Small Schools are Beautiful
“We must create an apocalyptic sense of urgency about Education in this country and then take drastic measures.” ~ Shafeen Charania
So as John put it recently, since it “appears to be Say Controversial Things About Public Education Week” I’d like to just discuss what I see as my own ideal system of schools and, to narrow that down a bit, my ideal school. I’ve been reading the recent joint-report [.pdf] released by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute (weird, I know) and I want to say some things about that in a future post.
First of all, as I’ve mentioned, I’d like an educational system that relied more on autonomy than on strict guidelines – if testing is inevitable to gauge performance, for instance, then so be it, but I think we need to find a way to make these tests informative rather than formative. In other words, use them as guides but place much less emphasis on their importance as a metric of educational quality. At most they should serve as red flags for under-performing schools rather than as a metric for teacher performance or student learning. Obviously some subjects are better for testing than others, but we shouldn’t place too much value on those subjects (like math) over other subjects (like music) just because they are easier to measure. Yglesias takes an interesting look at the Finnish model of testing, which might be more palatable:
What Finland does, testing-wise, is that the national government draws up lots of tests. Tests of different kinds of subject matter that are appropriate for children of different ages. But it doesn’t require any nationwide assessment testing. Instead, what’s done on a national basis is that there’s a matriculation exam after ninth grade and there’s also non-publicized testing done on a statistical sample basis so that the government can keep track of what’s happening.
So what are all the tests for? Well, the local governments who actually run schools can — and typically do — order tests administered from time to time in order to check up on what’s happening. So while there isn’t a formal system of test-based accountability, in practice something similar is happening. For example, there was a test in Helsinki of Finnish language ability among I think sixth graders last year. The results weren’t publicized, but they were shared with the principals of Helsinki schools. We visited a school that got poor results on this test, and so the principal and his staff responded by drawing up an action plan to turn things around.
All of this may be difficult in the really impoverished inner-city schools, and those schools because of the impoverishment of their communities face far more problems than most. Obviously in a school or district that is very corrupt and dysfunctional there may be need for real intensive federal intervention – going way beyond just holding back federal dollars. Usually those areas have corrupt political institutions that make reform extremely difficult. The teachers unions in some areas also play a role in stifling healthy reform. It really depends on where we’re talking about, which is why a national conversation on education is so difficult.
So what we need is a higher teacher to student ratio – classes really shouldn’t pass the 15 student mark. Twelve would be better. But beyond that schools should never be allowed to get so big – schools need to retain their own theme, community, etc. and big schools simply can’t achieve this. Student bodies should be kept as small as possible (within reason). There is a lot to be said for the “one room schoolhouse” model, though I think that ship has mostly sailed and we need to look more at five-room schoolhouses and other small-school models. If this inhibits certain extra-curricular activities, schools can join forces to say, put together a good football team – though I think the smaller schools would give more kids a chance to be involved in more activities. The magnet approach would also direct more kids to their various niches (and many charters are magnets even if they don’t label themselves this way). I’d also like a highly connected school system, which made use of technology and open source software to connect schools to one another, share ideas, strategies and so forth. More on this idea of autonomy and connectivity later.
I’m also in favor of involving professionals in the teaching/learning process, for one because it’s important to get communities involved in our schooling, and also because they have a lot to offer. A lot of people think certification gets in the way of this – and it often does. So higher education institutions need to work together to come up with graduate level “fast-track” programs to get people from various fields involved as teachers. To make all this a success we’re going to need to hire lots of teachers, and a fast-track approach for temporary instructors should be an option.
So let’s break it down:
1) Testing should be limited if it is used to serve as a “red flag” for failing schools. More intervention is needed in those schools than simply giving or withholding funds.
2) We need to hire lots of teachers to get the ratio down, and one way this can be approached is through “fast-track” programs.
3) School choice is important but the charter option is better than the private model for a number of reasons we can discuss later. (In DC, for instance, many voucher schools are converting to charters).
4) There are other topics I want to go into more depth on, including trade schools and education models in Canada, Sweden, etc, as well as early childhood education (read John’s post from today as well as Yglesias on the Finnish model). I prefer a sort of means-tested universal access to preschool. It simply can’t hurt to open up these opportunities to kids, but that shouldn’t mean subsidized day-care for people who can afford to pay for it. My ideal in regards to early childhood care is a country that allowed one parent to stay home for those first few years – and we can learn a lot from the Nordic model of maternity leave on this matter, which I think of as a “family values” issue far more than most of the hot-button “family values” issues normally put forth.
I aim to continue this education blogging for a bit. Rest-assured I’ll burn out sooner or later.
UPDATE: I realize that the likely outcome of too much federal involvement is too much overhead, too many strings, etc. and in the end local control is very important – but – this leaves the question of those localities that have simply failed their children. What about them? So this is difficult. I worry also that all the autonomy in the world will fail if the funds can’t be found – and that funding will be hard to come by. Waste is also difficult and important to weed out, but again this can be stopped at any level of government. Thus the importance for competition – though the vouchers still worry me because, well, private/public partnerships just seem way too easily distorted, corrupted, etc. So I’m going to have to keep writing about this because I’m far from decided on any of these things. There are no clear or easy answers.