The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part one)

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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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  1. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    voluntary national standards plus a voluntary national curriculum … a coherent and consistent set of standards and expectation

    If we don’t already have this, what the hell *has* the federal D o’ Ed been doing for 30 years?Report

    • Avatar Leah Good in reply to Kolohe
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      says:

      Of course we don’t have this. It’s against federal law to set a national curriculum. The Common Core State Standards now were developed by state governors and other interested parties and are entirely voluntary (hence, Texas, Vermont, and Alaska declined to sign up).Report

  2. Avatar Christopher White
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    says:

    I’ve never understood how breaking up the teacher’s unions is supposed to improve education. If that were true, then Texas, where I teach, would rank with the top states. There are no teacher’s unions in Texas because it is actually illegal for Texas teachers to collectively bargain. Needless to say, we are one of the lowest ranked states in country.Report

  3. Avatar Stuart Buck
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    says:

    You shouldn’t trust Ravitch. She misinterprets, misrepresents, and ignores scholarly literature right and left. See http://jaypgreene.com/2010/04/05/ravitch-is-wrong-week-day-1/ (and all the other posts linked there)Report

  4. Avatar Stuart Buck
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    says:

    “Across the country, charter schools fair much worse than traditional public schools on national tests”

    That is completely false. The best studies show that they’re about the same on average, not much worse. See, e.g., http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG869.pdfReport

  5. Avatar Dan H.
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    says:

    I’ve got to agree with Stuart here, Ravitch was wrong before but she’s also wrong again.Report

  6. “But choice undermines the public education infrastructure. A charter school may theoretically be open to any student, but unless that student can provide their own transportation they’re pretty much out of luck.”

    Every district is different but our district has come up with a formula that I believe works pretty well. We essentially have 4 choices

    A) Reside schools (based on where you live)
    B) Traditional schools (high discipline and academic standards, similar to parochial schools)
    C) Magnet programs (specialized programs in a varity of subjects, each hosted at a specific school)
    D) Optional program (honors programs hosted at high-performing schools)

    Options A-C all provide guaranteed transportation for any student attending, regardless of where they live. Option D requires parental transport.

    Option A is usually taken by parents who genuinely like their resde school and are happy with their kid being close by or in a few unfortunate cases by parents who simply don’t care where their kids go.

    Options B-D crate a lot of competition within the district for students and the schools really promote their programs well. What I’ve also seen and written about on my own blog is how this creates a sense of elitism among the students because they take ownership of the program they chose with their parents and feel accomplished for having made it in. I’ve seen it with my own kids and it reminds me a lot of the feelings of pride I took in the private prep school I attended. That sense of elitism should not be under-estimated.Report

  7. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    ” Businessmen and politicians, often bringing in six-figure incomes, trying to implement top-down reforms on teachers and administrators without asking for input or buy-in, and punishing schools and educators for not meeting their arbitrary standards.”

    A: if you’re going in with the assumption that teachers have spent the last thirty years screwing things up, then why would you listen to what they had to say?

    B: People talk about “arbirtrary standards” as though they’re totally disconnected from reality, but aren’t we talking about “read words” and “write coherent sentences” and “do math”? Why is “teach to the test” such a bad thing when the stuff on the test is what you’re going to school to learn how to do?Report

    • Avatar trizzlor in reply to DensityDuck
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      says:

      Outside of math and beyond elementary school, accurate assessment of student performance is incredibly difficult.

      Anecdotally, in my high-school it was commonplace for an English teacher to spend half the year teaching essay writing “to the [state] test” and then tell the students never to write like that again. One teacher got hired in large part because she was Texan and had worked as a grader for many of the large testing agencies. She then explained to us how a two page essay is graded in less than a minute, how to emphasize and underline specific sentence-types that indicate understanding to the grader, how to include a real or invented personal experience to show connection to the text, etc.

      Read any high-school test prep book and the strategy is the same: understand how the test is constructed and graded; memorize a series of devices that try to exploit these schemes. The Princeton Review has created an entire character representing the average test-taker and teaches you to avoid making his “mistakes”.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to trizzlor
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        says:

        It sounds like you’re saying that the problem isn’t “teach to the test”–the problem is that the tests aren’t testing the right things.

        If it’s basic skills you’re after, then why isn’t rote learning an acceptable practice? I know how to multiply because I memorized the multiplication tables. I memorized them by repeating them over and over again. I learned to type the same way.Report

        • Avatar Pooh in reply to DensityDuck
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          says:

          Can one learn to read or write by rote? Does one learn basic algebraic or geometric reasoning by rote?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pooh
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            says:

            Just because one does not learn Calculus by rote does not mean that multiplication theory is the best way to start with first graders.Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Pooh
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            says:

            One develops hyperlexia.Report

            • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Christopher Carr
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              says:

              Christopher Carr and BlaiseP, sorry, this is way off the topic, but since you both are very skilled polyglots, I was wondering if you might be have some advice for learning a foreign language. I’d love to learn German–I’m sure you’ve seen those Rosetta Stone commercials and was wondering if you find them to be in any way helpful. They’re quite expensive and didn’t want to throw my money away at something that would ultimately prove to be worthless. Vielen Dank!Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Heidegger
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                says:

                I wouldn’t say I’m a skilled polyglot by any means. I’m proficient at reading Latin and speaking and reading Japanese. I studied Latin for ten years in school, and I have lived in Japan for the last four years, so I should have some sort of proficiency in these languages.

                I have no experience with German, or learning to speak any Indo-European languages for that matter. (Learning Latin is all about sentence parsing, rhetorical analysis, and translation; translation is more about first language proficiency than it is about proficiency in the language being translated.) But, in my experience as a language teacher, the kind of system offered by Rosetta Stone is a really expensive, dumbed-down and dressed-up version of how European nobles used to learn each others’s languages during the Middle Ages and Modern Period until recently, which is by direct structural/functional comparison with one’s native tongue. I generally like this approach, but I think you can find more bang for your buck with something basic and cheap than with Rosetta Stone.

                As far as my learning how to speak Japanese, this structural/functional approach, combined with regular (unskilled and shameless attempts at) conversation, proved most fruitful for acquiring the tools to engage in basic and intermediate level conversation. After that, it’s read, read, read.

                So, I guess my advice to you for learning German would be to get a bare-bones phrasebook on the cheap which has sentences in English on the one side and the corresponding sentences in German on the other; read and study it until it gets too difficult; use what you’ve recently read and studied in some kind of one-on-one conversation class or language exchange (This is of course the crucial part); and then repeat until you’ve finished that particular text and are ready to start reading books in German.

                I would specifically avoid any systematized approach that does not revolve around free and unpredictable conversation, and I would stay as far away as possible from any mass-marketed product, half the value of which lies in the branding. By this I mean generally avoid textbooks or listening series with sexy names like “German for Dummies”, “Eight-Minute German”, or “German for Busy People”.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Heidegger
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                says:

                My German was an adventure. I arrived in Germany, got lost for 15 minutes in Frankfurt and realized I had to learn this language, pronto.

                I got Langenscheidt’s Worterbuch, with the flexible plastic covers. My next purchase was 501 Verbs in German, fully conjugated. You should obtain both, the Strutz 501 Verbs is essential.

                The town of Kitzingen am Main, where I was stationed, had endured the US Army for 40 years and the German Army for at least 80 years before us. Every time I’d try to use the little German I’d learned, the cynical (if indulgent) Germans would respond to me in English. This simply wouldn’t do.

                So I began a search for a Gasthaus which would speak to me in German. I found it, not in Kitzingen, but out the back gate of the Kaserne, down the road about two klicks, a humble concern called the Bienenwabe, the Bee Hive. I would go there with my dictionary and verb book, every chance I got, buy a copy of the Kitzinger Zeitung newspaper, painfully gloss the headlines and text, assisted by the excellent beers of Tucher. The understanding was this: I would keep coming if nobody spoke a word of English to me.

                In time, they took pity on me and I was invited to Stammtisch, the table reserved for regulars. I learned to speak German from shy, Catholic winegrowers and developed a taste for Frankenwein, not much seen in the USA, most of it is sipped up not far from home. To this day, I have had German people laugh at my German, for it is clearly Frankish country German, as distinctive as Texas English.

                I do not know how old you are, or what you wish to read in German, but if my guess is good, you want the poetry. Heinrich Heine and Schiller are good starting points, though German keeps producing fine poets to this day. To keep nibbling German in bite-sized chunks, keep the 501 Verbs on your nightstand and read one verb a night. Nothing is so useful as a pageful of a verb, properly conjugated in every possible tense, allowing it to settle in, knowing with perfect confidence it’s forming up good concrete.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Heidegger
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                says:

                By the way, you had an open shot at the quarterback and blew it. Why opt for the term “skilled polyglot” when you could say “cunning linguist”?Report

              • Avatar Heidegger in reply to Christopher Carr
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                says:

                Heh heh heh–I really did miss that golden opportunity, Christopher!

                Christopher and BlaiseP, I can’t thank you both enough for your replies–very, very helpful, and you’ve saved me about $600 which means I owe you both a case of your favorite beer!

                And wouldn’t you know, just today was an article about how learning a second language can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by 5-6 years! How about that. Forget the beers, I might owe you both the car of your choice!

                Thanks again–can’t wait for this new adventure. Oh, I’m just doing this for the fun of it-is that good or bad? I mean as an incentive. I’ve pretty much been a self learner my whole life, so hopefully learning German won’t prove to be an impossible task. I’ve been thumbing through a German grammar book–wow, LOVE German grammar. Have a problem though with the sex of articles, definite and indefinite—die, der, das. I’m not sure what the logic is in how they are used or denoted. Maybe just have to memorize all of the nouns and articles
                Thanks again, gentlemen–much appreciated!

                Heute abend gehe ich vielleicht zum Biergarten!

                Bis bald.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Heidegger
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                says:

                There’s no way around learning all the articles of German nouns, hence the portable dictionary.

                More troubling, it seemed to me at the time, were the applicability of similar verbs. Bringen-nehmen, legen-stellen, lernen-studieren and the worst of all, machen-tun.Report

              • Avatar Heidegger in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                Ah Blaise, more trouble! Machen-tun. Would they be interchangeable? They both seem to mean doing something or other. Is “machen” one of those modal auxiliaries?

                I better get to work on my German. And here I thought I’d be able get through the entire works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in a couple of weeks. Now that would take at least TWO months!

                Regarding the 100% vs 0% tax rates, I just knew there was a name for that thought exercise–it’s called, The Laffer Curve. They both end up pretty much in the same boat. Which is zero. If every penny of your earnings goes to the government, why would anyone go to work? Conversely, if not a single penny of your earnings was taxed, the whole economic structure and system would crash. Both extremes end up with zero government revenue. I hope I got it right.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                Machen and tun only seem similar: Tun und machen sind Sachen zum lachen. There is no pattern and seemingly no rules to either.

                And it doesn’t always follow that tun involves doing. Es tut mir leid == I’m sorry.

                It gets even odder the farther south you go: Austrian is famous for overusing tun. Ordinary German asks Was machst du?, more equivalent to “Whatcha doin?”. But if you find your dog chewing on a shoe or your girlfriend rifling around in your email, it becomes Was tust du, jetzt!, a genuine desire to know what the hell’s up, when you actually know what they’re doing.Report

        • Avatar Boonton in reply to DensityDuck
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          says:

          I’ve tutored for over ten years on the side so I’ve been a spectator to both actual learning (students trying to understand college statistics, algebra and accounting) and ‘teaching to the test’ (helping students drill for the SAT). You’re right that there’s an overlap. In order to do really well on the test you’re going to have to learn at least a portion of the basic concepts in the subject. But you’re not right in the idea that the two can be made to neatly overlap. This is why most college teachers do not build their courses around a single all important final exam (logically they should if you could craft your test to so perfectly overlap the subject…if that was the case colleges should simply make the class optional and charge people simply to take the final exam) but usually multiple exams and projects with the largest rarely being more than 40% of the final grade.

          I think the problem was summed up by George Bush in that unfortunate question “Is our children learning?”…. The fact is there is no easy simple way to measure this. Standardized tests are helpful in that they provide for an objective measure that can be applied on a mass scale but that’s it. Push them too far and what you end up doing is simply paying attention to the metrics based not on what information they reveal but how easy they are to measure, you’re like a person who only knows how to check the oil in the car and will only do that and nothing else.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to DensityDuck
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      says:

      D.Duck shoots and scores:

      “…but aren’t we talking about “read words” and “write coherent sentences” and “do math”?

      Except for those who are ineducable, Mr. Gach’s “D” group. We’ll teach them to Speak Truth to Power.

      http://www.rfkcenter.org/sttp

      http://thepartyofknow.com/2010/12/13/breitbart-ny-schools-teaching-speak-truth-to-power-curriculum-featuring-van-jones/

      It’ll come in handy when they become teachers.

      althouse.blogspot.com/2011/02/day-of-rage-hits-wisconsinReport

    • Avatar Ryan in reply to DensityDuck
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      says:

      You’re going to school to learn to fill out ovals with a no. 2 pencil? I think teaching to tests is bad because it serves to divorce learning from application. What do we learn math and science *for*? To be good little plebs who recite back what we are told? Well then tests are probably great. Is it instead to innovate and create? Well, then tests are probably counter-productive.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Ryan
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        says:

        From what I understand, the point of school is to train people to do a mundane and boring task for 50 minutes, take a 10 minute break, then do that again a couple of times, break for lunch, then again with the mundane and boring tasks until it’s time to go home.

        At the end of 12 years, they’re ready for a manufacturing job.Report

  8. Avatar Uncular1
    Ignored
    says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I still feel like a child’s success or failure at school (particularly early on) has more to do with the parents than the educators themselves.
    Do they emphasize the importance of education? Do they read to their young children? Do they make sure homework is getting done? Have they created an environment at home that can translate into success in school?Report

    • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Uncular1
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      says:

      Parents play a role – to a point. It’s more important when the kids are younger, just burning that desire to succeed into their DNA and teaching them an interest in learning. At a certain point though, in my experience around the time they start middle school, it’s up to them and their teachers.Report

      • That’s kind of sad actually. Parents should be the main force in any child’s education. They’re the ones that have the most invested in it, and they’re the ones who know the child the best. Sure, at some point in time kids have to compete with other kids (or they can cultivate unique interests); but scoring high on the 4th grade MCAS is going to have trifflingly little to do with success in life.Report

        • Chris, My experience is that once kids hit around middle school the ability of parents to be the prime motivator slips dramatically. Parents still play an important role by providing encouragement and resources – but the kids have to have developed their own drive by then. Speakng strictly of learning it’s also hard for parents to assist in a lot of the day to day stuff as the subject matter gets more complex.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor in reply to Uncular1
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      says:

      Not to mention that finding a solution for kids with bad parents should also be an important part of education reform. That could mean more direct interaction with parents, or it could mean in-school mentoring of the student to make up for what the parents should be doing.

      Just because the student is not in a positive learning environment 24hours a day doesn’t mean the school administrators should just throw up their hands.Report

      • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to trizzlor
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        says:

        Trizzlor – the trick there is structure. Lots and lots of structure. These kids have very unstable home lives and a studies show they perform better when they have structure at school. That’s actually why I think that charter schools don’t work as well as one would hope because they are tinkering around with things too much. A good Catholic school-style system would be ideal.Report

        • > A good Catholic school-style system would be ideal.

          Speaking as someone who went through a Catholic school system, I can attest that the structure there does help kids who lack structure at home (not that this was my personal experience).

          There are some other pretty big weaknesses in the model, mind you, but for kids who need a structured environment, they do the job quite well.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pat Cahalan
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            says:

            The whole “separation of church and state” argument is one that bothers me, certainly with regards to the vouchers debate.

            The Catholic Schools are not right for everybody. They would not have been right for me.

            However they are very good in circumstances that other models fail at… and I think that a lot of education reform is re-inventing a wheel that is sitting, quite nicely!, over there.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              They were not the right fit for me, either, but the un-rightness didn’t do permanent harm (lasting, yes, but not permanent).

              I was just bored a lot. To be fair, I would have been bored a lot at most other educational institutions that were around when I was a sprogling.

              I do think the variance in models nowadays represents a major step forward for everybody, to be sure.Report

      • Avatar Uncular1 in reply to trizzlor
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        says:

        Trizzlor,

        No one is suggesting that administrators ‘throw up their hands.’ However, more interaction with parents (probably after regular school hours) and in-school mentoring means you have more and more resources funneling out to the problem students. If schools had unlimited resources that wouldn’t be a issue, but they don’t so it is. This is a big reason that public education has the problems it does. Being public means you have to take on all the children in your district, you can’t pick and choose. So the excellent students have to wait around for the others to catch up. It’s a difficult situation, one that can’t be boiled down to easy solutions. For public education to succeed there has to be a real commitment from the public part of the equation. I don’t have any real answers here, honestly, other than the idea that we are responsible for the education of our children, not the schools, administrators, or teachers.Report

        • Avatar trizzlor in reply to Uncular1
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          says:

          I agree with what you’re saying, I just think there’s an important difference between who is “at fault” and who is “responsible”. The fact that the parents are at fault doesn’t absolve us, as a society, of our responsibility to pick up the slack (as best as we can). In the same way that we would for a child that’s abused more seriously. Sorry if I’m missing your point and dumbing this down, the how part of the question is obviously much more difficult.Report

  9. Avatar Dan H.
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    says:

    Uncular1,

    You’ve broken the cardinal rule of all discussions of education reform, it can never, under any circumstances be the fault of either parents or students!Report

    • Avatar Uncular1 in reply to Dan H.
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      says:

      I know, it just seems silly that such a major part of a child’s education is always left out of reform discussions.Report

      • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Uncular1
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        says:

        That’s probably because it’s impossible to control what goes on at home. Schools have to focus on what they can control.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          says:

          That’s probably because it’s impossible to control what goes on at home.

          We just need the right people in charge who are willing to make the necessary balances between the public good and selfish people claiming things like personal liberty.Report

        • They should keep in mind, though, that the things they cannot control are still factors.

          If you build a curriculum without taking into account your local parents and their demographics, you’re going to build a lousy curriculum.Report

          • I can’t imagine how a curriculum addresses the lack of educational interest that many low-income parents take and the general challenges of living in these settings. At the end of the day 2+2 still equals 4. After-school programs are certainly helpful – but i don’t consider that ‘curriculum’.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          There’s nothing wrong with the schools that couldn’t be fixed with a better class of student.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling
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            says:

            It seems to me what’s needed is a better class of parent. Parental involvement in a child’s education is the only meaningful indicator of success.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to BlaiseP
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              says:

              I was with a sixth grade class last week. I’m not sure how much parental involvement helps when kids are (apparently) years behind where it seems they should be.

              (I don’t blame the teachers, either. I think that there is a systems problem.)Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Mike Schilling
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            says:

            What’s needed is a better class of student, and the only ones that have real latitude to accomplish that are parents.

            At the end of the day, learning is work. Could you imagine having to spend your 8 hour work day trying to convince a several classrooms of students to swallow a spoonful of horribly tasting medicine using nothing other than words?

            I see four category of students.

            A: Those who are really interested in learning something, whether it’s physics, literature, or metal shop.

            B: Those who are uninterested but can be “inspired,” thus becoming like group A with the right support/nurturing.

            C: Those who just won’t like learning and will have to be coerced into it with carrots or sticks.

            D: Those who can’t be coerced into it and should leave the education system early on.

            I think the aim of any education policy should be to encourage the first group and inspire the second. The last two, whatever their relative sizes are (and I’m not sure what percentage they are) will only be affected by parents.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach
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              says:

              I don’t know, I think finding a place for D-people to go is a societal issue. I also think at least some headway was made with C with no-pass-no-play rules. There’s also been some success with carrots (read a book, do a report, get a buck initiatives). Unless that automatically puts them in B-group?Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Trumwill
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                says:

                I don’t know what you do with group D either. The very, very small conservative in me says they drop out after sixth grade if they want, in conjunction with making GED prep programs more available so that they can always go back if they want. Maybe you’d look into making apprentice programs available (if that’s possible/feasible).

                On the whole I’m pessimistic about the group D lot, but optimistic that it’s actually a fairly small lot.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach
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                says:

                Trade school was what I had in mind, most optimistically. Also, teach them what life skills you can. People that could care less about biology might be at least mildly more interested in a basic class about money management. Maybe have an “early exit” curriculum where you teach them a few things like that and give them an idea of what life out there is going to be like for them without an education. I doubt you’ll change any minds, but one last shot wouldn’t hurt.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Trumwill
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                says:

                It used to be that the “D” group could go to trade schools–or, failing that, go out to a factory or go back to the farm. Neither of those last two is an option these days.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck
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                says:

                I agree. Why?

                … because of …

                (I suspect my answer is different from yours, just looking to see where this takes you).Report

              • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                says:

                Whether he answers or not, I’d like to hear yours.Report

              • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                says:

                I’m running up against a large chunk of thought on multiple threads. Maybe it’s time for me to submit a guest post.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Pat Cahalan
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                says:

                You agree…with what part of the post? You agree that the perceived effectiveness of schools was due to allowing the “D” group to drop out? Or you agree that the “D” group can’t drop out anymore?

                This is a bit late so I’ll address each individually, rather than expect a continuing conversation.

                For the first: Students in a class learn at the pace of the slowest learner. And if the slowest learners can be removed from the class, then the entire pace of learning increases.

                For the second: You can’t remove the slowest learners from the class unless they have somewhere to go. In times past, students who dropped out could work at jobs that required nothing more than “lift, carry, don’t chop your foot off with the ax”. These days, jobs like that are done by machines or Mexicans.

                I’m not suggesting that we should burn down the Caterpillar factory so that uneducated teenagers have something to occupy them, but I am saying that maybe the apparent decrease in American educational performance doesn’t have anything to do with NCLB, or educational policy at all.Report

        • Avatar Pooh in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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          This is both true and misleading – there’s a lot of outreach schools can do to reach outside of schools, but as with all things, it costs money to do well.Report

  10. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    I enjoyed her book immensely as well, though I’ll have to look at some of the things a few commenters have posted regarding her credibility.

    She had this article in response to “Waiting for Superman,” though, which I thoroughly enjoyed (her response, not the movie):
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/

    Like a lot of these issues, the only role for the federal government is to provide funding, and maybe some basic standard (like a graduate examination?) Localities are able to do everything else better. The only disadvantage they have is large discrepancies in tax bases from district to district, and even from state to state.

    Ultimately the, the real culprits are students. There are plenty of bad teachers, but even the bad ones could teach someone who is attentive, cooperative, and willing to work, something. The real problem isn’t that bad teachers don’t know anything, but rather that they don’t know how to get other people to do things they don’t want to do (i.e. trick students into learning/studying, when that is the farthest thing from most student’s desires, and most family’s priorities.).

    Maybe once we find out a way to teach this ability, we can start exporting it abroad in our nation building efforts in trying to get other local populations to do things they don’t want to do (democracy/liberalization/etc.)Report

  11. Avatar Trumwill
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    says:

    My main issue with what you’re saying (“Go Educators! Down with tests! Down with charters!”) is that the implication of “teacher autonomy” here is the demand that we put, more or less, unconditional faith in educators. A standardized curriculum limits autonomy. Gauging progress through testing limits autonomy. Anything I, as a (future) parent might want in terms of accountability, seems to be a problem.

    None of this is an issue if the school is good. I went to a good K-12 program and have few complaints. If I still lived there and they did away with standardized tests, I would probably be comfortable with that. I think they – the teachers and their administrators – have their eye on the ball.

    But this isn’t true for a lot of schools. I don’t want my kids anchored down to a failing school out of neighborhood solidarity. I don’t have faith in my ability to turn things around. I do have at least some faith in my ability to see a school is failing and – if given the option – choosing a better one.

    Maybe it’s a school that attracts great teachers by giving them a lot of autonomy. Maybe it’s a school that has met success marginalizing the teacher autonomy in favor of a rigorous curriculum. Maybe it’s a Catholic-like school with a lot of structure because that’s what my kid needs. Maybe it’s a more free-wheeling environment.

    If I’m fortunate, all of the above will be available at the local school. Even if it’s not, we will have the resources either to send them to private school or homeschool. A lot of people are not so fortunate, but their kids may have different needs, too. Their expectations of their kids may exceed what the local school or local teacher thinks is appropriate.

    But what I’m getting from you here is a solution that is part one size fits all (all kids in the neighborhood should have the same needs and expectations) and in other part a desire to conform the needs of the children to how the teachers want to teach.

    I don’t have any animosity towards teachers (except insofar as they vehemently disagree with the above). I’ve been subbing the last few weeks and my respect for them has only grown. But there are limits to the degree to which I can be asked to trust in any group of people with their own set of interests.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Trumwill
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      says:

      “s that the implication of “teacher autonomy” here is the demand that we put, more or less, unconditional faith in educators.”

      I’d be fine with doing performance pay but allow teachers control of the class.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach
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        says:

        I’m actually skeptical of performance pay, as such. I think standardized tests are better as a tool than as something to directly influence pay. I think perhaps using them as an indicator of how much autonomy a teacher should retain. If it’s demonstrable that the kids are learning, then don’t fix what isn’t broken. But take a much closer look at those where it does not appear that kids are learning. Somewhat problematically, I admit, I think that this requires administrative judgment calls in addition to raw test scores.Report

  12. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    We could also just spend the money it requires to do thorough evaluations, including writing/interviews.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach
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      Leaving aside that my teeth grit when I hear “if only we would spend the money…”, evaluating whom? Teachers? Students? And what do we do with the results? Who determines what the results are?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Trumwill
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        says:

        Exactly right. There are a few good answers here, though I doubt they will find much credence in the procrustean sausage factories.

        When I was a new parent, I took a course in parenting. I had no useful examples of good parents: though my own parents were my heroes, I loved them mostly from afar. I am the product of boarding schools: my parents’ careers came first.

        In this course, I heard an excellent maxim: “Catch your children doing something good. Every kid is good at something, encourage that and the rest will come along nicely.”

        It works. Three children later, each has specialized into something they loved, for it was encouraged as soon as I spotted it. The KJV Bible says at Proverbs 22:6, “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” I went back and looked at the Hebrew, that “train up” business is the verb to prune a plant, especially a grapevine. A better translation would read “prune a child according to that child’s own nature, for when he is old he will still be that way.”

        I would contend all this “evaluation” is bass-ackwards. For all the money we spend, we are not looking at each child for what that child does well. The current paradigm is insane: we are looking for failure, not success.Report

  13. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    My intuition, and you can correct me on this, is that while we disagree on specific points about what a general education should consist of, there is probably a sizable consensus on some large parts, like perhaps, Math and Letters, i.e. arithmetic and reading/writing/speaking.

    within those two small but rather consequential subjects, I’m not sure exactly what would be the difficulty with determining how learned a child is in those areas.

    So for instance, if a federal, state, and local evaluator (appointed by each of these institutions respectively) would do a two hour interview with each student. In addition to general interview questions, there would be a 45 minute essay part, and a 3o minute math part.

    I know that still wouldn’t be ideal, but what do you think would be unreliable about the results and to what degree?Report

    • Avatar Pooh in reply to E.C. Gach
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      says:

      That’s a WHOLE LOT of time (meaning money) spent on evaluating though. At the simplest, a lot of the problems with NCLB is that it mandates too much evaluation at the expense of education.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach
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      says:

      Sorry if I am coming across as combative. I sometimes do on this subject. Yeah, I don’t know that we are that far apart. I do question the feasibility of doing this with every student in the country, but I would be quite amenable to a pilot program with randomly selected students (maybe a lot of students). Compare the results of the interviews with what they got on a standardized test and what they’re getting in class. It would be, if nothing else, enlightening.Report

  14. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    I sometimes think if you look at the defense budget, and then imagine those resources for education, there would be trial and error, waste and success, but wow.

    For instance the problems of accurately evaluating students. Yes, it is subjective to some degree, but my understanding was that the biggest problem was that all evaluation occurred through standardized tests. And that is only the case because it’s cheaper and more uniform. If you want to have the information, I think it’s getable, it just costs time and money. Now if people think the information isn’t useful, that’s one thing, but to say that it’s not possible to get is a stretch.Report

  15. Avatar Boonton
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    My thinking on this has been greatly influenced by the ideas Judith Rich Harris has put forth which have basically been summed up as ‘parents don’t matter’, and neither do teachers.

    What drives kids is peer groups and fitting into them. This is the one variable that works consistently in explaining outcomes while numerous others like birth order, parenting styles, income, etc. do not give results that are anywhere nearly consistent. We are animals that instinctually feel there’s safety in numbers hence we will seek out a group to belong and adapt to be accepted by it. If that group considers good school performance to be a norm we will adapt to that, if it considers the opposite to be cool, we’ll go with that too.

    IMO, this is why we get positive results for pilot programs that fail to materialize when scaled up. Take a school with 50% of kids in an average group, 25% in the ‘high performing nerd’ group and 25% in the ‘slacker burnout’ group. Imagine you open a special charter school that takes 20% of the bottom group. The kids divide themselves into groups again with so many opting for performance. Now the school has worked a miracle, kids that were bad are now suddenly good! But it’s not a dynamic of the teaching methods of the new school, but the sociology of human groups.

    That also explains why many other things sometimes appear to be causative variables that simply don’t pan out. Take birth order. A group has three kids. They notice the first kids are very conservative, good students and don’t get into trouble. They notice that middle kids tend to be good students but veer somewhat liberal in that they are more willing to be adventurous. Young kids veer towards irresponsible behavior. Hypothetical explanations are offered (the first kids were raised by strict parents who were new to parenting, the youngest kids feel they can fall back on older brothers and sisters etc.). But then they don’t pan out when tested against the larger population. But that’s because what’s driving matters is the peer groups. The younger kids all seem the same way because the younger kids all hang out with each other!
    The most valuable thing teachers can do then is be aware of this dynamic and head off the development of a subgroup that defines itself in terms of low performance.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Boonton
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      says:

      I’ll admit that peer groups is definitely one factor, but many of my closest friends growing up were the super disruptive problem kids who were forced to see psychologists and take pills to pay attention and were constantly getting in trouble throughout high school, (they’re all in grad school now for some reason.), and I continued to do exceptionally well in school the whole way through despite generally not getting along well with the other “smart kids”. I think in trying to create a universal narrative, you’re forgetting just how complex sociology and education is. There are different factors for different kids with different weights which determine how well each does in school.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Boonton
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      says:

      There’s some merit to Judith Rich Harris’ approach, but I question some of her assertions. Here I must resort to anecdotes, but these were my three children.

      My first house was very small, we called it the Dollhouse. My second home is an enormous thing. The children of the neighbourhood were welcome: there were many parties. The parents would bring their children over, shaking their heads, “I can’t believe you’re having the party here.”

      “Where would you rather our children have their parties? In some abandoned house, with drinking and drugs and God knows what going on? Here at least we can keep an eye on them and let them socialize. Come on in, hang around for a while.” And they would, too, parents socializing with parents, their children with each other.

      I was, in some respects, a very permissive parent. In other respects, I demanded more of my children than other parents. I told my kids when they reached puberty. “Five hundred years ago, you would be pairing off and getting married at this age. Of course, you would live to about the age of forty and you wouldn’t know your grandchildren. In every biological respect, you are becoming an adult. Between now and the age of 21, society will refuse to treat you like one. This dichotomy will not be observed in our home. You act like an adult, I’ll treat you like one. But what happens in this home stays in this home: your friends are welcome here at any time of day or night, insofar as they abide by the rules of this home.”

      Kids did come to our home, often in tears, sometimes bleeding, dozens of them over those years. Those kids had somewhere safe to run to, instead of running away to God knows where and to what fate. Many times I’d end up on the phone with their parents and many were the minivans in my driveway the next morning, picking up those kids. Those kids were welcome in my home. I remain friends with some of them, well into adulthood now.

      If children are guided by their peers, they are guided by example. We grow in the image of those we love. If the peer groups for my children shaped their lives, that peer group hung out in my home and played basketball in my driveway. Parents do have a role to play in all this and if Judith Rich Harris is to be believed, it is because parents have abdicated their roles in the lives of their children, alienating them at puberty, refusing to see them as biologically mature if not emotionally ready for the world at large.Report

      • Avatar Boonton in reply to BlaiseP
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        I think there’s an interesting economics question here. How do you evaluate job performance when you have a job that needs to be done by someone but there are simply no easy metrics of success? Teaching, I think, is one such job. Yes a very bad teacher is obvious and a very good one may be obvious but most are in the average range and the question there is who is on the better side of the average bucket and whose on the worse?

        I don’t think this question has a good answer and as a result we are veering towards a bad answer (whoever gets the bigget boost in test grades wins!). The implication is that the system as it’s currently instituted might be the best that we can reasonably do. Namely assuming that tenue and time served is the mark of a good teacher with a portion of evaluation reserved for merit as formulated by test scores, peer reviews and supervisor reviews but only a portion.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Boonton
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          says:

          If we are to reduce teaching to an economic proposition, we should at least consider the pay/benefits packages for teachers versus their non-teaching peers.

          Teachers have, generally speaking, great benefits and lousy salaries. This does not encourage the go-getter to enter the profession of teaching at the K-12 level: the go-getter will take any job but teaching. Inversely, many people enter the teaching profession as a calling: such people burn out quickly. My wife, a tenured teacher for 15 years, left her position in a middle school for a job as an administrator in the local community college, this after she had been assaulted twice in the same year. Most K-12 teachers do not last even that long.

          After long and heartfelt discussions with my own wife, who wanted to stay, I have come to believe teaching is rather like the military. I considered staying in for All 20, but left when I realized I was just marching in place. There’s no future in teaching, any more than being a career NCO. You’ll never have any mandate. As you rise up the ranks, most of your job is keeping the doo-doo from rolling down onto your troops, filling out paperwork and containing crises from below.

          All this Good Teacher / Bad Teacher dialogue is essentially pointless and counterproductive. There are good soldiers and bad soldiers, and most of that’s a direct result of command policy.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Boonton
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          says:

          P.S. … and, like soldiers, teachers will never make any money.Report

        • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Boonton
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          says:

          Student satisfaction seems to me like the best metric.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr
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            says:

            How would that work, in the light of mandated curriculum? You’d be surprised how little leeway a K-12 teacher has in terms of what can be taught.Report

            • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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              says:

              Admittedly, it would be pretty difficult to evaluate K-12 student satisfaction. It’s conceivable that a certain class of students actually wants to learn, and teachers should respond to the demand of these students. The problem really is that the system implicitly discourages such a teacher-student relationship to begin with, so any evaluations we come up with are just going to evaluate conformity to a given system. Counterintuitively, the solution may be to get rid of standards altogether, to resist the baseless urge to centrally collect and manage information, encourage widespread experimentation within certain reasonable bound, observe best practices as they exist anecdotally in terms of teachers satisfying student demand, and spread best practices nationwide.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr
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                says:

                At the risk of sounding quixotic, here’s my solution: we organize most rote learning according to the old SRA paradigm. Each student proceeds at a given level until he masters the material, at which point he’s immediately promoted to the next level. Think of it as a video game, where each level grows progressively harder. Much of it could be reduced to a simple video game. There is no classroom instruction, other than a few 15 minute expositions: the rest of the time is spent in front of a computer.

                So an arbitrary student whizzes through addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. He gets stalled at fractions. We know he’s stuck because he’s getting most of his answers wrong, we’ve got feedback from his use of the “game.” The teacher can intervene at that point, showing the student a fraction is a relationship between two numbers, no different than division at a fundamental level. The student breaks through this little obstacle and proceeds along until he gets stuck at the Binomial Theorem, where the teacher again intervenes.

                The current model resembles nothing so much as a badly organized mountain climbing expedition. Everyone’s roped together, the weak and the strong. About halfway up the mountain, everyone’s dragging along a few frozen corpses and the stronger climbers want nothing more than to be untied from the rope, to proceed along at their own speed.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                I’m a language teacher, and that is more or less the model that works best in my experience, although with languages, you generally gotta do it without the computer.

                Nothing pisses me off more than some bureaucrat insisting that all the students learn the same thing and that we teach to the 20th percentile. I could imagine students hating sitting in front of a computer screen being force-fed math, but not any more than I see them hating being taught something that’s too easy for 80% or them and too difficult for 20% of them.

                At least with individual computer-based rote-learning of required concepts, the student is in control. He’ll probably even unintentionally gain some valuable metacognitive problem solving skills and develop patience. In a traditional classroom environment, these kids just feel bored or helpless.

                Also, the efficiency gains from such a system in terms of time spent teaching and learning mean that students can spend more time socializing, discussing ideas, making stories, music, and art, and exercising.

                I can’t really say I see any downside to that actually.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr
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                says:

                When I set to learning Japanese, my little son was interested in it as well. We found a frequency list of the most-commonly used characters in Japanese and learned them in JLPT order.

                Now, I wouldn’t teach French that way, but by God I’d train on avoir, être et faire before I proceeded any farther.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                It annoys the crap out of me to type the same comment twice, but here it is. Google Chrome is far superior to all the other browsers in my opinion, but it would be nice if there were autosave for comment threads. Alas…

                Learning spoken Japanese and learning written Japanese are two different animals entirely. Learning to speak is best accomplished by ummm, speaking, I think.

                Written Japanese is different from written English from the perspective of a non-native speaker, since the former encodes pictographic representation, ideographic representation, and other mnemonically enhanced exemplars of Chinese genius. My favorite Chinese character is ?, which combines the pictographic representations of “string” and “rice field” to mean “thin”. I really never tire of learning Chinese characters.

                Written English on the other hand encodes sound, which makes conditions like hyperlexia not only possible, but widespread. I see it all over the place in my Japanese students, who have never had to imagine the concept behind a phonetically represented verbal construct as Chinese characters have already systematized all the imaginative work.

                This taking for granted the systematized assumptions of one’s own language has led to an English education system here that stresses rote learning and even encourages hyperlexia. (http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=12304) It’s not the Japanese’s fault that their English sucks, but the fact that it’s taught like this speaks to the authoritarianism of bureaucrats that Mr. Kain describes in this post. If the Ministry of Education just listened to teachers, things would be qualitatively better. This, I think, is the most important step towards really reforming education all over the place.

                But, the sheer complexity of this particular obscure problem in the darkest corner of one of the least important subjects should make this problem truly daunting for anyone who really wants to see improvements in education.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                Looks like my Kanji didn’t show up there. But, seeing as you’ve spent some time training the JLPT, you’d be familiar with “hosoi”.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr
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                says:

                In a sense, this isn’t exactly force feeding. My father did his Master’s degree with a man named Frank Laubach, whose approach to literacy and numeracy was called “Each One Teach One”.

                Students did not merely learn, they learned to teach the material they had learned.

                The old One Room Schoolhouse used this method to a large degree: the older students helped the younger ones.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                I’m particular to the way doctors train. (You’re not gonna muck around when lives are at stake.) And I’m a big fan of any educational systems which incorporate “watch one, do one, teach one.”Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to BlaiseP
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                says:

                And personally, I think teaching, translating, and technical writing has done more to broaden my horizons than any other experience.Report

  16. Avatar Kyle
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    says:

    My broad comment is hello eternal return theory of education, all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Which is, in essence why I’m not particularly convinced by much here. We’ve been reforming education for the better part of public education’s history and for the most part most reforms are reactions against some gross deficiency or problem.

    You can’t solve big problems by solely focusing on eliminating one comparatively small problem after another. Method A of raising money is bad, local schools are good, local schools are bad, comprehensive schools are great, charters are bad, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately for American public education and the nation’s youth (cue Jaybird) there are a lot of comparatively small problems, that are easy to focus on.

    So a few assumptions that ought to be challenged.

    Spending: The idea that American schools are chronically underfunded and that more spending will mean more resources and better outcomes is fallacious on all accounts. Spending is wildly inequitable so it’s less a matter of raising education spending than it is better allocating current spending and any prospective increases.

    From 2000-2010, Federal spending on education increased by 99.2%.
    Per pupil expenditures in the decade 1994-2004, increased by 23.5% and from 1984-2004, 49%. In historical terms, recession aside, we are spending more and more on education and education spending is at an all time high. Yet for all of our increased investment in education, test scores have not increased and the achievement gap persists, the latter is important insofar as it reveals the highly stratified distribution of educational gains.

    While in the case of individual schools, such contributions may be helpful, or in DCPS’ case helpful for one district, at the same time they’re little more than a drop in the bucket w/r/t education spending. The article you link to highlights an amount of $4 billion/per year, which is 3/4 of 1% of total national spending on education.

    Moreover, it’s one thing to say trust FDA inspectors, doctors, or other licensed professionals whose professional obligations are a matter of law, of involve independent licensing and involve oversight and personal liability. The same is true for certain kinds of skilled workers, where there remains some objective degree of what constitutes the knowledge and skills necessary to do a job. However, such a consensus not exist in education so whom, Erik, do we trust?

    The question of whom do we trust also reminds me of the issue I have with Ravitch’s treatment of the reform movements in San Diego and New York. You mention top-down pedagogical reform but those reforms were administered by professional educators. So why should a local, non-elite teacher be more preferentially trusted than a nationally recognized, elite educational professional?

    In any case, whether you’re talking about funding, undermining neighborhood schools, authoritarian systems limiting creativity in the classroom and an overriding focus on a few issues, none of these seem particularly attributable to the choice movement as the system you criticize today is in many respects the same system that existed pre-choice.

    The major problem with Ravitch and her analysis is that she assigned too much credit and expectation to charters, thinking choice in itself would increase student performance. However, the public school pro-choice movement (like its reproductive rights counterpart) is about removing stifling barriers.

    My final challenge is that it strikes me as not at all odd that the cities where stories of the effect of the power of teachers unions’ come from New York, LA, and DC, where there remain strong newspapers with the resources to cover local news. It’s easy to dismiss them as an anecdotal few when there probably isn’t much quality local coverage that comes out of Schenectady, so really we don’t know.

    What we do know, however, is that in places where people say “everything is fine, no reform needed” children can’t read. Logically, that can be reconciled with the truth that for most people, most things are fine. Still, it’s an area of social justice that would be widely criticized for its failures if the entrenched interests were private corporations and not public institutions and employees. (see also, health care and the unemployment)Report

  17. Avatar Simon K
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    says:

    When I realize that some people on both sides of every debate in American politics see it as being about race, I want to cry.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Simon K
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      says:

      Why shouldn’t this debate have serious racial implications given the mountains of statistical data that breakdown neatly but not perfectly along racial lines?

      Moreover, the extensive history of de jure and de facto racial discrimination in this country has left a lasting legacy of racially disparate outcomes, I wouldn’t agree that everything is about race, but surely race is a component of many issues.Report

  18. Avatar Brandon
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    says:

    The subtitle of her book seems like only a half-truth. Yes, if you approach reform of education with ONLY testing and choice as your two goals in mind, you will fail miserably. But that doesn’t mean choice and testing CAN’T be integrated into a larger framework of school reform. I mean, SURELY, a little friendly school competition and giving parents the right to CHOOSE their schools in shitty neighborhoods where they may only have 1 or 2 bad schools (that are affordable) and a few that are expensive (and thus out of reach) is a good idea, right? In theory, anyway.

    Plus, you can’t discount out of hand the magnitude of studies which DO seem to support the contention that at least MINIMAL school choice IS a positive thing for schools in the long run. Hell, Europe and Australia have had school choice as part of their systems for YEARS, and they’re no lightweights! We definitely need a broad approach, but I’m not so sure her thesis that testing and choice “undermine” education is accurate. Doing everything BUT those 2 things WILL undermine education, though.

    Then again, she IS a former public education bureaucrat, so I’m not that surprised.Report

  19. Avatar Brandon
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    says:

    Plus, we REALLY need to loosen the zoning standards and break up the fucking school districts. I mean, as long as the kid can get to school on time, why is it anyone’s business if you “live nearby”?? You’re telling me that as a suburban kid I couldn’t go to the high school of my choice (which was supposed to be market before we moved), but kids from the INNER CITY (probably an hour away) get free busing there?? NO WAY IN HELL! Treat the students equally.

    Why do schools need districts anyway? It seems to me like all it would do is centralize things too much and breed complacency. Let each school do its own thing, if you ask me, and figure out what works best. Then again, there may be the whole “economies of scale” argument, which I understand, but that doesn’t justify HUGE districts with something like 20 or 30 schools… right? Maybe limit it to 5 or 10 schools per district?Report

    • Avatar Mike at The Big Stick in reply to Brandon
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      says:

      Brandon – 20-30 a schools is relatively small. For example, Jefferson County Public Schools where I live has well over 200 schools and Louisville is a medium-sized city. I’m a believer in the district model. Since the districts are tied to the tax base it makes sense for the districts to be linked to local governments. I also believe we need MORE standardization, not less. Smaller districts doesn’t get us towards that goal.

      Also, there IS mobility within school districts in some places. See my example in comment #11 above. My oldest child is bused over 20 miles to her school because it’s a traditional program and they guarantee transport from anywhere in the county.Report

  20. Avatar Brandon
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    Marquette*Report

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