Monday, May 11, 2009

Educational triage

It's been, hard as it is for me to believe, almost three weeks since I promised a follow-up to this post, one in which I discussed (yet again) the difficulty of waving a magic wand and creating 3,000,000 great teachers. It worked off a taxonomy created by Carol Burch at Decidedly, in a post where she abstracted out eight qualities that might be used to define quality in teaching. It was a good post, and the qualities did a fine job of covering the waterfront of the kinds of things we should want in our teachers, but I felt there were still good-sized problems:
So the initial question, how do we find people who are top-notch across the board?, morphs into, how do we manage the trade-offs that are inevitable? And that's the part that I never see discussed. The solution always comes down to: find good teachers, and break the unions so that we can get rid of bad teachers, and education will become great for every student.

We assume that the evaluation function is perfect, but let me pose it to you: how would you design an evaluation process that would tell you how well a teacher "understands students holistically"? I'm not ridiculing the concept, I'd like to see every teacher do that, I'm just wondering how we rate a teacher on it.

But, even if we somehow get past that problem, we're still left with the challenge of how we manage the reality that most teachers will come up short on one or more of those. There's some lip service paid to the idea of Great Teachers mentoring the newcomers, but I've never heard of such a system working totally well. And some of those attributes may be more genetic than malleable (I have no idea how you teach someone to build trust in others, at least not without a commitment to one-on-one instruction that is unlikely in cash-strapped school districts).
What I believe we have is a problem not of aspiration, but of possibility. We want all our schools to be great, to maximize the potential of students and thus make them happy, productive members of society, so we create policies that, were miracles to happen in execution, would get us there. If, somehow, 3,000,000 great teacher candidates were to show up, we want to have the infrastructure in place to attract and keep them in the profession, so we push for higher pay and better conditions and smaller class sizes. And, invariably, we end up disappointed, with another 25-year plan in place that "might" solve the problems, starting the cycle all over again.

As I've written before, one of the problems is that we don't set real goals for the system as a whole. We are stuck with the idea of creating "educated" humans, and we're getting pasted by other nations' systems that have far more specific goals. We come up with specific goals, not for what someone might do with that education, but for a proxy: standardized test scores. And that fails to work, so we change the proxy goals, we "get tough" on principals and teachers, and we sit back and watch the line...remain essentially flat.

Oh, we think we have goals, that of getting every student into college, get that four-year degree, jump into the middle class, but that goal is increasingly opposed to the reality of the jobs we're creating. So we pretend that we aren't putting millions of students through vocational training, that we're teaching them to "have the skills" necessary to exist in a flexible, ever-changing society, even though we can't define what those skills might be nor determine how to teach them.

One of the brilliant PR constructs of our time is the way that politicians and policy makers have found studies that purport that all student achievement is dependent on teacher quality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, administrator quality. That reductionism allows us to ignore the very real effect of home life and nutrition on the ability to educate our children, because those are problems that would require some effort on the part of those politicians. Far easier just to put it all in the hands of the teachers, then we can see the "get-tough" upper-level administrators rail at how "we won't accept excuses for failure from our teachers" (see: Michelle Rhee of D.C.).

But education is inextricably embedded within society, and trying to sever that link so the problems are easier ("if only those blasted unions would play ball, we'd have world-class schools") is a cop-out. We need to go back to the beginning, figure out what our schools are for, and create policies that have a chance of advancing the nation and its citizens.

First, we need to embrace what we used to call technical education (before that, manual arts). This is by no means a personal desire; what little shop I took was an unqualified disaster, as I firmly belonged on the academic track. But many of my fellow students did not, and would have been far better served by education that met their needs and their skills.

I don't mean that we should track kids too early, and we should still provide a basic education in everything so there's a common ground in being an American. But we already subsidize Internet service and pay for public libraries, so even the most vocational of high school graduates will have ample opportunities during his or her life to move back into a more academic existence (though I concede we'll need some social changes to overcome some of the stigma of that path).

Instead of putting every student on the same college-prep assembly line, and propping them back up when they fall off, at least until they turn 16 or 17 at which point we call them failures and let them fend for themselves, wouldn't we be better off expanding opportunities and recognizing that the real job market and personal attributes call for a larger vision as to what education should be?

But I've written about that before, so let me get to my second idea, one that I offer not in a wholly committed way, largely because it's impractical and would be seen as elitist and non-PC. But it's an idea that might serve as a bridge to help the talented while we figure out how we provide a decent education for every child, something we seem unable to do now.

It's triage, in which we save the kids who have a chance to thrive by pulling them out of the toxic school environments in which they're forced to try to get ahead. We use the same standardized tests that are failing to save education to at least save some.

Every year, we take the top X students from the tests (X would have to be determined by practical concerns and money), and take them out of their environment. Not only do we move the student to a school with good teachers and decent facilities, we move their families as well, with job opportunities and subsidized housing. The promising 7- or 8-year-old will be allowed to grow in the best environment our society can provide, and we enjoy the fringe benefit of helping entire families.

Of course there are problems with this idea, some real, some illusory. I'm going to ignore NIMBY concerns because this idea wouldn't hurt anyone - I'm not recommending wholesale demographic changes, just a sprinkling of good kids and their families throughout robust communities that can easily survive this meager effect.

A more realistic criticism is that this idea would put the youngest children in a position of being responsible for the well-being of their entire families, and I'd be daft if I didn't have some misgivings on that score. But this, and other criticisms, have to give way to the larger sense that we are failing most those who need the schools most to work, and we need to do something other than continued posturing and hearings and laws and programs that never seem to accomplish anything.

I know that, in Chicago, some might say that the public schools are already offering some of this through charter and magnet schools. But these are iterative, not transformative, steps, compounded by the practical unreality of asking schoolchildren to commute two hours each way every day to get an education that is, after all, promised to them by law and by tradition.

I doubt that anyone would take this idea seriously; the charges of racism and brain drain would be sufficient to derail it. But we have to do something, and throwing 10% more salary at teachers isn't going to cut it any more than vouchers or charters or whatever other magic beans that the educationist establishment has in its rucksack. Let me state the problem one more time: current theory suggests that the only way to give a proper education is to find 3,000,000 great teachers. Unless you have a plan to get that done, it may be time to try something else.

Note: understand I'm not saying that, were we to implement triage, we give up on certain school districts. It is simply right to provide a high-quality education to every single American child. But we can't even define "high-quality" right now, much less provide it, so we need to get off our duffs and try to help the high-potential children who, who knows, might offer the larger solutions some day.

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