Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The cure for a lousy report card

Yesterday The Today Show aired an interview with President Obama, during which he admitted - you may need to sit down to handle the shock - that his daughters would not get a first rate education in the DC public school system.

The sound byte replayed all over the major media outlets for the next twenty-four hours, in my view detracting from the more important conversation: What are we going to do to fix the problem?

The school system is broken beyond repair by means of any easy (and therefore politically savory) fix. Even President Obama was on about longer school days and shorter vacations yesterday. Yet elementary schoolers in the highest performing countries actually spend several hours less in school than their American counterparts. Having our kids spend more time in ineffectual learning environments won't fix anything. If that's the best solution we can offer, we might as well give up.

The United States is the 13th richest nation in the world, according to the 2009 survey of global GDPs by the World Bank. Yet our students don't crack the top twenty in performance in basic subjects such as arithmetic and reading. While we apparently don't measure progress in the sciences, arts and history, I have no doubt that the performance of US students in those disciplines would be dismal. Why? Because if your kid can't read and count, he's pretty much screwed in terms of other higher learning.

We should be appalled.

Why are our schools such abysmal failures?

Several reasons. Well, three big ones at least: teachers, taxes and curriculum.

It pains me to write this, because I'm a card carrying democrat who fervently believes that certain unskilled workers desperately need the protection of unions. I'm talking about the hand-to-mouth laborers who work in slaughter houses, coal mines, factories and food processing plants. These are people who wouldn't get breaks to use the lavatories if their unions didn't negotiate such "perks."

But teachers are a different animal. They're college educated professionals.

Perhaps teachers, like all other white collar professionals, should be at will employees. Famous-slash-infamous Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's offer to the DC teachers' union spoke volumes: she offered to double teacher pay if the teachers would give up tenure.

Her offer would have brought the top pay tier in inner city Washington to $140,000 a year, which isn't bad, especially when you consider the ten plus weeks of time off educators receive.

Ms. Rhee argued, sensibly in my view, that such pay would bring prestige back to teaching, allow the system to fire ineffective educators and attract an army of young, smart, high energy teaching candidates.

The union rejected her proposal. Nobody close to the situation seemed surprised.

Every day, in districts all over the country, teachers' unions spend LOTS OF MONEY fighting performance reviews. What other white collar professional could get away with that?

Teachers wring their hands and say they need protection from principals bearing grudges, or from over-bearing parents eager to exploit personality conflicts.

I agree. That's why we have all kinds of anti discrimination laws in this country. But last time I checked, unsatisfactory job performance wasn't a legally protected condition.

Meaningful performance reviews would represent a major advance in the state of affairs. This is America. We're supposed to like a bit of healthy competition. So why not offer monetary incentives to above average educators?

To make such a regime function, principals would need to spend more time talking with and observing their teachers. (Hint: the principal, as the hands on manager, should be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.)

School systems should implement similar procedures to review the principals and make decisions about their advancement or dismissal. We need to get rid of the idea of a principal as a mere ceremonial figurehead. Anyone who's ever worked for someone else knows that mismanagement has a way of trickling down and poisoning the rank and file.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that in the alleged land of opportunity, a child's chances for a decent education should not be inextricably tied to local property values. The idea that each town should have sovereignty over its education system is outmoded. Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, have county school systems and they've been able to reduce many administrative costs. The pay off: consolidation frees up dollars for the classrooms.

Such changes won't sell well at first. They'd basically have to come about by executive order. Imagine the response (for example) from teachers and parents in Wellesley and Newton, if their students suddenly had to integrate with those from Roxbury and Mattapan.

If we're serious about fixing the problem, we shouldn't expend our energy worrying about the poorer students dragging the richer ones down. We should be asking how the richer schools can bring the poorer students up to their standards.

Teachers who work in poor areas, whether in inner cities or Appalachian backwaters, should make more than their counterparts in tony places like Greenwich, Connecticut and Beverly Hills. Why? They're doing the WAY harder job. Unfortunately, when education funding gets pegged to local revenues, the teachers with the cushiest gigs usually make the most money.

Children need to learn critical thinking and problem solving. Many programs of study lack an adequate variety of subject matter. The best schools include more science, art, history, music, language and world events. Bonus systems should reward teachers who make subject matter relevant, because if kids care about the material, they're more likely to retain it.

But above all, kids need to read. A lot more. Curriculums must include engaging material. I'm not saying we should skip the classics, but rather that we should add to the load. No time? Nonsense. The average kid spends four hours a day parked in front of some sort of screen.

Yet, depending on which survey you believe, somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of American fourth graders cannot read.

The number is closer to 70 per cent if you look at the poorest quarter of society.

Which means they will fall hopelessly behind. If your child hasn't learned to read by the time she must read to learn, her prospects in academia start to look awfully bleak.

Standards, particularly in poorer schools, are devastatingly low. We don't need a longer day; we need a higher quality day. There's no reason the typical curriculum shouldn't resemble the advanced placement curriculum. As seen over and over again in charter schools in some of the nation's toughest neighborhoods, kids rise to the occasion when their minds are engaged.

While we're reforming the curriculum, let's scrap No Child Left Behind and other misguided attempts to raise standards through testing. Forcing teachers and students to spend the bulk of the school year learning a standardized test is mind numbing and toxic for all concerned. If we teach the kids to think, read and study, they'll be able to prepare for tests in addition to, and not in place of, their regular studies.

Finally, the curriculum needs to include opportunities for exercise and head clearing. Yes, I mean recess. And lots more of it. Little kids need to burn off energy in order to sit and focus. Middle school and high school students would benefit from ten minutes of head clearing, leg stretching outdoor air between classes. Waste of time? Not at all. The countries that outperform us all feature some form of recess through the upper grades.

I don't hold out a lot of hope that we'll say farewell to the teachers' unions, abolish local control of schools or create a national curriculum that rivals the programs offered at the most elite private institutions.

For now, many families, communities and foundations hope charter schools will solve some of the worst inequities. Notable success stories exist in several cities around the country. But charter schools can accommodate only a fraction of the kids in need, and they choose the lucky minority by drawing lots.

We need much more radical change.

Alright. I'll get off my soapbox for today. But I'll leave you with this link. It's been haunting me since I first saw the story on 60 Minutes.

This is America. Children's futures should not be decided by lottery.


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