Monday, January 31, 2011

Education (response to two The Tech articles)

The following is in response to

Opinion: Can we make government more efficient? The U.S. government is unique in its inefficiency in providing services (By Keith Yost)
Opinion: In schools, effectiveness does not equal experience (By Ryan Normandin)
 but should require reading of neither.


Although Normadin raises valuable and valid points in the 26 January article "Opinion: In schools, effectiveness does not equal experience," I dislike what I feel is the overemphasis in discussion of education reform on the issue of what teachers have done wrong and teacher tenure.  I also disagree with the approach that Yost takes in "Opinion: Can we make government more efficient?" (published on the same day). Both articles look primarily at the stick (rules) or how to better apply the stick ("The size of these cuts is appropriate, but the method matters as much as the magnitude"). As Barry Schwartz says in his short talk "Practical Wisdom" : "like water, they [smart people] will find cracks in any set of rules." But neither am I saying that we should look for more carrots. We need both, but the root problem lies in neither.

Schwartz [and presumably Kenneth Sharpe, his co-author on Practical Wisdom] describes the preceding approaches as either enacting "more and more rules to protect us against an indifferent, uncaring set of institutions" or coming up with "the magic incentives that will get people to do the right thing even out of pure selfishness." He argues persuasively that, instead, we need people who possess Aristotle's concept of practical wisdom: the "moral will to do the right thing and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is." We can't just "give teachers scripts to follow in the classroom, so even if they don't know what they're doing and don't care about the welfare of our kids, as long as they follow the scripts, our kids will get educated."

Although I'm skeptical that "unions are a large part of the reason why education reform often fails to make headway" (Yost), the larger point I would like to make is that "if there is one thing all educators know ... it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement" (Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (available at MIT Libraries)). "If we want to improve education, we must first of all have a vision of what good education is ... [what] we want for our children and our society."

Zoe Weil proposes a vision in her talk "The World Becomes What You Teach." She asks the audience to do a thought experiment, where we imagine that all students graduate from high school, pass the No Child Left Behind tests, and find jobs when they exit the school system. Would we have succeeded at our goals for schooling? No! The problems that we face today and into the future will not be solved this way, especially not if we rest our hopes on creating jobs with rules and incentives that will lead to the solutions we need.  Rules and incentives
"demoralize professional activity: they demoralize the people who are engaged in the activity [who replace human judgment with rules] ... and second they demoralize the activity itself. The very practice is demoralized, and the practitioners are demoralized... It creates people who only do things for incentives" (Schwartz). 
Rather, we need to
"provide every student with the knowledge, the tools, and the motivation to be conscientiousness choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a restored and healthy and humane world for all. Or another way of putting it: I believe that we need to graduate a generation of solutionaries" (Weil).
Ravitch concludes that, in addition to a vision, we need "an excellent curriculum [0], appropriate assessments [targeting areas for help, not punishment], and well-educated teachers," schools with appropriate resources, and families [1] that "do their part to get children ready for school."

The forest of intertwined issues (discrimination, poverty, income inequality, culture, ...) lying behind education may cause us to wonder how we can make a difference. But I take heart from Paul Polak's strategy as relayed to my by a friend: Address one issue, and address it well. The other issues, being interlinked, will improve as well. [2] I also believe (and do correct me if you disagree) that, in many cases, the best practice is to start change in single community, and when scaling comes up, consider that no solution works everywhere. Rather than solving how to force a known solution upon x schools in y years, consider solving how to support and speed up the diffusion of ideas and a culture of improvement from school to school across the area (x schools), changing "one school at a time." [3]


[0] Why curricula? A curriculum serves as the roadmap. "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there" (Alice in Wonderland). Also note that "it is ... federal law that the U.S. Department of Education is not permitted to impose any curriculum on the schools. Thus, any national curriculum must be both nonfederal and voluntary, winning the support of districts and states because of its excellence." (Ravitch).

[1] On the importance of families, see "fourth-grade slump" (specifically Chall and Jacobs, 2003), or better yet read Why Don't Students Like School? (Willingham, 2009) (available at MIT via request from the Boston Library Consortium).

[2] Do beware of "educationalizing" issues. See

[3] Consider: does antagonizing teachers help this latter process?


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