Getting worse before getting better, if ever
Trying to improve education is quite slippery since it depends on what you mean by success when you are looking to find it in the schools. It is very different for political leaders than for citizens.
A professor back in college turned crimson whenever he thought about the campus parking situation. He would say loudly, “It’s going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better.” I would immediately ask: So you do think parking will get better? “No,” he would answer.
That sums up public education in America. It is going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better. Do I think it will get better? No. Trying to improve education is quite slippery since it depends on what you mean by success when you are looking to find it in the schools. It is very different for political leaders than for citizens.
There are three standards for educational success: First, if a student comes to school looking to learn, can that student learn? This is the core ability of schools. They must be able to teach those students who come ready and willing to learn and only need the teachers to enable that learning. Ability to teach is essential at all levels.
Secondly, there are students who come to school and would learn if teachers could tailor the instruction to them. Incidentally, this is much more prevalent in our schools than anything else. If teachers can adjust, some students who otherwise would not learn do so with the right, flexible instruction. The student’s success or failure rests upon the flexibility of the school experience to adapt to the student rather than the other way around. When public schools invest in the “factory model” of education where students must, for the most part, all be treated the same, the majority of students get a lesser education. Why do schools do the factory model? It is easier for the adults to run the schools.
Finally, when talking about the success or failure of education, we have to consider the Educational Industrial Complex, which has little interest in the outcomes of students. Instead, this stakeholder in the educational process concentrates on the adult area of employment and benefits. The overarching concern at all times is: Can we make a good financial and political base for the adults?
Currently, the Educational Industrial Complex is most powerful in schools with the factory model as the core strategy. Add to that the notion that hiring more people is more important than success of students. Hence, there is a fad of over-administering every aspect of education, because it allows so many more non-teachers to be hired to run the numbers and interpret the numbers and to rename the numbers.
The Swickard Test
Some people talk of educational research, but the reason I feel education is going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better, if ever, is that some problems are never really tested. Example: Try the Swickard Test in your community. Take two elementary schools, the one rated the very best and the one rated the very worst, and switch entire staffs between the schools. Move the teachers, counselors, librarians, administrators, janitors and cafeteria workers entirely from one school to the other. Then we will get an honest look at the staff and administrative effect.
One day the school staff is either on the exemplary or the poop list. Then they are at the other school. In three years the effect of the staff will be seen, which is largely, not that much. The best school will still be best and the worst school will still be worst. But educators will not try the Swickard Test because they instinctively know the outcome.
The problem, then, shows that spending the lion’s share of your time getting more administration in the worst school is of no use. More administration and more tests and more fads does nothing to change the best to the worst or the worst to the best. Education after the Swickard Test has to admit that the differentiator of success in the schools does not happen to be in the professional staff.
Second to the clients
Now do not get me wrong, there are better teachers and great teachers and administrators who do less harm than others. Jim Smith, teacher of the year in New Mexico one year, commented that every great teacher is just one bad administrator away from leaving the field of education forever. These better teachers do make a difference — not enough to improve an entire school, but they do matter. Good administrators, well, they are like baseball umpires: The best are the ones you do not notice.
Likewise, the better schools will always be better and the fragile-population schools will still reflect that fragile population. The real problem for education in America is that it is a one-trick pony. The only thing education knows is to spend more money on education. For every problem, the solution for the last several decades has been to hire more administrators and administer the schools more. It would be interesting to cut the administration staff back to the 1960s levels of perhaps 10 percent of today to see the effect.
But it would be administrators having to fire themselves, so there is no chance of moving in this direction. Like all government, school administration just gets bigger and bigger. To really make education better, the desires and political needs of the administrators must be second to their clients, the students.
Education will get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better.
Swickard is co-host of the radio talk show News New Mexico, which airs from 6 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on a number of New Mexico radio stations and through streaming. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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