Education and education reform

I’ve been reading a bit of education news recently, some of it older articles that I’ve only stumbled across now.  Largely, it has to do with education reform stuff.  As has been the case since the debate surrounding NCLB began, it seems to me that the reform movement is filled by mostly well-intentioned people, many of whom are misguided.  (Of course, some are rightists of one flavor or another who would like to “reform” the public education system into nonexistence, but I think this probably accounts for only a small fraction of reformers.)  Since this isn’t something I’ve tried to study in any depth, I’m not inclined to write a real essay on it; instead, I just thought I’d post some links I enjoyed and a few comments on each of them.

  • I guess it makes sense to start with Diane Ravitch; she holds the notable position of having studied education reform for a long time, having initially been pro-reform, and of having switched her view relatively recently.  In the linked piece, she provides rebuttals to various positions held by many reform advocates.  The result is a short article that is information-packed but reads like a slide presentation.
  • A somewhat more recent piece by Dana Goldstein concerns itself with a recent think-tank study comparing US teacher training with that of Finland and Shanghai, and advocating for better teacher training here.
  • Both pieces above hint in the direction of one of the main reasons I remain skeptical of the reform movement: it appears to have a committed anti-teacher focus.  Consider: the New York Times sees fit to publish an article with the title “Role for Teachers Is Seen in Solving Schools’ Crises”!  I happily submit that it would be good to improve the quality of the average teacher in public schools, especially in schools in poor or underserved communities, but it’s very hard to see how making it easier to fire teachers accomplishes this.  Right now, every fired teacher will be replaced with someone who is, in all likelyhood, completely average.  To substantially alter the quality of the teacher pool requires that the typical new teacher be above average, i.e., it requires that teaching be made a more attractive profession.  Reducing teacher job security, villifying teachers and their unions, etc., seem to me to do quite the opposite.
  • Speaking of teachers’ unions, I just thought I’d throw up this Stanley Fish piece.  Obviously he’s concerned with the academy and not with elementary or secondary education, but many of the principles are the same.  In particular, if you believe in the rights of workers (in this case, teachers) then you are pretty clearly obligated to believe in their unions.
  • Moving on a little, we have this New York Times article about a school trying some innovative techniques in Crown Heights.  This sort of disruptive innovation seems to be very popular with reformers; to paraphrase a common theme, they would like to “try a whole bunch of models of education and see which ones work.”  If one looks at (for example) the New York public school system, one sees this being tried on a huge scale — dozens of schools closed, broken up, small schools sharing buildings, charter schools and themed schools in all different flavors, etc.  However, nearly all this change has happened in the Bronx and Brooklyn in schools that are majority-minority.  No one has suggested breaking up Townsend Harris, as far as I know, or of putting Shimon Waronker’s school in Park Slope or the Upper East Side.  But surely experimentation, if it’s a good thing, should be done in rich white neighborhoods, too?
  • The single most compelling piece I’ve read (and the one that made me want to write this post) is this article by John Ewing about value-added modelling (VAM), the favorite tool of the accountability-focused part of the reform movement.  VAM involves complicated statistical models to extract the influence of a teacher on test scores.  This, by itself, would be fine, provided that the results were robust in at least the following two ways: they should be robust to changes in the model (i.e., arbitrary assumptions or choices should not significantly influence the measures of teacher quality) and they should be robust over time (i.e., most teachers rated “excellent” one year should also be rated “excellent” in subsequent years).  As it happens, though, neither of these conditions are met: VAM ratings for teachers are sensitive to model choices and highly variable over time.  This makes the entire project of evaluating teachers based on VAM ratings highly suspect.  Ewing makes this case very clearly; his target audience is mathematicians, but I think the article should be understandable to everyone.
  • Finally, I wanted to note a not-reform change that I think will be really interesting to watch: the city of Memphis voted this year to dissolve its school system, letting the (richer, whiter) county take over.  This throws city students into the same system (though probably not the same schools) as their suburban neighbors.  The proliferation of school districts in this country seems to have a lot to do with keeping the wrong people out of certain schools, and I’m hopeful that this change will lead to some positive results for the students of Memphis.
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2 Responses to Education and education reform

  1. alisa says:

    I think the Education Reform is a complicated topic that most people who are in charge of it either don’t really care about (or don’t care as much as putting forth their opinion), or don’t know much about.

    My gut feeling (since I don’t feel like I am getting any wiser from reading any contemporary literature on the subject) is that there are two important, largely ignored issues that affect education in America. (And by “ignored” I mean that people might talk about them, but not lift a finger to actually address them).

    1. Racism: here now more than ever, and largely contributing to a grossly uneven distribution of resources along multiple channels.

    2. Lack of a centralized curriculum. All counties with decent systems have a common set of standards and textbooks and programs, and all kids learn the same things at the same time. I think that with a flexible margin to allow for the “local” education everyone likes to scream about, society as a whole will benefit from a strong central system (see 1).

    2.5. Speaking of textbooks: pick the ones that are actually good for their academic content, the ones that teach something, and make those mandatory for all. (Not use the books that Texas picked in a particular year). There should be socialism and totalitarianism when it comes to textbooks and curriculum.

    As with separation of Church and State, there needs to be a separation of State and Education. However interconnected they are, politics should not affect what or how kids learn. I realize this might be currently impossible.

    And lastly, on a personal note, assuming they have a certain level of intellectual capacity, teachers should be assessed not on their test scores or whatnot, but on their ability and desire to be nice and loving. Because that’s what kids need to be happy and be encouraged to learn.

  2. JBL says:

    I definitely agree as far as 1 is concerned — one reason I’m so interested in the Memphis situation is curiosity about how much being part of the same district can ameliorate a problem like that. I’m of somewhat mixed feelings about a standardized curriculum, especially given the size and diversity of the US, but there does seem to be some slow movement in that direction with the Common Core standards. (And definitely it would be good to move towards a system where tests are fewer but better.) In both cases, though, the fetish of local control seems like a really big obstacle to substantial change. (Well, really the causal arrow probably runs the other way in the case of racism and racial politics, but local control is the obstacle preventing greater integration and more equitable distribution of resources.)

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