Friday, April 30, 2010

On Second Thought

A thought occurred to me the other day as I was reading about the Senate Democrats' efforts to pass a bill on financial reform. It suddenly struck me that they might be barking up the entirely wrong tree.

Consider this: the hugely influential report "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. In one of the more memorable phrases to ever come out of a government commissioned report, it said that if our education system had been forced on us by another country it would have been considered an act of war. In other words, things in schools were really bad.

That was 27 years ago. Obviously, the problems in education haven't been fixed yet, so we must still have a really bad education system. No wonder our economy nearly collapsed!

For at least 27 years (and probably at least a few before that), we've been working with such a terrible system that there's no way that we could be producing productive members of society. It's not the financial system or derivatives (which are invariably described in the press as "complex") or anything to do with Wall Street at all. It's probably the fault of teachers unions for making schools bad for the better part of three decades so now we have a dumb workforce that's ruining our economy.

And yet, even as I type this, I can't help but think that it doesn't quite ring true. Do we really believe that we've produced three decades of educational failures? Are we really willing to say that everyone born after 1977 (so they would be 6 in 1983) has gotten a bad education? Forget everyone, are we even willing to say that most people born after 1977 are unable to deal with the real world because they were poorly prepared by their school experiences?

I just don't think we can make that assertion. (And I say that as someone who was born after 1977 and is doing just fine, thank you.) I think, in fact, that anyone trying to make that point would be laughed out of the room.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much where I've been saying all along. The American education system is, for the most part, a success. Failure is not the norm across all schools. There are schools that are spectacularly failing and those schools tend to be concentrated in poor and minority communities. That's a problem that needs addressing. But it means that we need to focus on those schools, not on remaking an entire system. Let's fix the problems. Let's not worry about fixing the things that aren't broken.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rational Layoffs

For the first time in over 30 years, it's a pretty definite thing that New York is going to be laying off teachers. It's not a scare tactic or a negotiating plea. It's really happening. And suddenly, the city is realizing that the method in place for laying off teachers doesn't make any sense.

In New York, layoffs are done on a last in, first out basis. In other words, the newest teachers are the first to be let go. Ultimately, that's not a very good system.

Does it make any sense to not take quality into account at all when making these decisions? Yes, seniority is important because teachers tend to get better with experience. But is anyone really willing to say that every fifth year teacher is better than every fourth year teacher? Or even every first year teacher? That just defies logic and common sense.

The problem is (and this is why I haven't written about this before), I don't really know what's better. Given the way funding works in the city, during budget cuts there's an incentive to fire more experienced teachers because their salaries are higher. Also, leaving things solely in the hands of principals could lead to abuse. I don't buy the DOE's line that no principal would fire an effective teacher because of personal issues. That just seems a bit naive to me.

So what do we do? Well, this makes pretty clear that we need a better way to look at this issue and a better way to evaluate teachers - one that takes into account seniority, but also looks at effectiveness.

As the saying goes, the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. We've missed that opportunity and now these discussions - which would be highly charged during the best of times - are going to be even more fraught. But it's still a discussion worth having.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kangaroo Court

Anyone who was hoping for a calm, reasoned debate on the role and future of charter schools in New York at yesterday's state senate hearing on the topic was pretty disappointed. As the Daily News writes: "Charter school supporters and their critics spent eight hours shouting at one another at a volatile public hearing Thursday - and left the battle more polarized than ever."

Of course, anyone expecting a calm, reasoned debate about charter schools yesterday hasn't been reading the Post lately.

The Post was correct in today's article (it surprised me too) where they describe the hearing as a kangaroo court. That's exactly what it was and both sides of the debate are to blame. Something about charter schools seems to have removed a reasonable middle ground and left only the extremists to pontificate and/or rant (depending on their mood). There's a real debate to be had here and it's a shame that it's being hijacked by shouting and accusations of personal impropriety (Sen. Perkins takes money from the UFT/Sen. Johnson takes money from charter schools).

It's always easier to yell and scream and chant than to make good points and come to a reasonable consensus. It's too bad that so many people are falling into that temptation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Anyone Can Do It

Other than teaching, is there a profession anywhere else in the world where the movement is toward less training and preparation? Are there any programs that will give you a medical license for doing work in a hospital without going to medical school? Is there a movement to make people lawyers who've never been to law school? What about teaching makes it so different?

Here in New York, the Board of Regents has approved a program that will allow programs like Teach for America to create their own masters programs so that participants can get their masters without going to an actual education school.

Not to be flip, but would we allow Doctors for America (if such a program exists) to grant medical degrees based on work done in poor hospitals around the country? Would we allow them to set up non-accredited programs to grant those degrees and then accept them as valid?

A few things seem pretty clear to me when I read a story like this. First, traditional education schools have messed up. Either they've screwed up the way they prepare teachers or they've screwed up their own PR because people seem not to think that they're preparing teachers well. It's a problem no matter which way you cut it.

Second, people think that because they've been in school, they're an expert on school policies and how schools should be run and that everyone can just do it. That's why we have lawyers running school systems and masters degrees being given by non-accredited institutions. We wouldn't put up with this in the medical profession, but teaching is seen as somehow less.

I do have to say that while I have major misgivings about what this actually means and what it indicates, I do strongly believe that an education program should have a strong focus on practical, inside the classroom elements. I don't think that should totally replace theory (which helps inform those inside the classroom elements), but they do need to be a strong component of any program.

What I oppose is the de-professionalization of teaching. I can't help but think that this is a step down that road.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bounce Back

Well, they won't have the rubber room to kick around anymore.

Yesterday, the DOE and the UFT came to an agreement to end the rubber rooms. In their place, reassigned teachers will be posted to administrative duties rather than just sitting around all day. The process for hearing and deciding cases will also be sped up. All in all, this is probably a pretty positive thing.

Or is it? Because I can't help but think about what's actually changing here. The answer that I come to is: not much.

The rubber rooms got so much attention because they seemed like a perfect symbol for how the conflict between a bureaucratic school system and a self-interested union (as all good unions should be) led to nonsensical "solutions" like the rubber room. Now the symbol is gone, but I'm not sure that the underlying issues have been addressed.

I haven't seen the Post yet this morning, but I'm sure that they're shouting the news to the rafters. I'm sure the DOE is going around patting each other pretty heartily on the back. The symbol is gone. But how long until another one takes its place?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

iDon't Buy It

I'm always skeptical about books or studies or anything else that single out today's youth as being somehow dramatically different than the generations that preceded them. I think most of it is bogus to begin with and also it seems like every generation is arguing that the next generation is so completely different that none of the old models still apply.

Still, there seems to be a market for that kind of stuff and so now we have the iGeneration. (For what it's worth, I think it's a pretty good name for the thesis.) The iGeneration, author Larry Rosen writes, is so different from all other generations because they are constantly plugged in to all sorts of personalized media. Think iPods, cell phones, etc. This, apparently, means that they learn in ways that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.

To steal a conceit, iDon't buy it.

Without question kids these days have access to a level of technology that did not exist even in conception when their parents were in school. So in that sense, things have changed. But has that technology actually changed the way kids learn? Frankly, I have a little trouble seeing how an iPod is going to realign my conception of history.

Certainly, teaching methodologies and techniques must change as technology changes. I mean, we don't want to go back to using slates and chalk for every assignment. Technology can be a very good thing. But we also don't want to overstate the case and say that it's changed everything. Kids are still kids. In all likelihood, they aren't that much better or worse than the generation that came before them or the generation that will come after them. The wrapping may be a little different, but it doesn't change the fundamentals.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Can't Buy Me Success

It turns out that not only can you not buy love, but that you can't really buy good behavior from children or adults. At least, that's what research is telling us now.

Last Friday, the word got out in the press that Roland Fryer's much-touted plan to pay kids to get good grades was not particularly successful. To give you a sense of how unsuccessful, the DOE (which can spin just about anything in its favor) was reduced to congratulating itself on having the moxy to have tried the program in the first place.

Friday's news came not too far from the heels of last month's announcement that the city's plan to pay parents for good behavior - like going to the dentist and attending parent-teacher conferences - was ending because of similarly less-than-stellar results.

It turns out that the problems with inner city schools may be a little more complicated than a lack of motivation that can be compensated for by giving away $250. Who would have guessed?

Makes you wonder about the future of teacher incentive pay.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Conventional Wisdom

WARNING: This post may contain observations that run counter to conventional wisdom. Don't say you weren't warned.

The trendy thing among a certain school of school reformers lately has been to point to New Orleans post-Katrina as a model of education reform.

Newsweek writes that "New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out." Arne Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." The conventional wisdom says that with the New Orleans school system (and much of the city) destroyed, reformers were able to start from scratch and put in a system based on what we know works for kids. And just look at the results.

Let's look at those results for a moment. An article in the Houston Chronicle this week highlights a study that finds that Katrina kids are doing better than their Texas counterparts. In Texas. That's right, Texas. Not New Orleans. It seems that the kids who relocated to Texas after the hurricane and stayed there are doing better in the Texas school system than the kids from Texas in the Texas school system.

Here's where your conventional wisdom gets challenged. If the reason kids are doing so much better now in New Orleans is that the school system has been completely reformed, why are kids also excelling in Texas? Let's grant for the sake of argument that the New Orleans schools were terrible before Katrina. So obviously there's a lot of room for improvement with these kids. But if it's the brilliant new system that's doing it, why are the kids in Texas also making such gains? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't often see Houston hailed as the brightest star in the education reform firmament.

Now, I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's a rational explanation that will keep the conventional wisdom intact. I know that reading a summary of research from the Texas Education Agency in the Houston Chronicle is not exactly top notch research. But I do think we need to consider all the data when we're making grand pronouncements. And I just don't quite see how this fits the narrative.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Done Racing?

For Delaware and Tennessee right now, life is pretty good. Of all the states who applied for Race to the Top funding, they're the big - and only - winners. For everyone else, it's time for the blame game. Here in New York we're spending a lot of time blaming the teachers' union because that's just what we do here. In other parts of the country, though, they're doing the more rational thing - blaming the judges.

Let me stipulate here that I have no intention of vouching for the RttT judging. I don't know enough about each state's application to say if the right ones won. That said, I get a little suspicious when I hear the losers of a competition suddenly blaming the judges for their losing.

Apparently, several states are mulling not reapplying because those hundreds of millions of dollars just don't seem worth it anymore. To hear that coming from California, where they're fighting a day to day battle with solency, shows you how deep the feelings run.

This is the big danger of the RttT program. It gave a big incentive for states to reform (according to a specific vision) their education system. However, we always knew that there would be states that didn't win and we knew that there would be limits in terms of how to keep states reforming as they went forward.

Now is the time for the real test (a high stakes test, if you will). Now that we know there are winners and losers, what happens? Do we see a continued focus on schools and improving education or do we revert and call it quits. What happens in the next few weeks and months is going to define the legacy of Race to the Top far more than anything that has come before.