I have been reading a lot of Education Reform material this week. Some of their blogs are even busier than ours. When I read things by the more responsible and less hysterical members of that community I see a lot that makes sense to me. In fact, I see a lot that I could have written myself.
I also read a lot of stuff that makes no sense at all.
So let's try to sort through this and determine if we can't find some common ground.
Education Reform have two primary agenda items: charter schools and "teacher quality". I can't support either of these, but I understand their concerns. Perhaps their concerns can be addressed through some more responsible structures than the ones they are proposing. They also seem to be deeply interested in education technology, as am I, but, again not in the same way as the more extreme members of that movement. There is a responsible middle there also.
Charter Schools. I have spoken with thoughtful people who support the idea of Charter Schools and can hold up their end of a calm, reality-based conversation about them. They and I have found common ground on this single point: the only difference between Charter Schools and regular public schools is that Charter Schools are free of district-level interference. Charter schools are not a cure for bad teachers, bad principals, bad students, bad culture, or bad families. For all of the talk that piled on top of Charter Schools, everything from union-busting to innovation, the only real element that defines a Charter School is freedom from district level mismanagement. They are not a cure for bad district management, but a path around it.
How does district management go bad? It goes bad when it misunderstands its mission or suffers from mission creep. Seattle Public Schools is a prime example. Rather than running a lean, flat management structure, Seattle Public Schools has a bloated administration full of Directors, Executive Directors, Assistant Directors, and Project Managers. All of them pull down six-figure salaries and have highly paid staff as well. Someone seems to have forgotten that no one in the JSCEE does anything that teaches students.
The central administration should only have three narrow missions and they should hold themselves only to those. They should take care of all of the non-academic elements of operating the District (transportation, food service, HR, budget, finance, legal, enrollment, facilities, purchasing, etc.). Seattle Public Schools has recently reformed these operational departments and made a lot of improvement. More improvement is possible. With regard to academics, the central administration should only have a few curriculum folks to set the required content (the knowledge and skills that students are expected to acquire) for subject and grade, to facilitate collaboration among teachers across the district, to provide a bit of subject-area specific coaching and consultation to teachers, and to consult on the selection of materials and professional development. The District should similarly have experts for special education, ELL, advanced learning, intervention, and other special needs populations. District level teaching and learning department should not be a lot of people. Seattle Public Schools is trying to do too much here; they issue mandates instead of advice. That needs to stop. What needs to start, however, is a critical role of the central administration which is completely absent in Seattle Public Schools: quality assurance. The District doesn't intervene when schools spiral down. Or, if they do intervene, they make things worse by more tightly enforcing compliance with a system that doesn't work. Real quality assurance would look a lot different.
What would schools look like if they didn't have to follow District academic mandates? Could they re-form their classrooms to provide more individual instruction for the students who need it while overloading other classes? Could they extend their day, week or year? Could they spend some of their budget on providing the sort of enrichment needed to fill the opportunity gap? I find it very hard to believe that teachers and principals, given the authority to do as they like, would follow the industrial model of age-peer classes of thirty students all getting the same instruction in the same way at the same time.
Charter Schools represent an effort to get out from under the heavy-handed academic mandates that fall down on schools from the District level. They are also an effort to provide some quality assurance through non-mandatory enrollment. I get that. I see that. But that only evades the problem; it doesn't address it. It provides a helicopter rescue to some children and abandons the rest of them to their doom. I can't support that. If the Education Reform folks see bad district management as the problem, then let's see them talk about that and take action on that. They never talk about quality of the work done by district administrators. They don't cast district administrators as the villains of their "documentaries". They don't propose legislation to improve the evaluation of district managers and make them more accountable.
Teacher Quality. All of the talk about teacher quality needs to stop until we can know what we are talking about. The Education Reform folks talk about it like there is some universally acknowledged measure of teacher quality, that teacher quality can be quantified, and that all teachers can be ranked. That's simply not true. Without that - and they are without that - nearly all of their teacher quality talk is empty. I don't dispute the truth that there are some teachers who should either get better or get gone, but it is the principal's job to identify them and take action. If there is a bad teacher in a school then there is a bad principal there as well. Besides, I think that "teacher quality" is over-rated. The Education Reform folks like to go on about how critically important it is, but let's remember that they can't identify the quality teachers so their data about their impact is meaningless. Moreover, we all know that the determinants of student achievement are dominated by home-based influences.
A more fruitful discussion would be the evolving role of the teacher. We no longer need teachers as the dispensers of information. There is a shift from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side". The teacher should help students find information, put that information in context, make sense of it, make connections to it, and work collaboratively with other students in the class. Now that technology can do a MUCH better job of dispensing information, the teacher can delegate that work to the technology (whether print, video, or electronic), and focus instead on the work that only the teacher can do. It is a poor teacher who simply reads the textbook aloud at the front of the class. The teacher should engage the higher order cognitive skills, respond to individual student needs, build a positive culture in the classroom, foster social skills and collaborative skills, and motivate. Shouldn't those be the measure of teacher quality?
As we think about the determinants of student achievement, the role of motivation looms large. Teachers, therefore, should focus a lot of their time and effort on motivation. Teacher quality, if there is such a thing, is largely a measure of how well they can motivate their class.
Education Technology. When responsible people discuss education technology they are thinking of things like flipped classrooms and hybrid programs in which it is teacher AND technology, not teacher OR technology. The good idea is to identify the few - and there are just a few - things that the technology can do better than the teacher and delegate those tasks to the technology and to allow the teacher to focus on the things that only the teacher - a real-time, present, interactive, responsive, reactive and pro-active, creative, improvisational professional with a relationship with the student - can do. Technology is great for teaching skills and building them. It's great for providing students with individualized instruction. It's great as a source of information. Social technology is improving, but I wonder if it can ever compete with collaboration in the real world where we have tone of voice, a huge catalog of non-verbal communications, and, for lack of a better term, vibe. See, I can't really communicate it this way, but you know what I mean.
The Education Reform folks aren't winning us over by yelling at us or accusing us of supporting an entrenched status quo, and we are not winning them over by accusing them of segregation, privatization, or union-busting. I believe that we can engage the calmer, more reality-based members of that movement and find common cause with them. Speak kindly to them about what they hope to achieve with charter schools. Ask them what a charter school can do that public school cannot do. Explore their ideas about teacher quality. Ask them what a great teacher does and ask them if those practices can be defined and measured. Understand how they want technology used in a classroom and refer it back to their understanding of what a great teacher does and how well technology can do it.
Am I making any sense at all?