Saturday, January 31, 2009

Once more into the Breach of Reform

D-Ed Reckoning is talking about Bill Gates again.
First, Bill sets a silly goal: "Our goal as a nation should be to ensure that 80 percent of our students graduate from high school fully ready to attend college by 2025."
The problem isn't that all our kids aren't going to college. We still need to have the discussion on WHETHER all our kids should go to college. It is truly irresponsible to encourage a kid to be a really good mechanic? I'll teach him as much algebra and "Real-World" mathematics as I can but my gut tells me that he'd be happy and prosperous, and live a fulfilled and rewarding life as a mechanic.

The Gates Foundation has really bought into improving education and I'm glad. I just don't think he or any of the others have a clue.

A fundamental flaw is that no one has defined a goal in education - I mean a real one, not the silliness described above.

Businessmen measure themselves by the size of the company, income, number of employees, gross market share, etc. These are all readily quantified. You can argue whether (a)(b) or (c) is a more important indicator but you are still talking numbers. You are also talking about 2-3 years at most. What you do now has immediate ramifications and the effects can be seen clearly.

Education is not so easily defined and analyzed. Children take far longer to display changes caused by your reforms. They have their own ideas about what their education should look like and they have their own frame of reference through which your reforms must pass.

The over-arching problem is the lack of a true set of finish lines or yardsticks. Everyone can claim expertise because no one has any idea of what we're measuring. You can't toss out the charlatan because you're never able to identified them as such. We have no better idea of what makes a good education that we have ever have.

What is the goal?

Are we looking at
- Scores on a test?
- Graduation rate?
- Survey results?
- College admissions?
- College Graduation?
- Time in seat?
- Number of computers hacked?
- Number of books read?
- Number of books understood?
- Number of KIPP drills?
- Varsity Letters?
or ... what?

Bill comes in with his definitions, throws around some money and says "Follow me" but the results take 12 years to come to fruition. By then we're on education reform #392 and his definitions are no longer in play by the time someone realizes that his goals were pretty self-serving all along and not applicable to the vast majority.

Bill (and his ilk) also have trouble remembering that students are not widgets. The same ruthless adherence to standards in manufacturing cannot be applied to education - you cannot simply send back to the supplier for better parts with fewer flaws or blemishes.

Children are also not adults. They are not responsible and cannot make decisions on their own. Don't yell at me - society will not allow them to drive, drink, smoke, have sex, or drop out of school, among other things. To expect young people to make good decisions about education when they can't apparently make decisions about any other aspect of their lives makes for an impossible paradox – how to get the one person with control over his/her own behavior, attitude and work ethic to exercise that control responsibly? The analogy to herding cats never looked so apropos.

Teachers, too. Be a Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side?

What if the teacher fundamentally doesn't agree with the new reform? Is he at fault or is the reform effort the true problem? Did you train that teacher in the new methods or give him a book and say "Have at it!" When it falls flat, did that teacher deliberately sabotage the reform or is the reform poorly thought-out, poorly imagined and dead wrong for the students?

D-Ed Reckoning then has a different take than I when he lays out two approaches to answer this question:
"Next, Bill asks an easily answered rhetorical question:
Unlike scientists developing a vaccine, it is hard to test with scientific certainty what works in schools. If one school’s students do better than another school’s, how do you determine the exact cause? "
I'm asking all of us - Before you figure out why this group did better than that one, kindly explain how you determine which school's students did better? What's your criteria and why?

This is not as easy as it might be at first blush. Take the KIPP schools - arguably the best at what they do. What do they do? They prepare kids for a drill-and-practice kind of world and their kids do very well on recall tests. That's fine as far as it goes, but I for example would have hated it. I was fine in a much more loosely defined world in high school and quite successful in life - even if you avoid the "He became a teacher because he couldn't do anything else" joke. I didn't need to spend 7:30 - 5:00 every day at school, practicing my math facts and being taught to write. My teachers would never have tolerated it and I had some fine teachers. KIPP is excellent at what they do but it's not for everyone. Probably not even for much more than a small minority.

So - is KIPP the standard of success? Not for me but something had to generate this idea of Gates's ...
It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.
If that's the case, then why doesn't teacher certification seem to matter?
For my money, it's that we haven't decided what we're ultimately doing.

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