Thinking out loud: Education Reform

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Having Erin, a world history/civics/economics teacher in the public school system, in the house this weekend has spawned some thinking on education. So in the interest of “bouncing around some ideas” …

I think the education system in the US would be far more effective if we . . .

1. Stop expecting the public education system to solve social problems like poverty, the effects of broken families and divorce, abuse or neglect, or cultural ignorance.

No teacher, no matter how gifted, can overcome the accumulated effects on a child of parental neglect, abuse, or ignorance. There is a qualitative difference between parents who pour their lives into enriching the mental development of their kids, and those who don’t (whether from neglect or incapability). From year to year, kids who began the race “behind” will continue to fall behind without significant parental or mentor involvement in their education. The schools cannot ‘fix’ America’s social problems. Helping humans become better people falls in the realm of community organizations, churches, charities, and other nonprofit works (and I’m fine with government funding those organizations to some degree for the good of society as a whole).

2. Stop treating education like the great equalizer of the masses.

While getting an education certainly helps bring underprivileged or disadvantaged kids into new opportunities, an education alone cannot undo years of neglect or lack of opportunities. Life isn’t fair. Those kids who have extraordinary talent in a particular field will probably be noticed and given that opportunity. The rest of us muddle along with what we’ve got. The Declaration of Independence promises us all the opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. It never promised us a level playing field.

….. I’m not saying we should give up on trying to make life better for those who aren’t doing well. To a large extent, the community at large can and should rally to assist those in need. But we will never reach a point in our nation when everyone is equally successful. Placing that burden on the schools is unfair.  Humans are diverse, unique, specifically-gifted folks. One size will never fit all.

3. Return power over education to the local district level while maintaining a financial “buffer” via statewide distribution of education funding (and money drawn from federal taxes).

Our national and district bureaucracies eat up tons of money and time that should be invested in the classrooms themselves. Pare down district/management staff to the bare minimum and divert those resources to hiring more teachers or aids. Give local districts more power (see below). Return a much larger portion of the money to individual schools (based on student popluation and general school-age population in the county).

….. On the other hand, in order to prevent year-to-year upheavals within the system, a percentage of tax dollars should be guaranteed to educational institutions for the sake of financial stability. I need to think this one through more deeply, but I’m convinced that a mixture of funding sources are necessary for schools to thrive (unlike South Carolina’s current mess of a funding system, which decimated education across the state by basing its budget larges on sales tax revenue, which plummeted in the economic crash).

4. Attach at least half of all state (and federal) spending on individual students to the student herself, so that the money follows the student to whatever school parents choose.

Most people hate voucher systems; I can understand the fears. But some form of economic competition IS necessary or the system will never be reformed. Politicians will never save us from anything, but given enough economic incentive, capitalism + self-interest can accomplish a lot.

The average SC public school receives something like $15,000 per pupil per year. If only half of that money were tagged to the child herself, many parents in SC could actually have true choice in finding a good education for their kids . . . and my salary as a teacher would begin to match my educational level, skill, and experience. New Covenant could begin saving money for that new building we hope to need in the next decade. And happy parents could invest in the schools of their choice.

5. Acknowledge the diversity of America by mirroring that diversity in the schools.

Stop pretending that education money should belong to the public system only. The lines between public and private are blurred as soon as an American citizen puts his child in a private school; as soon as Pennsylvania demanded that public schools provide busing for private school kids; as soon as some districts turned to businesses or charter schools to help them reform their schools.  Let’s attach the funding to the child and let that money drift to the school where the child is being educated.  I don’t think parents will be yanking their kids in and out of schools at a whim. Most of us like continuity. And letting parents have some measure of choice in education, whether choosing among various public schools or electing a private option, will drive change within the system.

6.. Hire qualified, professional educators and give individual schools far more leverage to implement state standards in their own way.

I’ve never yet met a public school teacher who thought No Child Left Behind or Race To the Top (the current administration’s initiative) were good ideas. Trying to measure “educational success” via standardized test scores seems like a good idea only to people who never set foot in a classroom. Anyone familiar with teaching knows that kids are individuals, not widgets. If you want an assembly-line for education, hire computers and get out of the way.  Otherwise, acknowledge that humans will always be more adaptable and intelligent than machines, and get out of the way of the professionals who are trying to help kids suceed.

Along with that, I’d recommend clarifying the hiring/firing standards within a given district and giving schools the power to release bad teachers (based on a portfolio of standards, not just test scores or parent complaints). With additional funding (see #4), teacher salaries might rise high enough to begin demanding master’s degrees of all teachers with at least 5 years’ experience in the classroom . . . which would improve the quality of education overall. A more qualified teaching force would improve curriculum, implementation of standards, and classroom instruction across the board.

7. Offer greater mobility within a county’s school system to offer more opportunities to students gifted in the arts, athletics, or academics.

Opening up funding (by attaching some funding to the child so parents can choose different schools) and giving districts a bigger say in how the state standards are implemented would encourage more schools to focus on particular educational methods — like magnet schools do now. We need to offer more opportunities in the arts, maths & sciences, and vo/tech careers on a “need” basis. It’s OK if some of those needs are supplied by charter schools or private schools.  In fact, bigger districts (urban areas) might be able to create special target schools to assist in remediating students from underprivileged backgrounds — say, hiring a higher number of early-elementary teachers with special training in learning disabilities, and staffing the school with family counselors.

8. Offer more diploma options, with a tech school deferment.

This one will be controversial, but here goes:  Not all high school students want an education. Has anyone noticed that some 16-18 year olds combine stupidity and hard-headedness into a difficult package? When you’re a teen, you think you’ll live forever and that you have the world figured out. Fine. Stop forcing educators to hand-hold the kids who don’t want to be there . . . life (and its consequences) are an amazing teacher.

Allow students to take a tech diploma at age 16 (or after 10th grade) with an optional tech school funding voucher held in their name until they turn 25.  Students can leave school and get a job, or elect to enroll in vocational coursework at a vo-tech college in the state (if they meet basic entrance requirements in reading, writing, and math). The voucher will offer the same funding to the tech college that would have gone to the public school if the student had taken all 4 years of high school. Hopefully, many of the kids who elect to leave high school at 16 will be back in the classroom training for a career by the time they are 25, and wiser. Education would become more of a commodity to be desired and appreciated instead of a handout.  And teachers/schools could stop spending higher-level resources on kids who don’t really care.

9. Stop pretending that education will ever be “neutral.”

No classroom is neutral. A tolerant classroom teaches that all viewpoints have equal footing — which is itself a philosophical viewpoint. Christian schools teach a religious view. Jewish or Catholic families living in the South have no options in education that match their beliefs because they don’t have enough population to merit a separate school, though they might want one.  Let’s top pretending that education itself is an aspect of church-state separation. Let the money follow the student to the school.

10. Require accreditation for all schools (and homeschool associations)

For any of this to work, educators must meet at least a minimum standard.  I realize that many of my home schooling friends will spontaneously combust on this point  but I stand by it. It bothers me that South Carolina doesn’t really know or care what New Covenant School is doing. Every former student I’ve ever polled from the local county high schools tells me that NCS’s classes were far harder than honors courses they’re taking, but who knows? Without at least a basic standard, every man educates as is “right in his own eyes,” and some of those results aren’t pretty.

The battleground over the “standard” of accreditation will be fierce, but I recommed that we choose to implement the two national resources already available to every state:  regional accrediting agencies (like SACS in the South) and nationwise subject standards. Home school associations could derive their accountability from a local public or (more likely) private educational institution — a partnership that would benefit the HSA itselfy by assisting with paperwork or standardized testing and opening up sports teams or school clubs to home schooled students.

The regional accrediting agencies already offer a way for secondary schools to be recognized as “qualifying” after a vigorous investigation based on the school’s own vision/mission statement. The agencies are not trying to force schools into a mold; they want to make sure the schools themselves are turning out graduates in line with their own established standards.

The national subject standards in math, science, English, history, foreign languages, etc were written by professionals in the subject discipline, and are much simpler and clearer than the state public school standards. (If you want your kid in a school that follows the state standards, enroll your kid in the local public school.) In fact, our standardized-test-driven state standards usually work against the best practices recommended by professional writers, historians, scientists, etc.  Teaching toward the big test runs counter to teaching critical thinking.


Set ALL the schools free (public and private) within a framework of accountability to implement the best practices in a way that best fits their particular geography and demographic, in a market affected somewhat by economic factors.  It won’t fix all the problems, but I think we’d have a fighting chance of providing a much better education to a greater number of families.

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