One More Time Around the Track

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar Lev says:

    I don’t think that teacher’s unions are the problem, either. Teacher’s unions are present in the states and areas where education sucks, but they’re also present in areas where education is great, like all those union-friendly Northeastern states. The education problem is largely a poverty problem, in my opinion, and that’s one difficult problem to solve.

    But I largely agree with the points E.D. makes here. The problem here is the notion of running government “like a business”, which inevitably comes to take the form of absurd and steadfast metrics and statistical analysis as in any bureaucracy. Just watch Season 4 of The Wire to see why this doesn’t work–it just creates a cottage industry of juking the stats. And on top of it all there’s the reality that a lot of people in this country have shitcanned liberal education entirely and largely see education as a souped-up version of vocational training.

    I think it all has to do with the fact that America values learning less than intuition, to put it charitably. Hopefully Obama can bring about a change in attitudes–Bush certainly damaged the rule of using your gut even if you have the facts.Report

  2. Avatar Sonny Bunch says:

    Perhaps I was being unclear about my affection for standardized testing. I could care less how a teacher teaches. What interests me is that they get the information across. I think that elementary, middle, and high schools have a pretty basic job: imbue their students with the basic knowledge necessary to be an informed citizen. A standardized test is merely a way of discerning whether or not that knowledge has been imbued.

    So yes, some students may learn better with more interactive teaching, some students may learn better by rote memorization, other students will be reached by other methods. Again: I don’t particularly care how a teacher teaches and think that as long as they are getting the info across they should have near-total autonomy. But math is math is math. You either get the questions on the standardized test right or you get them wrong. And history is history is history. You either know when historical events happened/who the 13th president was/what nations fought on which side in WWII or you don’t. Same with government: You either know the three branches of government/what the bill of rights says/how the bicameral legislature works or you don’t. How does a multiple choice standardized test fail to test the level of knowledge of a student? And if students consistently show that a teacher isn’t getting said basic knowledge across, how long do we allow that teacher autonomy in the class room?Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “In Song’s mind, of course, allegations are essentially proof of guilt. Due process, it would seem, is simply far too expensive.”

    The associations that immediately jumped into my head were the associations I picked up in my one semester of Women’s Studies kinda courses.

    Of course the question of “presumption of innocence is essential” the argument began… but then examples were given where someone essentially powerless was victimized by someone essentially powerful. I’m sure you’re familiar with the argument.

    I’m not saying that we need to get rid of the presumption of innocence, mind. I think that it is the bedrock of our legal system and, let it be said again, it is better for 100 guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be jailed.

    That said… my immediate sympathies are with the kids and I’m a little more prone to believe them than the teachers in any given situation. Given the power dynamic.Report

  4. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Jaybird – my immediate sympathies are with the kids as well – but does that mean that while investigations go on we should assume the guilt of the teacher? Cut off their pay? Is that due process, regardless of where sympathies ought to lie?

    Sonny – yeah, history is history. So should all history text books across the country be the same so that we’re sure to cover the same content that’s on the test? This invokes the cult of the national over the wisdom of the local. Are we to forsake any attempts at cross-curricular studies – fusing English and Science, perhaps, or working in team settings? If uniformity continues to its logical conclusion, it will mean the same books, the same tests, the same teaching styles, the same, same, same all across the board. And that is a tragedy. Anything short of that, however, will be insufficient to properly measure progress.Report

  5. (Firmly grasping tongue while resisting the urge to go into long diatribe on Justice Brennan, “new property,” and due process).Report

  6. Avatar Sonny Bunch says:

    E.D. — If schools want to teach local history as well as US history then fine, do it. But as long as we continue to become more integrated as a country on the national level, certain events are going to take precedence over others. So let Texas have it’s Texas History course, in which students learn about Sam Houston and the Alamo and why the Dallas Cowboys are great, but also teach students about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    I’m curious: Absent some sort of standardized test or a series of state-by-state tests (like Virginia’s SOL), how would you measure whether or not a student has mastered basic knowledge in important subject areas like history, math, English comprehension, and government? Or do you think its unimportant for students to master such subjects?Report

  7. Avatar Will says:

    A couple of points:

    1.) If you get rid of tenure while increasing pay, you replace one incentive system with a better, more flexible approach. Getting rid of tenure isn’t synonymous with turning public schools into a career wasteland. As I mentioned in my earlier post, there are plenty of young, enthusiastic teachers who are genuinely excited at the prospect of reforming the DC system.

    2.) “Due process” isn’t a precondition for firing people in any other field. Credible accusations from multiple different sources would be enough to get anyone else fired – why shouldn’t the same standards apply to teachers?Report

  8. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Sonny – schools managed to educate children long before standardized tests were ever introduced. They did this much like they do at the college level – through tests specific to the course; through writing papers; through pop quizzes; through student assessments. Do you think the nations colleges should adopt standardized tests to evaluate their students as well?

    Will:

    1 – education is essentially a “flat” organization. There are (ideally) very few tiers involved: teacher, principal, superintendent. Unlike other organizational structures, there is not the same sort of “rise through the ranks” ability in teaching unless you, well, leave teaching to do something else. Yes, pay is certainly an incentive – but tenure is not merely about incentive. It is also about academic freedom, and while we can talk about merit pay and standardized testing etc. on and on and on we leave out this very important aspect: academia. Schools are meant to be places of learning, and that requires freedom. Tenure, for all its flaws (and there is room to reform tenure without scrapping it) protects academic freedom, and it provides teachers with needed job security. Why not lay off someone who has been there for 15 years and has older teaching styles that might not be en vogue anymore? They make more than a new teacher would make, so there would be cost savings getting rid of them. But is that how we want to treat the field of teaching? That long-timers are expendable?

    2 – Actually many organizations have some sort of due process involved in firing. Many corporations require very similar steps to be taken. I mentioned this elsewhere, but in many retail operations the store manager has to go through a number of steps to warn the employee, give them time to shape up, and then they go to their superior to actually move forward with the firing. This prevents personality conflicts and favoritism/nepotism etc. from unduly influencing decisions (to some degree).

    Sure, in a very small operation this would not be the case. At the local mom and pop store you could be fired just like that. Well, I think schools have to adhere to other standards, more caution, etc. because everything to do with teaching is political. You don’t think three or four students with chips on their shoulders couldn’t conspire to get a teacher fired? Isn’t it fair to assume that the accused is innocent until proven guilty?

    But is the system perfect?

    No. And there is room for reform. I would urge caution – even conservatism – in making these reforms though.Report

  9. Avatar Cascadian says:

    Tenure is more than a perk that allows us to pay teachers less money. It also ensures academic independence which is important.

    I think there is probably more of a problem with bad kids than bad teachers ( though I certainly allow for the latter). When a teacher is trying to keep control of thirty kids, it only takes one to suck the oxygen out of the room. How about when a student gets multiple complaints? Should they be expelled? Then what?Report

  10. Okay well I’ve promised myself to stay out of all of this, but a couple of things:

    1. As I feel like I’ve been pointing out ad nauseam, equating “school choice” with “vouchers” – let alone “private vouchers” – is just careless: there can, after all, be policies designed to enable parents to move their children more freely only between public schools, and there’s no reason why any such program would have to involve the dispensation of vouchers, at least as that notion is commonly understood.

    2. You write that “for private vouchers to work I think we would need to move away from public schools entirely; for private schools to compete properly a free public alternative on the market would simply not be viable”. I don’t follow this at all. In the case of health care, for example, state-run and -funded plans exist alongside private ones, and indeed isn’t one of the big, new ideas in universal health care the provision of tax credits (read vouchers) that can be used for either state-run or privately-run plans? Why in the world should we think that in such a situation one of the two options will have to triumph unconditionally over the other?

    More generally, what Will said.Report

  11. Avatar Will says:

    Academic freedom? Really? In K-12? If we were talking about serious research institutions, sure, but good God, these are high school and elementary kids we’re talking about. The teachers’ first responsibility is to teach, not to explore their views on a particular subject.Report

  12. Avatar Cascadian says:

    Ok, so academic independence isn’t important for the same reasons at K as it as at twelve. None the less, consider what you mock. Consider what would happen in places like Kansas with I.D.. Independence isn’t just for cutting edge academics.Report

  13. Avatar Sonny Bunch says:

    But, E.D., that system of education has led to generations of kids graduating from high school who are functionally illiterate, don’t know the basics of federal government, can’t do basic math without a calculator, etc. I think this is a serious problem: a high school diploma should mean something more than “I stuck around the public education system for 12 years and all I got was this lousy piece of paper.” This is why I have no problem with Virginia’s SOLs: I think you should have to have mastered basic competency in English, math, history, and government for your degree to mean anything.

    And no, I don’t think it makes much sense to apply a similar standardized test to college, because I think colleges and high schools/middle schools/elementary schools do two different things. Those first 12 years are, for most people, in place to create a general underpinning of knowledge. 2+2=4; House members serve 2 year terms; how to write a proper sentence in English. College, meanwhile, builds on that knowledge by shaping critical faculties (at least in the humanities; in the hard sciences, engineering, etc. it’s different). I’d say there’s far more nuance in what colleges are teaching than what primary and secondary schools are teaching.Report

  14. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Starting with Will – academic freedom in this context, properly understood, is not teachers “exploring their views” but teachers protected from administrators who want to wield a political stick to get them fired. Like a secular principal deciding he didn’t like the Christian biology teacher because he might be sympathetic to intelligent design.

    John – school choice almost always boils down to a conversation about vouchers. So you want to talk about it with vouchers off the table, fine, but really to me that’s a local decision. If a district wants to allow students to go wherever in their district, fine by me. That’s the trend with the advent of charter and magnet schools, and I’m all for it. My problem is with vouchers for private schooling.

    And really, using health care as an example of something to imitate might not be the best idea. It’s not as though our health care track-record, or the clumsy way we’ve implemented private/public partnerships in that sector have really been very effective.

    You write that “for private vouchers to work I think we would need to move away from public schools entirely; for private schools to compete properly a free public alternative on the market would simply not be viable”. I don’t follow this at all.

    Let me put forth a health care parallel for you that would better mirror the public school/voucher question you pose above:

    Imagine that health care was predominately socialized (as k-12 education is now) rather than predominately private. There are some options for people who want to pay instead. Now imagine that some people, to a limited degree, could take tax-payer dollars and put those toward those limited options. Well – the competition from the free health care sector would be totally overwhelming. Private institutions could not compete unless that social health care was significantly reduced and became so underfunded (via the vouchers drawing money from the pool) that it was no longer a viable alternative for people and everyone had effectively switched to private insurance which was still paid for by the government.

    And where does that leave us? With private institutions still reliant on government money to function? That strikes me as a gross distortion of what the private or “free” market is supposed to look like. Then again, the current system of tax subsidies (or breaks) already is essentially a subsidization of the health care industry by the government through employers.

    In any case, to me this just seems like far too much complication of what may as well be a simple system. Private schools can offer scholarships for disadvantaged kids. They can receive tax breaks for that sort of thing. People with enough money can put their kids in whatever school they want on their own dime, without sucking anything out of the public school system.Report

  15. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    But, E.D., that system of education has led to generations of kids graduating from high school who are functionally illiterate, don’t know the basics of federal government, can’t do basic math without a calculator, etc.

    Sonny, there have always been problems with getting everyone to graduate, to be literate, etc. It will always be hard in a country as vast as ours. The past 8 years or so have seen ramped up testing and increased uniformity under NCLB and the results?

    Well, the results speak for themselves. Things have gotten worse not better.

    Actually, I’d like to see shifts back, back, back in time. I’d like to go back to smaller schools – maybe not one-room school houses, but something close to it. I’d like to see very low student/teacher ratios because that’s where you’re really going to start seeing improvements.

    And I reject the notion that high school and college have to be so different. It should be a gradual process toward a collegiate learning environment – which means we also need to start providing public trade schools for those students with no interest or capability to do the whole liberal arts thing, who may prefer carpentry or autoshop and want to devote a couple years in an apprenticeship rather than learning about Plato and square roots.Report

  16. … the competition from the free health care sector would be totally overwhelming. Private institutions could not compete unless that social health care was significantly reduced and became so underfunded (via the vouchers drawing money from the pool) that it was no longer a viable alternative for people and everyone had effectively switched to private insurance which was still paid for by the government.

    I’m not sure that I follow, but that may be because I’m tired or dense. But to the extent that I see what you’re saying, it’s basically that public schools can’t handle the competition, so better to seal them off from it. This doesn’t sound like a healthy approach to me, and it seems to be belied by the fact that public colleges and universities survive just fine despite private-sector competition, and notwithstanding the various state-sponsored grants that enable poorer students to attend private colleges. I thought the point was that our public schools can do a good job – and in fact I think that this is true; it’s just that I think they’d likely do a markedly better job if they faced more competition, both from one another and from the private sector. In any case, be careful when you use the word “sucking” in discussions of our public educational system …Report

  17. Avatar Sonny Bunch says:

    How are they worse? From the WaPo on April 29:

    “Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools. Performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which offers a long view of U.S. student achievement, shows several bright spots. Nine-year-olds posted the highest scores ever in reading and math in 2008. … But results released yesterday were disappointing for high school students. Seventeen-year-olds gained some ground in reading since 2004, but their average performance in math and reading has not budged since the early 1970s.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/28/AR2009042801244.html

    I mean, we could argue that things aren’t as great as NCLB should have made them, but things certainly aren’t worse.

    I dunno. We’re going to end up going around in loops, if we aren’t already. I’ll just restate that it’s not a terrible idea to demand competency in core areas like reading, math, and history in order to gain a diploma, and that there’s no fairer way to test disparate swathes of people on that competency than with a basic, standard, multiple choice test. You either know something or you don’t…Report

  18. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    In any case, be careful when you use the word “sucking” in discussions of our public educational system …

    Point taken. 😉

    What I’m saying is that competition is not on an even footing when the government is involved in sponsoring at once private and public education. That creates an imbalance that sort of renders the whole “market” approach moot – unless one or the other is displaced. In other words, I think competition between non-government sponsored private schools and public schools and charter schools etc. is a good thing. Or, conversely, if we did away with public schools altogether maybe we could see real competition between private schools (which I don’t support, but still the playing field would be fair). The sort of bizarre hybrid created by vouchers however simply wouldn’t work.

    Sonny – indeed in some areas test scores rose – but that doesn’t mean that education improved; that just means that test scores got better, and that teachers got better at teaching to those tests. Meanwhile many, many other programs were cut in order to focus more on these “essential” ones – and we’ve seen cuts in the arts, gym, etc. for the past few years. Success is not easily measured by test results. People are broader animals than that. We need more then the ability to pass a test.

    Even setting aside the standardized testing thing – the point is in the long run it’s just a distraction. Other steps would do more to improve education, including cutting student/teacher ratios and starting trade schools for the non-academics. Focusing on test scores distorts the bigger picture, regardless of the data garnered from such tests.Report

  19. What I’m saying is that competition is not on an even footing when the government is involved in sponsoring at once private and public education. That creates an imbalance that sort of renders the whole “market” approach moot – unless one or the other is displaced. In other words, I think competition between non-government sponsored private schools and public schools and charter schools etc. is a good thing. Or, conversely, if we did away with public schools altogether maybe we could see real competition between private schools (which I don’t support, but still the playing field would be fair). The sort of bizarre hybrid created by vouchers however simply wouldn’t work.

    And I just don’t understand the a priori methodology that gets you to this view, let alone how it stands up to the apparent coexistence of both public and private options in districts where voucher programs have been widely implemented.Report

  20. E.D. – As much as I agree that standardized testing is on the whole a very bad thing, I do think Sonny has a pretty good point in his post to which he aludes a bit here. That is that “teaching to the test” in the context of reading and math (for a variety of reasons, I don’t think this applies equally well in history and civics even though I’m a strong advocate of re-emphasizing those subjects) is actually a good thing if proficiency on the test demonstrates at least generalized competency in the subject area. Students can learn differently but in the end the goal of any math or reading class is and should be that the student know that 1+1=2 and that the student know the meaning of words and sentences.

    I still don’t think that standardized testing is a good thing even on these subjects for reasons that I will hopefully get into if I have the time for a full post, but this particular argument for standardized testing strikes me as being pretty valid.Report

  21. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    But why can’t normal in-class teacher-constructed tests for reading and math accomplish this? I understand standardized tests for college entrance exams – though I think that even they are misleading – but I can’t understand how once in college they would be useful. And along those lines, I think high school teachers should be equally free from using or relying on them or focusing on them, etc.

    John – I wanted to add that I support vouchers for special needs students to attend special schools but I must also add that at least where I live the public schools do an absolutely amazing job with those kids – I’ve worked with them myself, so I know this first hand.

    Could you link me to some success stories in districts where vouchers were widely implemented, because I’ve read studies to the contrary.

    And my method re: competition in this model is essentially the same as I’d use to evaluate any business or industry where distorted levels of government intervention exist in the private industry. I’m no economist, but I do play one on the internet sometimes….Report

  22. Avatar Cascadian says:

    John: Given the anachronistic character of our current school systems given the technology and communication improvements over just the last couple of decades, why can’t private enterprise compete without vouchers? Why not drop the gauntlet at the feet of the entrepreneurs. If you can’t beat this system independently, how good is what you’re offering? Go ahead and set up private schools sponsored by McDonald’s and the Gap that provide a superior product which the market will respond to. Trying to argue that the current system provides unfair competition undercuts the initial argument. Fed-x has done just fine against a government monopoly. It’s the privateers that need to up their game rather than complaining.Report

  23. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Cascadian – good point.Report

  24. E.D. – It’s possible that teacher-created tests could serve the same purpose (although who would evaluate the level of difficulty of the teacher-created tests?), but that’s not the point of this specific argument. I think you have to concede, as I begrudgingly have, that standardized tests are not completely without value; that doesn’t mean that they’re not more harmful than good, nor does it mean that there aren’t better options for achieving that value. But I don’t think it’s possible to refute the point that standardized tests can, at least in the subjects of math and reading, provide a valuable metric for evaluating a student’s progress. I also don’t think Sonny ever said that the metric for teacher performance had to be their student’s raw scores; plenty of school districts (and keeping in mind that I still think standardized testing is more bad than good as a measure) evaluate teachers based on the average improvement in their students’ scores rather than on whether they receive a passing or failing grade.

    Although it’s pretty suspect when the most improved student in the class is the fat dude who spent the teacher’s entire summer school class in the john.Report

  25. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Fair points, Mark. There is indeed value to any sort of test, really – it’s whether that value is also an accurate enough measurement or an appropriate focus to be determinative of performance or policy direction, educational focus, etc.Report

  26. Could you link me to some success stories in districts where vouchers were widely implemented, because I’ve read studies to the contrary.

    Well a commenter at TAS linked here and here yesterday, and I suppose Wikipedia isn’t an awful source. This Sol Stern piece in City Journal, together with the subsequent discussion, are among the most instructive things I’ve read.

    Go ahead and set up private schools sponsored by McDonald’s and the Gap that provide a superior product which the market will respond to.

    Because I don’t think poor kids who want out of failing public schools should have to turn to options funded by McDonalds and the Gap? I mean, I suppose entrepreneurs should be allowed to create such schools if they want to, but another way to achieve that is to allow targeted, means-tested vouchers that will help poor kids get out of bad situations, while increasing competition and – likely quality along the way.Report

  27. Avatar Cascadian says:

    “Because I don’t think poor kids who want out of failing public schools should have to turn to options funded by McDonalds and the Gap?”

    Don’t get all Freddy on me. Who’s talking about the poor kids — who are notoriously difficult. One would think that the market would at least be able to come up with something for the above average, that have supportive parents, that can beat the current system. Let’s make it easy.

    The fact that there isn’t anything, indicates to me, that the market is not as ready as it pretends to be. Let the market show it’s record with the low lying fruit. Then, and only then, should it be trusted with the hard cases.Report

  28. One would think that the market would at least be able to come up with something for the above average, that have supportive parents, that can beat the current system.

    Well, it’s done that. They’re called private schools, and they’re often expensive as hell, and well-to-do parents send their kids to them in great numbers.Report

  29. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    In Canada I went to a Catholic school paid for by the government – but that money didn’t draw out of public schools. All schools were public schools – parochial or otherwise. Poor kids got to go to the school of their choice. Would you support this or does that put too much reliance on the state? If so, wouldn’t vouchers also put a great deal of reliance on the state?Report

  30. Avatar Cascadian says:

    Sorry, by above average I wasn’t referring to the parents income level. To put it bluntly, I was meaning that the market should be able to start with the low cost kids.Report

  31. In Canada I went to a Catholic school paid for by the government – but that money didn’t draw out of public schools. All schools were public schools – parochial or otherwise. Poor kids got to go to the school of their choice. Would you support this or does that put too much reliance on the state? If so, wouldn’t vouchers also put a great deal of reliance on the state?

    To be honest I don’t see how this is anything short of a voucher proponent’s wet dream.Report

  32. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    But John it’s socialization of our education system. It doesn’t draw from public and put into private – it just takes all schools and says they’re all free on the government’s dime.

    Hey, I’m all for that. I say if we’re going to be equal, let’s be totally equal. It’s these half-measures that seem like potentially huge failures.Report

  33. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “To be honest I don’t see how this is anything short of a voucher proponent’s wet dream.”

    Is that a reason in and of itself to support/oppose vouchers?Report

  34. Okay, I appreciate that clarification; I responded sloppily.

    It’s these half-measures that seem like potentially huge failures.

    But why? The available data don’t clearly suggest that they would be. The fact of the happy coexistence of public and private options for higher education, with means-tested government monies available for each, doesn’t suggest that they would be. Given that there’s simply bound to be, as you put it above, “government intervention in the economy” when it comes to public education, why not have the government intervene in the least monopolistic way that’s reasonably possible?Report

  35. Avatar Mike says:

    E.D.

    I’m with you on not being in favor of vouchers. Quite bluntly, the reason that private schools do so well is that they are exclusive i.e. they can kick bad kids out and the tuition is a sort of litmus test for how much the parents care about the kids’ education. Flinging the doors open to poor kids from questionable homes and failing schools is not going to lift those kids up, it’s going to tear the schools down.

    (I realize that the above statement is ripe with generalizations but I hope everyone gets my point.)

    The answer has to be competition within the school system. I don’t have all the answers on how to create that but one thing I have seen work with my oldest daughter is that she attended ‘traditional’ schools within the system. These schools are sort of like magnet schools except they emphasize an overall curriculum and tough discipline over one specific subject. At these schools there was a real sense of elitism. The kids were told that they should be proud they made it in and should be thankful for the quality education. I’ve always said that filling a kid’s head with a little bit of ego at that age can be helpful. It’s the same thing that made the Catholic high school i attended a success. My problem is that i don’t know how to create that elitism in EVERY school. In order to be elite, someone else has to be at the bottom.Report