Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Seat At The Head Of The Table

What the best and the wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. ~John Dewey

I was planning to write a nice, simple piece in which I discussed my hope that we are entering an era of educational activism, one that finds parents and teachers lock arms to advocate for schools that serve our children and our democracy. I was then going to link you to a terrific article on by Helen Gym, a parent with children in the Philadelphia public schools and founder of Parents United for Public Education.

Then I awoke to find an email in my inbox from Orlando and Lauren's father Dimitri, a parent from my own school, in which he kindly and supportively called me to task for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in my recent mention and off-hand dismissal (on what could be considered "style points") of an otherwise well-researched report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (with Marc Tucker as its lead author) about how America has a lot to learn from the educational approaches of other nations.

What had bugged me about the Tucker report hadn't been its conclusions or recommendations as much as his reliance on economic and competitiveness arguments to support his case, a factor that as Dimitri points out is largely "irrelevant to most of the article and its message."

The report, entitled Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants, An American Agenda For Education Reform, came to my attention simply due to the sheer volume of publicity, mostly positive, it received from commentators I respect.

Jal Mehta, from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, writing in Education Week:

Marc Tucker has penned what I see as one of the most important reports on how to improve American education in years . . . I know, I know, there is a report a week in the education space, but what makes this one distinctive is that it takes the accumulating evidence on how high performing countries achieve what they do, and offers a specific set of recommendations about what it would take to move the American education system in that direction.

Dana Goldstein, who is a fellow at Columbia University and a writer I read at The Nation and The Daily Beast, writes for the Washington Post:

The takeaway, I think, is that teaching reform efforts should focus more heavily on rebuilding the pipeline into the profession and less on creating complex reward and punishment systems for current teachers, most of whom oppose increased testing, and many of whom are demoralized by the direction of U.S. education policy. For those teachers already in the classroom, the single most powerful professional development experience is not merit pay, but good, old-fashioned collaboration, working side-by-side — over the course of a full year — with an experienced mentor.

And Dimitri, the parent of Orlando and Lauren, writing in an email to me, challenging my contention that the report focuses too much on the economic function of education:

Take for example the objectives set by other countries for their school systems, which include giving children not only a "superior knowledge of the subjects studied in school and the ability to apply that knowledge to problems of a sort they have not seen before," but also "a set of social skills, personal habits and dispositions and values," reflecting a concern for "social cohesion, fairness, decency, tolerance, personal fulfillment and the transmission of the values that they feel define them as a nation." Also included in several countries' objectives is a "capacity for independent thought, creativity and innovation."  

Overall a broader skill and value set than what you'd need to just educate better worker bees.

And yes, as usual, the article does tend to focus on metrics revolving on knowledge of one's mother language, math and science, but it also goes a lot deeper in its analysis than most other studies that just state that the US ranked 47th (or whatever) worldwide for math test results.  And the root causes it uncovers broadly apply beyond English, math and science.

Dimitri then goes into Tucker's analysis of teacher quality. This is where the locking of arms in advocacy between parents and teachers is failing right now. Currently the national debate is largely between 1) paying teachers more, thereby attracting better quality candidates to begin with, or 2) use more carrots (e.g., merit pay) and sticks (e.g., "Fire them!") to motivate those lazy unionists. Both of these approaches imply something inherently lacking in our current crop of teachers, rather than systemic problems, leading inevitably to friction between these two natural allies on behalf of better schools.

The article argues that teachers in the US are on average "worse" than in some other countries, because:
  • their status, as viewed by the public and treated by the political system, is lower than other professions or business occupations, where in other countries it's much higher 
  • they are paid quite a bit less
  • the qualifications required to become a teacher are lower and easier to achieve, where in other countries they are at the other end of the spectrum
  • there are fewer career development opportunities for teachers, where other countries have systems to recognize more experienced teachers ("masters") who can then mentor younger ones, or for teachers who prefer an administrative career to go that route
  • US teachers are managed and rated like blue collar workers, based on artificial test scores, and not like professionals, trusted to know best how to do their job and empowered to do it, as in other countries who also have a type of peer review, sometimes using the master teachers to ensure that the trust has been well placed and to remedy any problem.
  • for these reasons and others, many teachers "quit" after a few years, which means that teachers on average have less experience in the US: "Close to a third of those who trained as teachers are gone within three years and close to half are gone in less than five years."

On curriculum:

Another good example is the discussion about how the curriculum in the US compares to other countries.  Sure, the article does emphasize how other countries define a national curriculum that is "cohesive" through the 12 years of primary and secondary education and aligned with the requirements of higher education and employers . . . But it also highlights how it goes beyond that: "In all of the countries studied for this paper, the national curriculum goes far beyond mathematics and the home language, covering, as well, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music, and, often, religion, morals or, in the case of Finland, philosophy."

On testing:

The article also looks at how test methods differ in the US and the countries compared to it: "In most of these countries, few, if any, of the upper secondary school examinations are scored by computers and much of the examination is in the form of prompts requiring the student to work out complex problems or write short essays. They do this because the ministries in these countries have grave doubts about the ability of computers to properly assess the qualities they think most important in the education of their students." 

On school funding:

In those other countries, school financing is provided by the government in an equitable way across more or less affluent areas, contributing to a stated goal to get all kids to succeed in school, not just the ones that have higher aptitudes or more money.

And on the current "education reform" efforts in the US (emphasis added by me):

The article also addresses the initiatives promoted in the US to "fix the system" and points out that the studied countries have used none of them to get to where they are, including: ". . . the use of market mechanisms such as charter schools and vouchers, the identification and support of education entrepreneurs to disrupt the system, and the use of student performance data on standardized tests to identify teachers and principals who are then rewarded on that basis for the value they add to a student’s education or who are punished because they fail to do so."

Tucker's report is a long read at 50 pages, but it's a Sunday and many of you are already on summer vacation, so why not pour an extra cup of coffee and have a look for yourself? I still object to its emphasis on education as an engine for creating economic players of our children, instead of on creating well-informed citizens, but as Dimitri points out, if you read beyond that, there is a lot of good stuff here.

I wanted to re-surface the Tucker report again for all the reasons Dimitri points out, but also because of my belief that the only way we will make education better in this country is if parents and teachers can work together. For all it's faults, this report may well provide some common ground upon which we can build our alliance.

And as for the Helen Gym piece, I urge you to read that too. While it doesn't carry with it the weight of think tank research, it does shine a light on how most of us as parents genuinely "know" whether or not our child is receiving a good education. And you might also want to take a look at the Parents Across America "blueprint" for school reform.  At only 4 pages long, it's not the task of the Tucker report, but interestingly it hits on most of the same points, but from the perspective of parents rather than corporations.

Some of my regular readers tell me that they "zone out" or lose interest when I spend time here on "politics." And I understand. It seems like an overwhelming thing when the challenges are identified as systemic because the fix for those things is never a quick or easy one and requires work from all of us.

As any reader who has been here long knows, I as both a teacher and parent, have a utopic idea of what schools could be, the kind of experiential, child-centered, child-directed, progressive places envisioned by guys like John Dewey and the Free Schoolers. I want our schools to exist not for the purpose of serving economic interests, but rather for the creation of a well-educated citizenry, the kind our founding fathers understood must exist for a democracy to function properly.

Helen Gym may have different ideas, as might Dimitri. And even so, all of us, I think, agree, as the Parents Across America blueprint puts it, that "Our top federal officials seem to be too busy listening to venture philantropists and corporate reformers to hear our concerns. We are offered dubious sales pitches for "merit pay," more testing and school privatization instead of thoughtful efforts at consensus-building around what actually works in education."

Parents don't want to be sold to; we want to be consulted. Not only do we deserve a place at the table, but as Dewey would insist, we belong at the head of the table. That's the way we serve our children and our democracy, even if it means that corporations have to train their own damn workers.

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Barbara said...

This is a powerful post. The idea of parents and teachers joining together to improve the system we have and do the best for all of our children makes sense.

Thanks for all the links. The more information we have from a variety of viewpoints the better we can speak to the issues and then work collaboratively to solve the problems facing education today.

Your commitment to children is inspiring.


Aunt Annie said...

Hi Tom- I'm fascinated to see that similar political arguments about education are happening on both sides of the world. In Australia teachers are often the whipping-boys of politicians and parents alike, and the pay scale is less than alluring. The argument for the carrot-or-stick approach to improving teaching standards has recently emerged yet again over here, too- you can read my own reaction here:

I'm a great believer in politicians and parents listening to the voices of the children when deciding on teacher merit- and face it, that's never going to happen with politicians.