In two recent Las Cruces Sun-News columns (the articles are no longer on the newspaper’s webiste), Bill Soules and Paul Gessing served the discussion of reforming public education by defining its polar positions. Together, they pose the choice between Soules’ position that public education needs more money and Gessing’s position that it needs more “school choice and competition, more rigorous standards, and innovative technologies” like “online schooling.” The choice – money versus management and technology – is a choice between irrelevancies or worse.
These positions at the local level parallel positions at the national level. President Obama provided billions in “Race to the Top” competition for states willing to undertake reforms meeting federal criteria. Though he pledged relief from “No Child Left Behind,” Secretary of Education Duncan declared that the “administration’s agenda… includes adopting more rigorous standards, encouraging charter schools, offering tests that measure how much students learn and overhauling teacher evaluations” – NCLB lite.
Most discussions of education reform recycle this unproductive back-and-forth. And implementing either position leads to disappointing results and manipulated data – and more debate in defense of or attack on these positions. This futile recycling results from a widespread lack of understanding of education per se and from a resort to the easy tools of political legislation that reflect that lack of understanding.
Sad but true, most people understand little about education, not that they know or admit it. In our era of privileged personal opinions, because most have some experience in formal education, they believe themselves, but no one else, experts. They have strong but narrow views of “the” problem, one or more targets for blame (unions, teachers, parents, administrators – they often equate problems and targets), and a silver bullet or two as “the” solution (the small-school movement is one example). Most discount or dismiss expertise based on the relevant qualifications of education and experience in the field as elitist.
Most politicians are like most people, only more so. They have not only similar “expert” opinions, but also the power to implement them. They adopt “reforms” of one position or the other so long as they run no risks to their political career. They push for salaries, buildings or technologies and urge programs that appeal to their constituencies, but they dare not consider, much less advocate, reforms that are unconventional or counter powerful interests.
Why their ideas are wrong
For good reasons, everyone should take a dim view of proposals to reform education that require more money. One, the United States spends more money per capita than any other country with an advanced economy, but does not get a proportionate return. Second, increments in salary or status under merit pay, pay-for-performance, or similar programs neither incentivize teachers nor improve results.
I was regarded as a good teacher. Increasing my salary or rewarding my performance would not have made me teach better or my students learn more. Offering me higher status would not have prompted different or greater efforts. The same is true of all teachers, good or bad.
For good reasons, everyone should take an equally dim view of proposals to reform education that apply business methods and values. First, the idea that competition can improve schools or teachers misapplies a business model, with its incentive-regarding motives, to the education process and lacks supporting evidence.
Second, competition, whether among schools or teachers for incentives (survival, job security, enrollments, money, rankings), thus perverts performance and its measurement (business is teaching education to “cook the books,” as scandals in state and metropolitan school systems indicate).
Third, micromanagement to meet data-based measures of teacher or student performance corrupts education, demoralizes everyone, and encourages everyone to game the system (e.g., teach to the test or cheat on it).
Fourth, since teachers are prepared similarly, they are not going to do a better job in charter or non-public schools than in public ones, unless, of course, they teach cherry-picked students.
Fifth, “online schooling” is the antithesis of education. Online courses offer little more than menial training to acquire basic information and rote skills; neither critical thinking nor the nuanced interactions to promote it are possible.
Notably, both polar positions offering prescriptions for improving or reforming education say nothing about curriculum, instruction, or teacher training – in short, nothing about the essentials of education. Those wanting to reform education must think and talk about education, not something else. Otherwise, they are doing no more than finding nails for their ideological hammers, whether wielded in left or right hand.
A discussion of educational reform must start and stay with a definition of education. For get the definition wrong, get everything else wrong; or lose focus on that definition, lose sight of what matters. So I start with what it is not, then end with what it is.
The most common wrong definition is an enumeration of subjects, like the three “Rs:” reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Of course, many more courses, state-required and elective, fill up the menu and should. However, what the menu includes and excludes does not define “education” any more than a grocery shopping list defines “nutrition.”
Decisions about what to include and exclude point the way to the substantive part of what “education” means: not only the information and skills, but also the attitudes, values and principles, which society wishes to transmit from one person, usually one generation, to another. This broad definition covers informal and formal education, and, in formal education, public and non-public education. This education is the basis for functioning in our personal, social, civic and professional lives.
The procedural part of what education means is less well understood: the “educare” of “education,” the leading out of one’s inner world into the external world, the ultimate result being an ability to think critically about that substantive education; and an awareness of one’s inner world, one’s place in the external world, and the relationship between those worlds. One point about these underappreciated abilities: The conduct and quality of our political, religious and social discourse are improved or impaired in direct correlation to our education in critical thinking.
The indispensable requirements of education as an integrated sum of these two parts are students to learn and teachers to teach. Any educational reform must make this relationship central, critical, and uncorrupted by popular educational fads and fashions, and political fiats and platforms. Educational reform thus relocates almost all of the popular educational topics from the center to the periphery of the discussion. Reform must then ensure that, as these topics are addressed, they are considered entirely in consideration of their support to this relationship.
In anticipation of a second column on low- or no-cost recommendations for reforming education and the system that should be supporting, not subverting, it, I suggest three broad reforms now:
- An enlargement of the effective concept of education (balanced emphasis on all subjects – full cultural transmission – not just emphasis on literacy and numeracy).
- The development substantive, structured and sequenced curriculums in all academic subjects (New Mexico’s benchmarks and standards as well as those adopted by most of the nation’s governors, as they were led to adopt them by bureaucrats in state public education, are sham substitutes).
- A revamping of all schools of education to require, with annual demonstrations, that their curriculums align with the curriculum requirements of the grades or courses their graduates will have to teach (at the elementary level, teachers supposed to teach grammar do not know it because they themselves have not learned it K-16).
Each of these reforms requires much in the way of understanding and determination to effect the necessary break with repeated position-taking and recycled proposals. But, as I shall argue in a second column, these and other reforms can get better results than the wasteful and ineffective nostrums of the polar positions.
Michael L. Hays (Ph.D., English) is a retired consultant in defense, energy and environment; former high school and college teacher; and continuing civic activist. His bi-monthly Saturday column appears in the Las Cruces Sun-News; his bi-monthly blog, First Impressions & Second Thoughts, appears on the intervening Saturdays at firstimpressionssecondthoughts.blogspot.com.