Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Public Education Can't Be Reformed

The ideology that drives our system of public education has deep roots, going back to the French Revolution and the Jacobins. The philosophical foundations were articulated by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his "Social Contract." Rousseau had the notion that education had little to do with books, but with inculcating into all students core ideas about the "commonweal." 

These ideas had a great influence on Horace Mann, the first Commissioner of the Board of Education in Massachusetts who went on to serve in the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives. His influence on American public education has been profound.  Charles L. Glenn's book, and its copiously footnoted sources, provides the best exposition of this history.

Mann felt strongly that the "common school" was to be the preferred instrument for eliminating idiosyncratic local cultural practices among immigrants of different national and religious origins, levelling them into one identity.  The large Irish influx in Lowell, MA came to work in the new factories.  Catholic religious orders set up schools to educate, as best they could, the large influx of new immigrants.

Meanwhile, as often happens in American society, there was another background social struggle among competing elites. From Mann's earliest days at the Board of Education in 1837, educational discussions were dominated by the property holding classes.  With the flowering of Rousseau and Danton's ideas, a new elite arose to dominate the discussion about the "common school."  Glenn describes this group as being comprised of lawyers, Protestant clergymen, journalists and self-styled commentators who saw the French ideals as a fertile new area in which to expand their influence by championing these quirky ideas.

When Horace Mann began his career, he was a relatively obscure lawyer, with few social connections. Mann found worthy allies in this new elite, and they would propel his ideas and career.  Together, they concocted the notion of a necessary state monopoly on education so that citizens could be educated about virtue, the need to combat indolence, intemperance, and even prevent the spread of crime among the new immigrant populations. 

The new ideas of the "educational reformers' also picked up support from Protestants in Massachusetts who were worried about the large Irish Catholic influx into Lowell's burgeoning industrial center.  They feared a conspiracy to take away a supply of new students from public schools.  Fearing the growing influence of what they libelously called "papists,"  they too joined the new educational elite to support the common school movement. 

From these deep roots in the American educational psyche, we had to pass through the debilitating effects of the Sixties and Seventies, where the common school became a giant, impenetrable, self-sustaining machine, stronger than the any corporate industrial machine.  Even the most powerful American corporations--pick your favorite example--can easily be felled by bad management, the business cycle, or by changes in their business paradigm.  The educational establishment is truly bullet proof because of its ties to the State and its tax and regulatory powers. 

It may make you laugh or it may raise your blood pressure, but go and find a catalogue from your local College of Education, whether in a private or public university. Read the course descriptions. Courses on teaching mathematics talk about how to connect to local resources, design assessments, integrate technology and plan lessons.  Courses in Human Relations will challenge students to produce environments in which diverse learners can experience learning which is "multicultural, gender fair and disability aware."  I know that elite schools in China are not spending any time with their students on these objectives. Then, we complain that we are behind Country X in math and science and therefore we need to spend more money with the failing public system.

There are many good teachers in public schools, but there are many more mediocre teachers who are merely punching the clock, and there is the other end of the curve which should be removed.  The teachers, however, don't operate in a vacuum.  Today's public school teachers have to deal with an administrative bureaucracy whose sole job is to monitor the incoherent and unattainable mandates put upon the school by the state and federal educational bureaucracies.  I have yet to meet a public school teacher who expresses respect, let alone enjoyment, at working for their district administration.

What these teachers are asked to do is totally ridiculous.  Andrew Coulson's recent article cited the disproportionate growth in the teacher population versus the student population nationwide. I don't know if this is the real problem.  I believe that it is relentless growth of educational mandates which teachers have to fulfill, which takes them away from the tasks which they enjoy and for which they joined the profession, namely to help young people succeed.

To serve all these mandates, there are way too many administrators, and specialists in all kinds of unnecessary endeavors, from cultural norms to bullying.  The state of Texas, one of the largest school systems in the country, is said to have a 1:1 ratio of administrators to teachers.  Thees positions have higher salaries and therefore much higher pension liabilities than do teacher positions. 

None of this can change, though because as long as states and the federal government can created new unfunded mandates, there is no choice.  Don''t comply and your school will be decertified or closed.

Have you ever gone to a local school board meeting?  Go with a Costco sized bottle of Tylenol.  It is even more inane, cynical and boring than the Senate.  Reform can never penetrate into this closed system. 

Private groups like Teach for America have contributed to better outcomes for students in troubled schools.  When they entered the Minneapolis market, the union funded PR guns fired out accusations about elitist outsiders who were unqualified to teach and doing nothing but padding their resumes.  They certainly didn't care for "the kids." 

Former Medtronic CEO Bill Hawkins wrote a letter to the local paper counteracting the propaganda:

"...the schools are getting new teachers from a talent bank that has never been richer. They come from the Ivy League, from the best colleges in Minnesota and from states around the country, with a grade point average of 3.6 (on a 4.0 scale) and majors ranging from industrial engineering to music. Sixteen percent of graduating seniors at Yale this year applied to teach with Teach for America, as did 450 seniors from schools in Minnesota, including the University of Minnesota, Macalester and Carleton.

Teach for America's expansion to the Twin Cities is funded with a $2.7 million grant from local businesses, including Medtronic and General Mills, as well as leading area foundations. This reflects our respect for the results achieved by the program in other cities and our commitment to addressing the alarming rate at which our state is failing to ensure a proper education for far too many young Minnesotans.

In a state renowned for academic prowess, it should concern us that one of our largest school districts is falling behind the rest of the country. A national study published last spring rated Minneapolis 45th among America's 50 largest cities when it came to our high school graduation rates. Equally troubling is what young people aren't learning while they're still in school. Less than half the students in the city school system are proficient in reading, and only 40 percent in math. The numbers are particularly discouraging if you single out math and science, the two areas most crucial to the future of our children and the future of the nation.

This is unacceptable. It's time to do something different"

I admire Teach for America and its objectives and achievements,  I don't think that it is the best model, and I certainly don't believe that it is the only model for really making education deliver on its mission.

No educational model delivers comparable outcomes at a lower cost, especially for inner city minority populations, than the system of Catholic schools.  I spent twelve years in a New York City Catholic elementary school and high school. I've volunteered in these schools most of my professional career. Many of their students are not Catholic, and many of them can't afford to pay the very modest tuition; but, no student is turned away. 

I agree with Bill Hawkins that it is time to do something different. Americans have a common interest in producing the next generation of educated, informed citizens and productive taxpayers. Any educational system that produces this output should be funded with public funds, since the future benefits attached to creating this citizenry accrue to all..  Parents and students should have choices. If certain systems are overburdened with bureaucracy and inefficiency and can't adapt, then they need to wither, just like W.T. Grant or Digital Equipment.  That is the only kind of real reform which will work: competition and choice.

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