Monday, August 20, 2018

OK: Some Bad Solutions To Real Problems

Oklahoma is loaded with all sorts of educational problems, or maybe just one problem (their legislature doesn't want to spend any money one education) that creates a hundred symptoms.

But last week, Don Parker, retired chief information officer, public ed volunteer, and student of social science and government at Harvard-- he neglected to mention that he's a big private investor and a twelve-year director of KIPP charter schools in Tulsa, which ,maybe is what he counts as his volunteer work-- had a few thoughts to offer in the Tulsa World.

This guy.

He opens strong-- "Our schools are not working..."-- and it's all downhill from there.

... continuing to call for change that does not address the problem condemns children to disproportionate levels of poverty, incarceration, dependence on public assistance, drug use, teen pregnancy and all kinds of things that are not good for anyone.

Yup. Schools are causing all the problems of society. We need, says Parker, a new direction.

Parker admits that teachers do need to be paid more fairly. But Oklahoma doesn't need more teachers, because technology. You may be able to guess where he's going, but let me walk you through his swell argument.

First, we don't score well on international tests. You probably heard something about this, quite likely because we have never, ever scored well on international test comparisons, in all our years of economic and national success in other areas. It's almost as if international test comparisons don't tell us anything useful about a nation's trajectory. Parker also wants us to know that Oklahoma is at the bottom  of the nation's barrel, and Tulsa is at the bottom of that barrel.

Teaching is heroic. And Oklahoma schools still suck. For some reason those two thoughts share a paragraph. But (next paragraph) Oklahoma can fix everything with tools already at hand.

See, there's "no debate in this country about whether the quality of the teacher matters. It is inarguably the No. 1 determinant of student learning."

Except-- oops-- it's inarguably NOT the No. 1 determinant. Even reform types admit that it is the No. 1 factor in school, but that out-of-school factors are even larger. But Parker is going to pretend he doesn't know that. Instead, he wants to make Oklahoma the national leader in public school performance by being the leader in attracting, retaining, developing and empowering the best teachers."

Can you guess why?

Well, there's another problem. You attract teachers, says Parker, by paying them better than anyone else (not, apparently, by empowering them or listening to them or treating them with respect-- nope, just throw money at them). But "how do we do that in a state with one of the lowest levels of education funding in the country?"

If you thought the answer was "by increasing the funding level since that factor is completely within legislative control," go to the back of the class. The answer is much simpler:

The only way to pay teachers twice what we pay them today with the same level of per-pupil state funding is to have them teach twice as many students. We don’t want more 10th-grade math teachers, for example, we want the best 10th-grade math teacher in the district to teach math to all 10th-grade students.

See, Parker just took a college class via "a robust live streaming infrastructure," so we just do the same with schools. I once ate a steak in a restaurant, so I think I know how my son could cook spaghetti for 100 people at a convention.

Can the best 10th-grade math teacher in all of Tulsa Public Schools be teaching math in three or four different classrooms at the same time? Yes, with the help of some assistants and enabled by technology.

If only I had a robust live streaming infrastructure here on my desktop so that you could all hear the sound of my palm smacking my forehead. Parker, it turns out, is one more guy who doesn't really understand what happens in a school. Parker is one more amateur kibbitzer who doesn't, for instance, understand the importance of connection and relationship in teaching. Never mind the 10th grade math class that falls apart because it requires high school sophomores to behave and respectfully get their lessons from the stranger on the tv. Imagine a first grade class being taught by someone who's not in the room, who can't smile at or hug an individual student.

The more you think about the idea, the dumber it is. How much pay would it take to make a high school English teacher excited about grading 600 essays in a week. How effectively can student construct a classroom discussion between 600 students who aren't even in the same room. How effectively can a teacher create the important human connection with several hundred students over an internet connection?

Distance learning has been around longer than the internet, and there's a reason you don't hear about it happening very often-- because it's effective only in very limited and specific situations. The rest of the time it's like trying to eat a steak through a paper straw. Parker is imagining, I guess, that teaching is just standing there and dispensing knowledge lecture-style, so students just need to be able to see and hear the dispenser. And yet, it is not 1962.

It's the bane of education. Somehow everyone is allowed to declare themselves an expert in the field and offer their advice. Parker's advice is dumb, and the Tulsa World was dumb to publish it. This kind of thing does not help advance the education debates in any meaningful way, particular in a state like Oklahoma.


  1. I was at a conference in Chicago many years ago, and a presenter proclaimed that "as we speak, distance learning advocates are meeting in Detroit [I think] to plan how to increase the number of distance learning courses on every campus in the country. I asked a simple question: "why do they have to meet?" Everyone in the room laughed; some applauded. Well, everyone but one.

  2. And, of course, that assumes that teachers WOULD get paid more with huge class sizes. Doesn't happen in Utah. Our classes are 35-45 for core classes, and we don't get paid more. In fact, I barely make more than in 2008.

  3. Maybe Tulsa World published this crap so that everyone could see how ridiculous this man really is? He is a stupid human being....stupid, stupid, stupid!