are some excellent innovative schools in the inner cities. The ones I’ve read about, however, are supported by grants and charitable foundations, not the typical public-school tuition. (Mine spends just $10k-$12k per student, roughly half from donations, but if it had to pay public school salaries that figure would double.)

If you really want to make a difference in the life of inner-city kids, you need to be teacher AND mentor AND counselor to them. If the relationship ends with the textbook, you’ll never get them turned around. But that takes time, and can’t be managed with the same staffing levels you see in the suburbs, where you might see one teacher for every 15-20 students.

And yes, some of the wealthier districts get unexceptional results. I’ve never intended to equate money with quality. But only a fool (or an HP CEO) believes that you can build excellence WITHOUT adequate funding.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

“In theory, teachers should be fine with sharing anonymized data; the only problems arise when that data is used in things like performance reviews.”

First of all, it’s simply not possible to “anonymize” data. Anybody who says they can do so is trying to sell you something you don’t need at a price you can’t afford.

Second, the reason teachers get fired is not because they’re bad. They get fired because there isn’t enough money to pay their salaries, benefits and expenses. Truly bad teachers are very rare.

Posted by znmeb | Report as abusive

“Truly bad teachers are very rare.”

That’s because in any respectable school district, they DO get fired. It isn’t a simple process, but through a series of performance evaluations, warnings, and action plans, you can resolve any problem within a couple years. Usually the teacher will quit rather than see it through to the end.

For a teacher with less than three years tenure, no process or justification is required. (At least not here.) You simply don’t renew their contract. That happens quite frequently as well.

It isn’t hard getting rid of bad teachers. It *is* hard finding good ones, sometimes.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I find these sort of articles and discussions interesting because they keep proposing solutions, and discussing options, that will not change anything. The real problem with education today is not the schools, teachers, parents, or students. Other countries are better at educating kids because their cultures more based in reality than ours; we Americans have been separating ourselves from the real world more and more (accelerating in the past 20 years), and this is reflected in education (and a lot of other areas of our society).

The problem is a general malaise that has overtaken society since the 1960′s. It is difficult to quantify, but it involves things like attempts to change society from a system of ensuring equal opportunity to ensuring equal outcomes, and other social nonsense based on feelings instead of facts. Our society (in the US) is no longer propagating the things that brought us to greatness: hard work and individual responsibility. Until the people can see that empty ideas don’t work when they are translated from some vague “it ought to be true” to what is actually true in the real world, the education system has no chance whatsoever – and our children have no chance. The ideas discussed are valuable in and of themselves, but are in fact treating the symptoms of the illness rather than the illness itself. How to reverse such a trend is harder, of course.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

@stevedebi, several people in this thread have mentioned the importance of “culture change”. And truly, that is at the root.

My school takes on that challenge. We daily emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, social responsibility, and hard work. When we recognize a “C” student as the “student of the month” for her efforts (and progress), we are speaking to our values. When I lecture them on the need to “respect yourselves, respect your ability, respect your peers”, I’m not directly teaching them science — but I’m teaching them the mindset they need to be successful in school and beyond.

That is why it works. Schools *can* teach culture. They *can* teach responsibility, ethics, and hard work. And they *need* to teach these values to achieve real culture change.

We can do it because we are a Catholic school (independent of the Diocese, but nonetheless with a religious charter). Public schools balk at teaching morality because they don’t feel it is part of their mandate. And if they tried, parents would scream.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The problem with education.
I was considered to be eliterate in school,i was passed over and let fall behind. First mistake. Everyone has a gift to offer the world. I have fought with teachers having to advicat for 3 learning disabled childern with the Sped Director telling me I know what I am supose to do, You try to make me do it. Second mistake, alll we have to do is look at Henery Ford, Thomas Edason and Albert Einstein, men rejected by formal edcuators. Men who beleaved in them selves that changed the world we live in. I have a friend that graduated 1st in class at Smith collsge, and tough english lit. in Pittsfield MA. Her class if middle school students was fully engadged reading the clasics. The principle showed up and informed the teacher she had to teach the coriculam. Third mistake. The teacher started a sucessful clothing business and never returned to education, what a wast of tallent. My personal story speaks to the failure of the systum. I couldent read, do math or write until about 10 or 11 years old. It tool me a long time to grasp the concept. In time I concured all of this and more. Theoligy, anthropoligy,the arts and social sicences. Life was my teacher. Not everyone matures at the same pace in this life I have changed oan artform, invented tools and have contrubited to the world if language, all because I knew I was OK. We discourage raw tallent by ignoring the human potential. Continualy telling a child they are a failure only contrubits to our own social wowes and fills prisons, not collages. We have the responsibility to teach childern how to discover the world, they will find ther own direction through there querosity. Cramming usless information into a child has a negitave reaction.We have to guid, not steer. George Yonnone

Posted by the3rdeye | Report as abusive

The problem with education.
I was considered to be eliterate in school,i was passed over and let fall behind. First mistake. Everyone has a gift to offer the world. I have fought with teachers having to advicat for 3 learning disabled childern with the Sped Director telling me I know what I am supose to do, You try to make me do it. Second mistake, alll we have to do is look at Henery Ford, Thomas Edason and Albert Einstein, men rejected by formal edcuators. Men who beleaved in them selves that changed the world we live in. I have a friend that graduated 1st in class at Smith collsge, and tough english lit. in Pittsfield MA. Her class if middle school students was fully engadged reading the clasics. The principle showed up and informed the teacher she had to teach the coriculam. Third mistake. The teacher started a sucessful clothing business and never returned to education, what a wast of tallent. My personal story speaks to the failure of the systum. I couldent read, do math or write until about 10 or 11 years old. It tool me a long time to grasp the concept. In time I concured all of this and more. Theoligy, anthropoligy,the arts and social sicences. Life was my teacher. Not everyone matures at the same pace in this life I have changed oan artform, invented tools and have contrubited to the world if language, all because I knew I was OK. We discourage raw tallent by ignoring the human potential. Continualy telling a child they are a failure only contrubits to our own social wowes and fills prisons, not collages. We have the responsibility to teach childern how to discover the world, they will find ther own direction through there querosity. Cramming usless information into a child has a negitave reaction.We have to guid, not steer. George Yonnone

Posted by the3rdeye | Report as abusive

The problem with education.
I was considered to be eliterate in school,i was passed over and let fall behind. First mistake. Everyone has a gift to offer the world. I have fought with teachers having to advicat for 3 learning disabled childern with the Sped Director telling me I know what I am supose to do, You try to make me do it. Second mistake, alll we have to do is look at Henery Ford, Thomas Edason and Albert Einstein, men rejected by formal edcuators. Men who beleaved in them selves that changed the world we live in. I have a friend that graduated 1st in class at Smith collsge, and tough english lit. in Pittsfield MA. Her class if middle school students was fully engadged reading the clasics. The principle showed up and informed the teacher she had to teach the coriculam. Third mistake. The teacher started a sucessful clothing business and never returned to education, what a wast of tallent. My personal story speaks to the failure of the systum. I couldent read, do math or write until about 10 or 11 years old. It tool me a long time to grasp the concept. In time I concured all of this and more. Theoligy, anthropoligy,the arts and social sicences. Life was my teacher. Not everyone matures at the same pace in this life I have changed oan artform, invented tools and have contrubited to the world if language, all because I knew I was OK. We discourage raw tallent by ignoring the human potential. Continualy telling a child they are a failure only contrubits to our own social wowes and fills prisons, not collages. We have the responsibility to teach childern how to discover the world, they will find ther own direction through there querosity. Cramming usless information into a child has a negitave reaction.We have to guid, not steer. George Yonnone

Posted by the3rdeye | Report as abusive

The problem with education.
I was considered to be eliterate in school,i was passed over and let fall behind. First mistake. Everyone has a gift to offer the world. I have fought with teachers having to advicat for 3 learning disabled childern with the Sped Director telling me I know what I am supose to do, You try to make me do it. Second mistake, alll we have to do is look at Henery Ford, Thomas Edason and Albert Einstein, men rejected by formal edcuators. Men who beleaved in them selves that changed the world we live in. I have a friend that graduated 1st in class at Smith collsge, and tough english lit. in Pittsfield MA. Her class if middle school students was fully engadged reading the clasics. The principle showed up and informed the teacher she had to teach the coriculam. Third mistake. The teacher started a sucessful clothing business and never returned to education, what a wast of tallent. My personal story speaks to the failure of the systum. I couldent read, do math or write until about 10 or 11 years old. It tool me a long time to grasp the concept. In time I concured all of this and more. Theoligy, anthropoligy,the arts and social sicences. Life was my teacher. Not everyone matures at the same pace in this life I have changed oan artform, invented tools and have contrubited to the world if language, all because I knew I was OK. We discourage raw tallent by ignoring the human potential. Continualy telling a child they are a failure only contrubits to our own social wowes and fills prisons, not collages. We have the responsibility to teach childern how to discover the world, they will find ther own direction through there querosity. Cramming usless information into a child has a negitave reaction.We have to guid, not steer. George Yonnone

Posted by the3rdeye | Report as abusive

The problem with education.
I was considered to be eliterate in school,i was passed over and let fall behind. First mistake. Everyone has a gift to offer the world. I have fought with teachers having to advicat for 3 learning disabled childern with the Sped Director telling me I know what I am supose to do, You try to make me do it. Second mistake, alll we have to do is look at Henery Ford, Thomas Edason and Albert Einstein, men rejected by formal edcuators. Men who beleaved in them selves that changed the world we live in. I have a friend that graduated 1st in class at Smith collsge, and tough english lit. in Pittsfield MA. Her class if middle school students was fully engadged reading the clasics. The principle showed up and informed the teacher she had to teach the coriculam. Third mistake. The teacher started a sucessful clothing business and never returned to education, what a wast of tallent. My personal story speaks to the failure of the systum. I couldent read, do math or write until about 10 or 11 years old. It tool me a long time to grasp the concept. In time I concured all of this and more. Theoligy, anthropoligy,the arts and social sicences. Life was my teacher. Not everyone matures at the same pace in this life I have changed oan artform, invented tools and have contrubited to the world if language, all because I knew I was OK. We discourage raw tallent by ignoring the human potential. Continualy telling a child they are a failure only contrubits to our own social wowes and fills prisons, not collages. We have the responsibility to teach childern how to discover the world, they will find ther own direction through there querosity. Cramming usless information into a child has a negitave reaction.We have to guid, not steer. George Yonnone

Posted by the3rdeye | Report as abusive
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