Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Better Schools Dialogue: Part II

Continuing a dialogue between me and Dmitri Melhorn on the subject of what a better school would look like. Part I was his opening statement; this will be my response.

As I mentioned in our correspondence, I think your piece actually lumps together a board assortment of issues. I'm going to follow the general flow of your essay rather that trying to create some coherent whole here.

I'm hugely sympathetic to this story of the child who flunked sitting still, because, as I've told elsewhere, my own son went through a bad experience in kindergarten because of a teacher with unrealistic expectations about how a five-year-old boy should behave. In the case of my district, there was a program for post-k, pre-first grade who had come out of kindergarten not quite ready for first grade. It restored his relationship with learning and school. 
That said, I find the idea of calling students "ahead" or "behind" not very useful, and the idea of measuring learning in "years" just absurd (how far can we break that down exactly—are there months of learning? Days? Hours?) What is 0.5 years of learning? 90 days' worth? Would that be the half from Sept-Jan, or is it the second half of the year? 
I also have to ask, "ahead" or "behind" what? Education measurement always runs into the same problem-- until we have a parallel universe-hopping time machine, we'll never know how you would have fared in a different educational setting (though I don't think that much of anybody thrives in a kindergarten classroom in which one can flunk sitting). 

I always happy to see what Sir Ken Robinson has to say about pretty much anything, but it is impossible for me to take Eric Hanushek seriously. I find his "research" asserting that six-year-olds with good teachers will grow up to be richer than their alternate-universe counterparts flimsy and unconvincing. But let's stipulate that we disagree on Hanushek but agree that in a good school, students would have good teachers. 

When you say that "this scholarship helps explain parental behavior," your implication seems to be that all this spending on private schools and lessons and tutors etc is because parents don't think their kids' schools are up to snuff, but I don't think it's that simple. First, I suspect some of these parents aren't looking for adequacy, but for an edge; in other words, my child may be getting enough algebra at school, but I want my child positioned to beat the other students, so a better school program will never make me happy, because I want my child to more better algebra than her peers. 
The other question, which might make a good one for us to discuss back and forth, is what level of service do we think schools should demand for all students. IOW, all students should get a good algebra program, but should the taxpayers be funding a big jazz and tap dance program? We've been having this argument about schools forever—what qualifies as a "frill" or an "extra"? And I suspect you and I would agree that in many cities, we've got folks deciding that X is not a frill for my students, but is absolutely unnecessary for Those Students.  
I do absolutely agree that to parents with few resources or students with special needs "the system can feel like a brutal and hostile bureaucracy. " And I don't think the bureaucracy that has sprung up around managing charter-choice systems has changed that. But I agree that it would be great if something did. 

There's a lot packed in your thoughts about your better school. First, the assumption that schools today are the same as the schools "we saw when we were students." I read many people who rail against public schools who seem to believe that schools are locked in amber and that their old school is still clanging along exactly as it did decades ago. I'm in a unique position myself-- I teach at my old high school, and as I tell my old classmates, things have changed a great deal. Point being that schools which differ from the schools "we saw when we were students" already exist-- and they exist on the exact same spot of ground where the schools you attended students once stood.
 Second, tablet-based personalized education—I've spent many blogs explaining what I think the issues are there (and I teach at a one-to-one school and would never turn the clock back, so I'm not a knee jerk luddite on this). I see many huge huge problems with the rosy description you offer (e.g. what if a student's style of learning is to not use a tablet?) A good adaptive, AI-driven engaging personalized education system doesn't exist-- and I don't believe it ever will. Certainly not in an economically viable form.
What you're describing is competency based education, and I don't think that dog will hunt. Nor should we want it to. I think a great school is human centered, built around human relationships and human community. That is not what computer-based CBE promises.
The food thing is-- well, at the very least it's an issue I don't recall reading about in much ed reform writing. But I have my doubts about feasibility. I teach in a rural area, with lots of local farming—and I don't think it would ever be economically sustainable here. 

You suggest controlling costs by using free content from the internet; I cannot imagine how you can have a robust, fluid and responsive adaptive tablet-based system that is based on free content from the internet. Your adaptive CBE system will be based on the content and software sold to you by the vendor. The part about lowering building costs by always being outside actually made me laugh—here in NW PA we have all four seasons and rank second only to the Pacific Northwest in fewest days of sunlight a year. I promised my students we would go sit outside for class the first day it was warm and not raining. I made that promise about two weeks ago—still hasn't happened.  
On the other hand, I believe that learning to deal more effectively with vendors is dead on.  My wife's school district tends to fall for whatever sales pitch they hear. Meanwhile, I work with a woman whose pre-teaching job was in the advertising department for a major newspaper chain. When sales reps start in with "We can only offer this much support for your level of purchase" or "I'll only be able to hold this price for a few more days..." She just levels her gaze and tells them what they are going to offer us and how long they are going to wait for our call.  Educators are way too polite and friendly with sales reps. 
But your overall notion that there are places where we could cut fat out of the costs of school are precious. There isn't a district in the country that hasn't cut costs in every way they can think of. That, actually, is part of the problem (along with policy mavens who insist that we shouldn't throw any more money at education).

I'd ask you how you think innovation is blocked in public schools, because I think this is an underexamined sticking point in the education debates. There seem to be many conversations in which reformsters think that teachers and other educators are just being stubborn, while teachers and educators think that reformsters are suggesting ridiculous things. Ed reform advocates seem to consistently underestimate the value of teacher experience and expertise. Ed reformers and, I think, teachers themselves tend to underestimate the effects of Reform Fatigue. I've been teaching for almost forty years, and there has never been a year when someone (with no actual classroom experience) hasn't been telling me about a Revolutionary Idea that was going to Change Everything. 

You suggest that venture capitalists and venture philanthropists can help, but I do not see how. Venture folks expect returns on their investment, either in terms of money or a system that conforms to their notions of How Things Should Work. Achievement is swell. I'm much more interested in sustainability. What happens to Edpreneur High School when the Gotrox Venture Capital Group decides it's no longer in their interest to keep propping up the EHS budget? And how does the community voice factor in when the pursestrings are held by unelected guys in some boardroom?

As you might expect, I'm interested in teacher-led initiatives (though I'll cop to a bias that a venture started by someone who put in two years with TFA is not my idea of a teacher-led anything). I think that teachers could get themselves up and leading a little more often, though some districts are infinitely more hostile to teacher initiatives than others.

And in your last paragraph, when you call for support and commitment from many parties, I think we agree. I'm not, for instance, dead set against charter schools, but I am dead set against the charter laws that pretend that we can run multiple schools for the cost of one. Whatever program you want, get the real funding for it, and be honest with the taxpayers about it.  

So that's kind of all over the place. Let me close with a counter-proposal for some characteristics of a better school system.

Locally controlled-- the school must be accountable to its local community. A local school must be done with the community, not done to the community. As soon as you have folks coming in from outside telling the community what they need, so just hush up, we have a problem. That said, local control has to be balanced with some checks and balances. When local control says "Let's get those black kids out of our school" or "Let's stop spending money on anything that's not football," we have a different sort of problem.

Fully, equitably, and sustainably funded-- a quality education for all students, without any corporate strings attached.

A full and varied education under one roof-- deciding you would rather pursue science instead of the arts shouldn't require a complete change of schools. I'm a liberal arts education guy-- everybody under one roof should be exposed to a full range of human study with plenty choices for specific focus.

I could go, but this already rambly. I will run the response when it arrives.

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