Education Reform

What is touted as education reform is really big tech, private charter companies and testing interests and complicit bureaucrats opening up the 500 billion dollar market of public education. Take away students with free or reduced lunches and we are ranked number one in the world.

Reprint of Article that appeared in New Haven Register:

Education does need to be reformed, but not in the way it is rolling out in Connecticut and elsewhere.

We have a problem with education-school orthodoxy that goes back more than 100 years, but is now repackaged as 21st-century skills. We have a problem with powerful private interests that want to destroy teachers unions and take advantage of the huge, untapped market of education. We have a problem with over-expectations for schools in general. And we have a problem with school management.

Education schools have been pushing student-centered, project-based, group work with the teacher as a guide-on-the-side for generations. In 1928, progressive education professor William Kilpatrick suggested that students do not need to memorize and know things as we were moving into a modern age and students should instead work collaboratively in groups and construct their own understanding.

In fact, much of the lower academic achievement today is due to this approach, coupled with an overemphasis on technology. This mix of technology and student-centered work is particularly ineffective with less-motivated students.

Nevertheless, the high-tech crowd has co-opted this progressive approach into an overly zealous rush to make schools 21st-century learning environments. (Ironically, in fact, numerous elites of Silicone Valley are educating their children in non-technology schools because they understand the dangerous pitfalls of over-immersion in technology.) Moreover, these big high-tech companies and service providers such as Microsoft, Apple, Nextel, AT&T and so on, have an enormous stake in privatizing schools.

The education challenges in Connecticut are largely limited to a few districts, and stem from deep-seated, societal problems. The new evaluation system in Connecticut is a costly, burdensome waste of taxpayer money that will only discourage smart college students from entering one of the already lowest-paid credentialed professions.

The charter school crowd would have people believe that they have the answer. In fact, fewer than one in four charter schools out perform nearby public schools, and most do worse. Also, the burn-out rate for charter school teachers is very high. In general, almost three out of five public school teachers leave the profession for good in the first five years of work.

Who would enter a profession where you are expected to be a social worker, psychologist, coach and academic miracle worker, and where you have to put up with constant educational fads? Who would enter a profession where the public has made you the scapegoat for poor parenting and the residual results a declining, overworked middle class or lower class? Who would enter a profession that now wants to take away due process (which is what teacher tenure really is)?

There has always been a disconnect between the theories and dreams of education schools, district administration expectations and initiatives, and the real practice of teaching.

The biggest, most in-depth educational study done in America was Project Follow Through, which began in 1968 and ran for 10 years. It was initiated by the Johnson administration and was meant to find out what type of pedagogy worked best for students, particularly disadvantaged students.

The results were that teacher-centered, direct instruction was far and away the superior pedagogical model for educating disadvantaged students. In this study, the student-centered, constructivist models were all failures. It is so confounding to teachers in schools with under-performing students that the state of Connecticut rubric (SEED) for teacher evaluation requires student-centered classrooms with the teacher working as a “guide on the side” in order to get a good evaluation.

When, in fact, struggling students need much more teacher-directed instruction. If a teacher has highly motivated, self-directed students they are great teachers, according to this rubric. To complicate this, underperforming schools are also urged to integrate technology in order to “engage” students and build their 21st-century skills.

Why then do the elites of Silicone Valley send their children to non-technology schools? Over 10 years ago, the Gates Foundation spent millions of dollars creating small high schools in inner cities, with a laptop for each student. It was an utter disaster as you might imagine; students were not using their laptops for academic work. Yet superintendents around the state are frothy with enthusiasm to create 21st century learning environments in poorly performing districts.

It seems that the schism between teachers, policy makers and many administrators has widened. The push for technology-infused classrooms, student-centered learning and the general pandering to teenage whims has created turmoil and low academic standards in some schools.

It’s true that some technology has been very useful in helping students learn and teachers to teach. But we must be very careful and thoughtful about how we integrate technology into the classroom. And most importantly, teachers need to be part of the decision process, which is very often not the case in most districts.

Why is it that so many administrators taught for only five years and now are experts driving reform? Also, some administrators are unabashedly anti-teacher. The trend for many administrators is to jump from job to job, starting initiatives that might sound good, but are often costly to districts, do not help students and are never brought to fruition.

The people of Connecticut are at a crossroad; we need to decide whether we will open the door to privatizing education and eventually turn-over public institutions to for-profit companies. We need to realize what the problems actually are in education and address them. We need to bring teachers into the decision-making process in order to bring some clarity; teachers’ perspectives are the most important since they are with students day in and day out.

After the Civil War, the Gilded Age was a time when average Americans were exploited and often abused by big business in the name of laissez faire capitalism. First, the Progressive reformers, then the New Dealers, worked to make government more responsive to the needs of average Americans, not powerful corporations.

But it seems that now there is a snap-back to the Gilded Age. There are certain services that need to be above the vicissitudes of the marketplace — police, fire, education to name a few. The free marketplace should never be driving public education. Teachers need to drive education reform, not “experts” who do not teach and private interests who want to make money.