Thursday, November 20, 2008

Everyone's an Expert

I don't know what exactly it is about education that makes everyone an expert about it. Maybe it comes down to the fact that everyone went to school at one time or another and so think they have a pretty good idea about how things should work. After all, what could be hard about creating pedagogically sound, age-appropriate lessons to millions of individual children across the country? Seems like anyone could chime in on how to improve that.

In that vein, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, has his solution. In short, he wants to run the school system nationally more like a business. Never mind that running businesses like a business hasn't been terribly successful lately. This makes sense to Lou and, because everyone's an expert on schools, he can get attention for saying it.

Now, there are some diamonds in the dunghill of his "solution." He does favor a system of national standards, which as I've written before makes a certain amount of sense. Assuming that we actually are going to focus on accountability (beware the unspeak), then we need goals to hold schools accountable to. Letting states set their own goals is just a race to the bottom. So he may be onto something there.

Where he goes off the rails in my mind is in his plan to consolidate all the districts in the country into 50 to 70 mega-districts. From a business perspective, I can see how centralizing production and all that makes sense. But we aren't mass producing here. We're not trying to sell the same product a bajillion times to make lots of money. In education, we're trying to reach each individual student on an individual level and move them forward as far as we can each year. The school system isn't an assembly line where one teacher dumps a vat of knowledge into a kid's brain before sending them on to the next teacher for another vat to be dumped. That's just not how education works and we forget that at our peril.

The government's last big attempt at centralizing pedagogy has been something less than an overwhelming success. The Reading First program was one of the centerpieces of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, $6 billion (that's right, 9 zeroes) into the program, we find out that the students in the program made no greater gains in reading comprehension than students not in the program. Once again we see that a one size fits all solution didn't work for every child in America. Do we get it yet?

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