Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Public Education Dream

As much time as I spend writing about what I think people get wrong, it's important to keep some focus on what I want to see done right. So let's look at the major issues in education these days and consider what the positive outcome would be in a perfect world, and what would be a hopeful outcome in the real world.


Turning schools into a competitive marketplace is toxic for education. It does not drive improvement and, as currently practiced, it does not empower parents, but instead more commonly disempowers them.

In a Perfect World...

Choice pushers like to say that no child should be trapped in a failing school just because of her zip code. I say that no child should have to leave her neighborhood just to find a decent school. People don't want choice; they want good schools.

So in my perfect world, every child is able to attend a great school in his own neighborhood, with his neighbors, near where his family lives. Every school receives the funding and support it needs to be excellent.

In this world...

No more building a well-funded, well-supported school as an excuse to abandon the school already existing school. If we must have choice, let it be between excellent schools with, perhaps different focuses, or with the goal of improving a city and community through creating a diverse learning community.

But all schools must be fully funded and fully supported. No more "Well, a thousand students are trapped in this failing school, so we're going to invest millions of dollars in creating a great school for 100 of them."


I have written a ton about this, so I'll be brief (ish).

In a perfect world...

If you want to set up a charter school, it must be fully funded, but not by stripping funds from public schools-- if you want to open a charter school, you'll either have to get private funding or a tax hike to cover costs. It must be fully transparent and account for every cent of public tax dollars that it accepts. It must be locked into a binding commitment to stay open for at least two decades, whether it is losing money or not. It may not in any way limit the students that can attend there, and it must backfill every seat that opens up. It will answer to an elected board from the community it serves. The feds will undo the laws that turned charter schools into an investment slam-dunk guaranteeing that you'll make your money back even if you suck. And if you think this is too restrictive and makes it unlikely that you would ever want to be in the charter business, then good. Get the hell out of the education "business" and let those of us who are serious about it get back to work.

In this world...

Yeah, pretty much the same thing. We need to get the hedge funders and educational tourists out of the education biz. If we could get back to the original conception of charters that would be great.

But at an absolute minimum, charters that accept public tax dollars must provide wholly transparent accounting for those dollars. They must be subject, in some way, to the control of an elected school board. And the zero-sum game that insures that every charter gain means a public school loss must stop.


In a perfect world...

It just stops. It's done. We don't do it, at all, ever. Period, full stop.

In this world...

The BS Tests are uncoupled from any stakes at all. They don't affect student standings or promotion. They aren't used to evaluate teachers or to rank schools or to affect anybody's professional future. "But how will we hold teachers and schools accountable?" someone cries out. Here's the truth that some folks just refuse to see-- the BS Tests do not hold anybody accountable for anything except test scores, and they do so at a cost to the real goals that most real humans expect from their teachers and their schools.

And once you do all of that, the market pressure is on test manufacturers to come up with tests that are actually useful, and not junk.


In a perfect world...

There are none.

Yes, I know that on this point I am a bit further out there than even some of my fellow public ed advocates. But I see no value in or use for national standards of any kind. Trying to keep all teachers "on the same page" is a fool's game-- the teachers who don't need that kind of help will only be hindered by such requirements, while the teachers who supposedly do need that kind of help will not be improved by just following a handy standards list.

So, no. I don't see any use for national standards of any sort (though I recognize that many reasonable people do). So...

In this world...

Anybody who wants to can publish sets of standards, and those standards can battle it out in the marketplace of ideas. If actual working teachers and educators say, "Hey, these are pretty handy and definitely on point. Let's adopt them for our school or district," the congrats-- your standards win. If they languish on a shelf somewhere gathering dust because nobody anywhere is impressed, then too bad.

Note: It is totally cheating to try to do an end run around schools by going to, say, legislators and saying, "Hey, there, person who doesn't know jack about schools and teaching. You should totally force all the teachers in your state to use these standards."

In other words, all standards are optional and subject to local adoption. If somebody comes up with really good ones that spread like wildfire across the state or the nation, that's super. But no forcing the standards on schools.


With no national standards or BS Test, how will schools be held accountable? Well, we really need a long conversation about "accountable to whom" and "for what," because I do question the need to be accountable to legislators far away busy cutting in deals in back rooms we're not allowed to see while being financed by rich interests were not allowed to know about. Is there some reason for me to be accountable to those guys? I have my doubts.

But accountability to the taxpayers who pay my wages and finance my classroom. Absolutely, without a doubt. For me to say, "Just hand me a chunk of money and trust me blindly," is not okay.

In a perfect world...

I actually have a plan for this. You need to first figure out what the community wants to have measured, then you have to find the least intrusive way to measure it. There are two basic ways to approach the issue of accountability-- I can look for a way that I can find out how you're doing, or I can look for a way for you to prove to me how you're doing. The second way is worse, because it requires me to stop doing my actual job in order to convince you that I'm doing my actual job.

So in a perfect world, some assortment of trained professional educators visit my classroom as much and as often as they like, watch me work, talk to me about how I work, talk to my students about how I work, and develop some informed opinion about how I'm doing. The purpose of the evaluation is, of course, to help me do better.

In this world...

A system that is focused on improvement and the lifting up of classroom teachers, and which deals with far more than how well students score on a single standardized math and reading test. I like the idea of peer review, but I'm also aware that in some places it has become a twisted mess. But let's use something that helps teachers become the best teachers they can be.


The destruction of tenure and seniority in teaching serves no purpose in the improvement of US schools. Removing teacher job protections is about creating a more cheap and servile workforce so that school a "CEO" has fewer obstacles to making money and doing what he wants to do.

In a perfect world...

There is tenure. There is FILO. Administrators have the competence and cajones to use the tools that they already have under current tenure systems to discipline and remove teachers who are incompetent. There are no long, convoluted processes, and school boards do not negotiate away their existing management powers.

In this world...

Yeah, there's no reason that we can't live in a perfect world on this one.


In a perfect world...

All pathways into the profession are controlled by teachers (just as in professions such as law and nursing). College programs must be accredited by teachers, and those programs have far more solid basis in child development and content area knowledge than in dopey methods courses by professors who haven't set foot in classrooms for umpteen years. And we would definitely get rid of the trend of teaching teachers how to just unpack standards, download lessons, and just generally act like Content Delivery Specialists.

These pathways would require time spent in real classrooms and a period of internship at the beginning of a career, to lead to a teacher certification process that included endorsement by a panel of master teachers.

Nobody anywhere can just put up a shingle and declare themselves a "teachers trainer," so no more TFA or Relay fake teacher training schools. All teacher education must be certified and accredited by a national board of master teachers, selected by their peers and not some government bureaucracy.

In this world...

The university and government agencies who certify teachers would solicit and follow significant input from actual teachers. States would not allow their desperation for filling teaching positions to lead to "alternative" paths that dilute the profession. Of course, if we fully funded and supported all schools, and we offered teachers working conditions that followed market requirements instead of a desire to be cheap, we'd have far less trouble recruiting teachers.


But this is plenty for starters. What do you think? What is the picture of the education system we should be trying to achieve?


  1. Surprising for you, but you didn't specifically address humanity. I mean, it's an underlying subtext in each of your points, but I think we need to be explicit. Children are young, immature, developing human beings. Teachers are more mature and developed (although still developing human beings) whose job it is to guide those younger and less developed humans to find their own best path to becoming competent, aware, engaged, empathetic citizens of a democracy. Any vision for public education has to start with viewing both students and teachers as human beings developing and interacting in a larger world of human beings who all share the same planet which, at the moment anyway, does not have an escape hatch.

  2. As you say Peter, the goal should be a well staffed, well resourced neighborhood public school. That is every child's right and every citizen's obligation and it is doable through empowering teachers and parents and disempowering education tourists. So very well said as usual.

  3. How can you have a great neighborhood school for every child with the socioeconomically balkanized housing patterns we see in this country?

    1. 1) Address the systemic poverty that is eating the country

      2) Give each school the proper support and resources it needs from the state

    2. 1) Yes. This is a necessary condition for any chance of success for 2). That is the rub.

  4. Schools need to be fully integrated. As long as the economically better off are all in certain schools, and the economically worse off in others, there will be a large disparity between the quality of those schools.