Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More Mythical Myths

Another article was published in the Washington Post taking aim at the myths education reformers are using to dupe the American people, or the media, or something.  It wasn’t so long ago that I used another article using the same myth gimmick as a launching point to talk about some of the major education reform issues that are out there.  These myth articles don’t really do it for me if only because they do not accurately represent the positions they are attempting to debunk.  Thus they are of minimal use.  This one in particular seems to be arguing against…nobody at all.

We’ll do this quickly myth by myth:

Myth 1: Our schools are failing

It isn’t just the education reformers who think a lot of schools are failing.  It is pretty much everyone who has a child in an urban school district.  It is most people paying attention to the educational outcomes of minorities.  Yes, things seem to be trending in the right direction.  But citing rising high school graduation rates that are derived from different methodologies and are often pulled from historically questionable data is not going to change the fact that way too many of our schools don’t educate students.  

Of course not all schools are failing.  There are good ones and bad ones.  Enough are failing and enough are failing in a systemic way that it feels quite cold to argue that there isn’t a problem.  For a little more oomph on this topic, responding to the same article, check out eduwonk who beat me to the punch with his pitch perfect response.

Myth 2: Unions defend bad teachers

Unions do defend bad teachers.  That is part of their job description.  And due-process can easily be code for really long, arduous, complicated process that is easy to file a grievance against.  That being said, unions are not universally bad, nor do they have bad intentions, nor are they unwilling to engage in productive reform.  A lot of the conflict between the reform movement and the unions comes down to negotiating.  There are of course high profile disagreements but on the ground and behind the scenes the relationships are not as antagonistic as they appear in the papers.

The real argument here is about reform minded administrators wanting more power over who their employees are.  This is really a myth about teacher evaluation, tenure and last in, first out policies.  Montgomery County is an interesting example.  I don’t know much about the program but according to the article it did result in 245 teachers exiting the schools over a five year period.  This is an interesting example and an interesting number to cite because 245 teachers over a five year period in a school system with 11,000 teachers seems shockingly low.  That comes out to less than half a percent of teachers per year.  I’ve never seen an organization whose human capital was so good that less than half a percent of its employees were better than replacement level.

Of course, there has been progress and unions have been a part of that progress.  More powerful and fairer evaluations are being developed.  They are still young, they are expensive but they are also essential.

Myth 3: Billionaires know best

There are some notable billionaires putting their money where their mouths are and forking over the dollars to some of the most difficult school districts in the country.  They are attaching those dollars to some pretty specific reform oriented programs that would not be possible without private dollars.  I didn’t realize this was a bad thing.  I’d rather risk Bill Gates’ money on new merit pay programs than tax payer dollars.  He was wrong about small schools, admitted his mistake and has moved on to a new idea that will hopefully be a part of a longer term solution to some of our country’s education woes.

This myth is really an attack on merit pay which I’ve already weighed in on.  But the final sentence really kills me:  “There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give.  But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.” 

First of all I wouldn’t call merit pay for teachers the pet project of billionaires.  Secondly, wasteful would be pouring a billion dollars into a failing school district with no clear idea of what the money would be used for.  Failing school districts aren’t known for fiscal responsibility or effectively leveraging resources to create systemic success.  That is why they are failing. 

Myth 4: Charter schools are the answer

At this point in the education reform world I don’t think anyone would say charter schools are the answer.  Most would say that charter schools are a component of a larger context.  Some charters are good and some are bad.  This myth is arguing against nobody at all.

One good thing about charters is that, when used correctly, it is much easier to shut down bad charter schools than bad traditional public schools.  They also provide choices and not necessarily just for the most motivated students and parents.  When charters are allowed to fully enter a market they set up shop everywhere and recruit aggressively.  They try and get parents to vote with their feet.  The less restrictive the charter environment the less likely de facto segregation would result.

Also, what I personally like about charters, is that they have the ability to be more innovative, take on more radical models and cater strongly to students looking for a specific experience, sort of like magnet schools.  I like the idea of a parent being given choices and having the chance to find the best fit for their child.  And districts can build out their portfolio of innovative charter models within the confines of a district right now.  The districts have the ability to cherry pick the best of what charters have to offer and adopt them as their own. 

Sometimes charters don’t work out well.  This is true.  They are not the answer.  But they do have purpose both on the micro level of giving a choice to  parents who do not want to send their child to their neighborhood school and on a macro level of changing the way school districts do business and finding new models to help students become successful.

Myth 5: More effective teachers are the answer

Similar to myth 4 in that more effective teachers are definitely part of the answer but not the entire answer.  That’s the way of it in education.  More effective teachers make an enormous difference.  School reform advocates also push for more effective principals and more effective support staff and district office staff.  Everyone needs to be better if we are going to turn around our lowest performing schools. Of course it is a challenge that requires heroic effort and even that effort is no guarantee of success. 

But when you enter the field of education you make a decision to do whatever you can do to make things better, to make a difference.  There are a lot of problems out there, a lot of reasons why students don’t learn all they need to learn to have a successful life.  But a teacher, a school, a school district can only control the education.  There is a lot of mission creep for sure.  There is an instinct to broaden the scope of the problems we attack.  But ultimately the task at hand is to provide the best education possible and set up students for successful lives.  Waiting for all those other problems to be solved is not an option.   That doesn’t mean those problems don’t exist.  But it does mean that those problems can’t be the reason to not put in maximum effort even though failure is a very real possibility.

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