Sunday, May 18, 2008

What I believe: June, 2008

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post summing up my beliefs about public education. We are at the end of another school year, so I thought it would be a good time to update those beliefs. I wouldn't say there have been any big changes from what I believed two years ago, but writing posts, reading other blogs and comments and then responding to them have certainly affected my thoughts.
Here they are:

1. I believe education should be not be viewed as a right. The framers of the Constitution considered rights to be something coming from God that could not rightfully be taken away from people by government. They believed that government should protect people's rights, but none of the framers ever suggested that a right was something provided by the government. And even if someone looks at it that way, calling education a right is based on the idea that it can be given to everyone. Education can't be given to anyone.

2. The question then becomes whether or not it is a good idea for government to provide the opportunity for a free education for all the people. I believe the answer to this is an obvious yes!

3. I believe that public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for. I believe the best evidence of this is in the millions of public school students who have gone on to live productive lives.

4. I believe the most important factor in determining a student's performance is effort and not ability. I believe that student's who care about their education and try hard end up doing well, while those who don't care and don't try do poorly.

5. I believe too much of the blame for students who perform poorly is placed on the public schools themselves, and too little is placed on the parents of those students, the neighborhoods in which those students live, our culture, and especially the students themselves. (Public education critics view this as whining, but it's important, because as long as education reform ignores that and focuses solely on things going on inside the schools, any improvement is going to be limited.)

6. I believe that when education is a priority to the parents, the chances are good that the students will take their own education seriously. On the other hand, if parents don't make their kids' education a priority, the chances are that the kids won't either. (I recognize that there are exceptions to this, and that when parents care and the students don't, sometimes it is at least partially our fault.)

7. I believe one of the most important factors that determine the learning that takes place in a classroom is the effect that students have on other students. That means that if an average student is placed in a classroom with a lot of highly motivated students, that student will learn much more than if he or she is placed in a classroom with a number of apathetic or disruptive students. At the high school level, I believe this factor might be even more important than who the teacher is in that classroom.

8. I believe public education should not be compulsory. It is impossible to force someone to get an education. The person being educated has to want it. When we force people to be in school who don't want to be there, we are simply beating our heads against the wall when it comes to trying to educate them, and we are harming the education of others who are stuck in their classes.

9. I believe dropping out, by itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, in my experience, when students have dropped out, it has been a good thing. In the schools that I've worked in, the kids who have dropped out have consistently been those who made very little effort and/or behaved horribly. In other words, the dropouts that I've known weren't getting an education, and they were hurting the education of others. Obviously, in areas where there are forty percent dropout rates, there is a problem. But the problem is not happening when they drop out; the problem is whatever led up to that.

10. I believe those who say that "choice" (vouchers and charter schools) can make public schools better are either lying or dreaming. I believe vouchers and charter schools can improve education for some students. But I also believe that, while they do that, they will make education worse for others. Nevertheless, I believe that there some places where public schools have become so bad that vouchers are justified. I'm afraid that those schools have already become "holding cells," where it's nearly impossible for anyone to learn. Those schools certainly have some kids who do want to learn, and they should be able to go someplace where they'll have a reasonable chance to do that.

11. I believe that if "standards" and merit pay bring about improvement in public education, the improvement will be much less than their promoters hoped for.

12. I believe the most important reform we could make in public schools is to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. There would have to be safeguards to make sure that this power wasn't abused, but it should not involve lawyers and thousands of dollars to do it. Teachers should be given the power to remove kids, who have little interest in their own education and are hurting the education of their classmates, from class. I also believe those kids should be given the opportunity to come back if they ever have a change of heart and decide that they actually do want an education.

13. The next most important reform we could make would be to give principals the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, when cuts have to be made, and to fire teachers who are not doing their jobs effectively.

14. I believe that God is alive and well in public schools.

So, there you have it. If Barack Obama or John McCain want to give me a call, my number is 218-386-3569. If they're going to call they should keep in mind that I go to bed early, and please don't call during American Idol.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wanted: Education policy entrepreneur with common sense

In my last post, I complained about the propensity of those in power to screw things up when it comes to public education. Daniel Simms responded by saying this:

Dennis, this is what politicians do these days. That should be obvious. In defending public schools, even though I know you don't mean to, you are just giving aid and comfort to politicians, in their quest to increase their power and prestige over the rest of us.

I must admit that listening to what politicians say and seeing what legislators do about public education is discouraging. But it doesn't have to be this way. I have to believe that it's possible for democratic governments to make common sense decisions to improve public education.

The model that gives me hope is the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Economists told us that our tax code was ridiculous because it was so filled with loopholes, but political experts thought it would be impossible to change that. Every loophole had some interest group that supported it, and public opinion polls said that even middle class people would rather keep their loopholes than have income tax rates lowered. But lo and behold, what happened? Congress passed and President Reagan signed a common sense bill that lowered tax rates and got rid of most loopholes. It would be nice if that were the end of the story, but let's face it--it isn't. Tax policy since 1986 has consisted of the same crap as before, so once again we have a huge number of loopholes in the tax code. Nevertheless, what happened in 1986 shows that it is possible for common sense to triumph even when it seems politically impossible.

Two people were key in getting the 1986 tax law passed--Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat. What we need in education is a policy entrepreneur--someone who can stir up an apathetic public or an apathetic legislature by bringing attention to the stupidity that is going on to the point where something is actually done about it. Ideally, it would be someone in public office, but it doesn't have to be. Ralph Nader (not that I'm a fan of his) did serve as a successful policy entrepreneur for auto safety back in the 1970s.

Anybody who has read my blog a few times knows my position on this, but I'll state it again: teachers need to be given the power to remove disruptive and apathetic kids from their classrooms. One problem in finding someone to carry on this battle is that, despite what they say, the public really doesn't care that much about education, and I'm afraid that might be impossible for anyone to change. Education just doesn't have the sex appeal that some other issues do. Another problem is that neither political party is good for education. The Democrats are perfectly happy to throw money our way, but they have no common sense on the issue. The Democrats tend to be bleeding hearts who see kids who are destroying education for others as victims. Conservatives might hate public education, but the court decisions and policies that have damaged pubic education the most over the last forty years have come from liberals. George Bush isn't the first guy who wanted to leave no child behind. Republicans, on the other hand, say they are all for individual responsibility, so they would seem to have possibilities. The problem with them is that they hate the teachers' unions so badly that the only solutions they want to talk about are "choice" and merit pay.

There are people out there who want to improve education, like Bill Gates and some other rich guys, but they're all barking up the wrong trees. They also want to screw around with merit pay, and choice, and charter schools and things like that. They just don't understand that the biggest problem that we have in public education is that there are too many kids who want to wreck education for everyone else, and there's not much that teachers can do about them.

What we need is someone who is in politics, in the media, or in the entertainment world, who has some common sense, who believes in individual responsibility, and who wants to improve public education rather than destroy it. The one person I can think of who comes closest to meeting the criteria is Bill Cosby. Anyone have any other ideas???

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Exactly what we don't need!

Last week, our principal sent this little blurb he had received from the Minnesota Association of Secondary Principals. It is amazing how policy makers find ways to do exactly the wrong thing.

Late last night the K12 Omnibus Education Policy Committee concluded it's work...The conference committee report will now go to the respective floors of the House and Senate for passage and on to the Governor where it awaits an uncertain fate.

Here are the highlights:

The compulsory attendance and habitual truancy ages are raised to 18. (This provision's effective date is delayed until the 2011-2012 school year.) The Superintendent for St. Paul schools pushed this initiative. Our suggested amendments were not incorporated into the final provisions. We had proposed that districts could move kids to ALCs if they were failing their classes. The ALC's objected and the provision was removed. We proposed that if the principal and parents agreed and the student was 16-17 years old the student could be withdrawn. St. Paul didn't like this idea so it was not adopted. This became a high profile media issue. Privately, some superintendents view this as a revenue raiser. The argument goes that if these kids are kept in school, the district will receive the foundation aid revenue.

There's more, but that's the important part. I don't know anything about the St. Paul superintendent, but I have to assume that he has never been a high school teacher. I also have to wonder if he's ever talked to any. How in the world is forcing 16 and 17 year olds who have no desire to be in school to stay there? Does the stupidintendent have any idea how much damage will be done by forcing them on teachers trying to teach and classmates who want to learn? If I wanted to make education worse in Minnesota, I couldn't think of a more effective tactic.

As much as I disagree with my libertarian friends, boy, do they have a point. When it comes to education, it sure seems like policy makers in government have an uncanny ability to find ways to screw things up.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A strange complaint about public schools

Yesterday morning I sitting at my desk working, and I had The Journal Editorial Report on the TV. It isn't unusual for someone on their esteemed panel to take a shot at American education during the show, and sure enough, as they were about to close, Jason Riley threw out a little blurb about people not realizing how much they are spending on public education. Paul Gigot then responded with what was the weirdest complaint I've ever heard about public schools.

Jason, on your point, another thing you see in polls is that most Americans think that their public schools are actually doing very, very well. It is everybody else's public schools that are really rotten. And that's also one reason you just can't get a lot of support for education reform.

Sometimes the written word doesn't convey the exact message that comes across when you actually see the person say it, and this is one of those cases. The feeling I got while watching Gigot say this was that he thinks the people who think their public schools are "doing very, very well," are really stupid.

There are two points this brings to mind. The first one is that I have said a number of times that, despite the scorn of the elite, public schools are basically giving the public what it wants. Obviously, no school will make every single parent happy, but public schools across the nation are basically doing what their particular publics want them to. Whether Gigot likes it or not, and whether many teachers like it or not, academic excellence is not high on the list of goals that most parents have for their children.

My second point is that I wonder if there is any institution in America that is doing a worse job than the American press. They have succeeded in turning us into a negative, cynical people. Why is it that almost all institutions in America that get any amount of coverage by the press have poor public approval ratings? The president has a horrible public approval rating. Congress has an even worse public approval rating even though most people think their own particular congressmen are very good. Public education has a low public approval rating, even though people are happy with their own schools--much to the chagrin of snobs like Gigot.

What all of these institutions have in common is that the American public gets their information about them from the press. Is it possible that the problem here is that the information we get about all these institutions is unfairly negative? I don't want to see any of our public institutions whitewashed, but I would like to see them covered in a fair enough way so that people can make reasonable judgments about them. Quite frankly, I think our press is doing a lousy job of that. Maybe we need journalistic reform.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The market is not God!

On a number of my posts, I have gotten comments from people who say they believe we shouldn't have public schools. Although I completely disagree with them, I respect them for their honesty. What galls me are those who don't have the guts to come out and say that, but instead seek to destroy public education by advocating "choice" through a full-scale voucher plan. They generally push their ideas by extolling the virtues of the market. To many of them, the market is God.

Last week, Jay Greene had a guest education basher on his blog named Matthew Ladner. Before pushing his "market" solution, Ladner throws his spears at public education.

Our education problems worsened despite the increased spending. Today, 38 percent of our 4th graders have failed to learn basic reading skills, and around a third of our high school students dropout of high school. As today’s dropouts are largely those students who failed to learn to read in elementary schools, tomorrow’s dropouts are already in the pipeline.

Last week Greene told us that our elementary school students were doing just fine, and now his buddy tells us that nearly forty percent of our fourth graders can't read. I'm not sure where he's getting that statistic from, but I would guess it might be the same place as his "around a third of our high school students dropped out of high school." I've seen that statistic before, and I know that it's widely disputed, but Ladner presents it as fact.

Ladner's solution to all of our problems, of course, is the market.

Our students need a market for K-12 schools. The market mechanism rewards success and either improves or eliminates failure. This has been sorely lacking in the past, and will be increasingly beneficial in the future. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status-quo...

A market system will embrace and replicate reforms which work, and discard those that fail to produce. A top-down political system has failed to perform this task. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed miserably, however, a market of parents pursuing the interests of their children will succeed in driving progress.

You know, if I was one of the less fortunate in our society, I think I might be a little bit suspicious of someone who tells me the market (genuflect, please) is going to be my savior. I have no doubt that a full-fledged voucher system would be a heckuva good deal for all those affluent people who are already sending their kids to private schools, but I'm not sure about people like the working poor. I mean they aren't exactly thriving under our market-based health care system.

But Ladner cares about poor people--he really does.

Charter school operators such as KIPP, Yes Academies and Amistad have proven definitively that low-income inner city children can learn at an accelerated pace, and can even outperform our complacent suburban schools and attend elite universities. These innovators face huge political and practical obstacles in making these schools more widely available, but don’t bet against them. Already, they have settled the question of whether we must settle for today’s failed status quo: we don’t. Our students can learn. We adults simply have to learn how to follow the example of those who are getting the job done.

We cannot feel satisfied with a system that watches helplessly as a third of pupils drop out before graduation each year. We can do much better. The key lies in matching disadvantaged students with high quality teachers and school leaders. Parental choice programs help to achieve this by providing new education delivery methods.

Even though I don't teach in an inner-city school, I find Ladner's inference that the kids in those schools do poorly because of poor quality teachers insulting. People like him always assume that if schools aren't doing well, it's the teachers' fault. What he is apparently too dense to realize is that when you take all the kids in an area that suffers from a lot of social problems, a number of those kids aren't going to give a rip about education, and that's going to make it much more difficult for anyone to learn regardless of the quality of the teachers.

I have no doubt that there are kids in the inner-cities who do want to learn with parents to whom education is important. And it doesn't surprise me one bit that if you put those kids together, and get them away from those who don't care, that they will do wonderfully. And that's great! But if we ever go to a full-fledged voucher system, and we take more an more of those kids who care about education out of the public schools, what is going to be left? How in the world are those kids going to learn anything? That market system will probably work about as well for those people as our heath care system does for those who can't afford insurance.

I do wan't to make a couple of things clear before I close this off. First of all, I am not a socialist. Heck, I'm not even a liberal Democrat. I am grateful that a market system is at the heart of our economy in the United States, because I think for most things, a market system works better than anything else. It isn't perfect; but it beats the alternatives. But the market is not God. The second thing is that I would love just once to hear one of those education market-thumping revival preachers say, "Let's have real competition. Let's have a voucher system, but let's also give public school teachers and principals the same power to deal with disruptive and apathetic students as private schools have." Do you think any one of those "experts" who say they are so concerned about education and so concerned about poor and middle class people will ever say that? Don't hold your breath.