Sep 282010
National Day of Action in Defense of Public Ed...
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Education Nation, NBC’s weeklong look at education in America, kicked off Sunday with a Teachers Town Hall. Involving a live audience of a few hundred and another 6,000 logged in online, the meeting provided a forum for teachers and others to voice their opinions on the issues affecting education. Many shared their private experiences and perspectives in an open dialog looking at everything from teacher recruitment and retention to tenure, charter schools, global competition and parental involvement.

The Town Hall event comes on the heels of the release of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which many argued places teachers in an undeserved bad light. Several people voiced the opinion that teachers are being unfairly attacked, that they were being made the scapegoats for the growing shortcomings of our education system. Most topics enjoyed shared support from the crowd and guests on stage, but tenure stood out as a single point of contention. Even amongst teachers, the debate over tenure revealed some who argued that it protected “bad” teachers and others who strongly disagreed.

If the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is any indication, most Americans seem to agree that, regardless of tenure, teachers aren’t the major problem with education. While 58% of those polled believe that education needs either a “major change” or “complete overhaul,” only 30% cited teachers as part of the problem. And the only group that a majority of people, 53%, identified as part of the problem was elected officials, with parents next highest on the list at 50%.

Regardless of who’s to blame, there are few who believe that the system doesn’t need reform. Asked to assign letter grades to the system, only 19% of those surveyed would give either an A or B. This is good news in that the American public seems to have a fairly good handle on the topic. Of course, it’s also bad news, since they’re correct. The U.S. now ranks 24th amongst the 37 Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) nations in mathematics, 21st in science and 15th in literacy. As many in the education community are inclined to state, “the system is failing our children.”

But is it accurate to label a system that only graduates 68.8% of its students as merely “failing our children?” Not to downplay the significance of such a statement, but holding the problem in such a perspective is more than a little limiting, and may actually provide a window into certain important aspects of the problem. To suggest that the impact of the failure is isolated to students is to misrepresent the true customer of education and to minimize its destructive effects upon the nation.

In the United States, between the federal, state and local governments, over $1 trillion will be spent on education this year. That’s around 7% of our GDP, which is enough to rank #2 amongst the OECD nations, second only to Iceland.  For a moment, forget the question of whether or not Americans are getting their money’s worth, the point is that education accounts for more public spending than any other category, except healthcare — even more than defense. The customer of the American education system is not the students; it’s the American taxpayers.

The attitude that public education is intended to serve the students fails to recognize the importance of an educated populace. Countries don’t invest in education because of some moral imperative directed toward student wellbeing; they do so because it’s an absolutely essential part of building and maintaining a strong and prosperous nation. To the extent that an education system is effective at producing capable and knowledgeable graduates, it’s also effective at providing the labor resource for a high-performing economy and the intellectual engine for technological progress, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of social programs, law enforcement and corrections.

The American education system has failed the children, but more importantly, it has failed America. Never mind our international rankings. They provide a decent relative measure, but the impact is felt right here at home. The impact is fewer graduates capable of designing tomorrow’s technology; it means fewer science papers and patents originating in the U.S.; the result is a labor force increasingly incapable of competing on a global basis, and the tragic side effects are more unproductive Americans, higher crime rates, more drag on available social programs and an increased sense of futility.

Explanations for the failures of the system are many and varied, and the suggestions for remedy are limited only by the number of experts chiming in. But the core issue is that the system is in need of structural change, and as is the case with our nation’s energy infrastructure, the vested interests will fight against any reform that may dilute their voice or adversely impact their pocketbooks.

The truth of the matter is that the American education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution with the specific goal of producing factory workers. The primary objective of the system was not to promote the creativity necessary in the 21st Century, but to produce a crop of docile workers who would accept the dominance of the factory system. The schools were designed like factories, the students treated like raw materials, and the finished product was a labor force where few graduates went on to college.

Our system is providing exactly what it was designed to produce. In order to effect real change, the entire system must be rethought, and learning must be the central focus. Alternative forms of education need to be evaluated and systems implemented where the incremental costs of additional students are minimized. Teaching resources need to be expanded to include peers and professionals. Systems that effectively deal with teacher evaluation and development, disadvantaged students, operating efficiencies, measuring student performance, and fully leveraging technology must all be established.

In short, the American education system needs to be redesigned from the ground up with the needs of the nation in the new millennium driving the process. The power of any nation is derived from its people, and the power of the people is derived from their education. There is no more important endeavor for the future of our nation than to optimize our educational system and invest in the citizens of tomorrow.

Next: American Education — the Path Forward.

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Aug 132010
Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...
Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

Like her or not, there is one good thing about Meg Whitman – she always has a plan, and she’s not afraid to share it. Of course, having a plan is only one element of sound leadership. There is also the persnickety little issue of plan quality. And though the Whitman plan for jobs and spending cuts is largely based on failed assumptions, her plan to fix education is at best rooted in complete ignorance.

This is not to say that the Whitman plan is completely without substance, because it’s not. She does support efforts to simplify the ridiculously complex structure of categorical funding, which currently includes more than 50 separate buckets, that collectively place a significant accounting burden on educational agencies. Whitman doesn’t offer much detail on what the new structure would look like, but streamlining the model would without doubt reduce administrative overhead.

Whitman also advocates for meritorious compensation for teachers, a commendable reform embraced by many, including President Obama. But even as she advances the benefit of such a program, she shows her naïveté regarding education by concurrently criticizing the overhead expenditures that would include the systems required to administer merit pay and the personnel needed to make it effective.

As so many others outside of education are so prone to do, Meg Whitman fails to understand what it takes to provide high quality education. If she wants merit pay for teachers, then she damn well better ensure adequate staffing of competent administrators to evaluate performance and oversee operations. If she wants to see test scores climb, then she better figure out that it takes much more than teachers to make a school system shine.

Meg Whitman is a classic business type who thinks that a production mentality will increase the efficiency of schools, and while this is true in certain support areas, when it comes to the delivery of instruction, less production and more individual customization is the answer. Whitman ridicules California public schools for having only 60% of spending reach the classroom, but as with most of the Red Queen’s critiques, she only tells part of the story. In fact, the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show the national average to be less than 1% higher at 60.9%.

It is this type of half-truth that weaves throughout all of Whitman’s press that should beg for questioning of not only her proposals but here motivations as well. As evidenced by the lies that pollute her campaign ads maligning the political record of Jerry Brown, Ms. Whitman really seems to have difficulty dealing with truthfulness.

Whitman champions charter schools as part of her plan to “fix education.” She does this as if they were some magic key to improved learning, yet the most definitive study yet on the matter, completed in 2009 by Stanford University, showed otherwise. Charters are often less expensive than their normal public school counterparts, which I’m sure pleases Whitman, but when it comes to learning results, the study identified only 17% of  charters in the 15 states studied showed improved results. Compare that with the 37% where results were, “significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

Is this the type of “fix” education in California needs?

The Whitman plan also advances a system of school grading to be used so that, “parents can easily understand how well their children’s school is performing.” Her argument for the need is based on better test scores in the State of Florida, who pioneered the system. Of course California’s scores have improved recently at an even faster rate, and then there’s that little matter of Florida spending nearly $900 more per pupil in regionally adjusted dollars.

Queen Meg has solutions for underperforming schools too, like “school closures and staff replacement.” Oh yes, Whitman has lots of ideas, but what she really needs is a clue! And she might start with looking at the impact of location on school performance, or the demographics of the parents and community. She might want to consider that most of the best teachers don’t want to work where they’re needed most, and then she could work toward some real solutions, on devising real plans to address real issues.

The final installment on Meg Whitman to follow shortly.

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