Monday, March 05, 2007

Critiques of the Education Report

Since the release of the report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the response from the Educational Establishment has ranged from measured to hostile. “Tough Choices or Tough Times” was written by a group of distinguished educators including former Secretaries of Education Rod Paige (Bush admin.) and Richard Riley (Clinton admin.); Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools and Tom Payzant, retired head of the Boston school district; plus prominent political and business leaders.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell issued a reasoned response: “The commission makes several provocative and far-reaching recommendations. We must be willing to rethink the way we deliver education services if our state and nation are to survive, let alone thrive, in this rapidly changing, technology-driven world. While change to a system as large and complex as public education is difficult to achieve, flexibility and agility are now imperatives.”

The Arizona State University School of Education issued a thoughtful response:
“The report is not recommended reading for bedtime, if you're hoping for a good night's sleep.” Their assessment is fair: “This new report is no jargon-laden bureaucratic screed, but a plainspoken and urgent proposal for a top-to-bottom reworking of the American education system unlike any we've undertaken since the dawn of the Industrial Age. And it is not for the faint of heart.”

Response from the teacher’s unions could be described as tentative at best. NEA President Reg Weaver called “Tough Choices or Tough Times” a “provocative report” adding that “NEA has long championed the concept of high school reform, and we agree that we need to provide students with the tools and resources they will need to succeed in a global society.” Weaver was glad that “fully funding pre-K is among the list of suggestions from the commission.”

However, he cautioned against “drastic changes that could potentially disenfranchise poorer communities and eliminate community voices in the reform conversation.” He disagreed with the Commission’s recommendation to dramatically increase teacher pay while bringing benefits packages into line with the private sector. “Our nation’s teachers deserve to be well compensated now,” said Weaver, “and they deserve the safety and security of retirement plans that will not leave them destitute in their later years.”

It is business as usual for the union chief: Have your cake and eat it too. Weaver concludes: “In the end, we all must get down to the work of reforming our public schools, one step at a time.” And he has the tried-and-true solution: “We know the source of the problem: too few resources, not enough textbooks, outdated technology, and a lack of qualified and certified teachers.” More money is all we need.

A more hostile response comes from Diane Ravitch, an icon in educational circles. In her address to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Ravitch agreed with the report that “today we really do face a situation that can justly be called a crisis.” Does the crisis consist of the horrific dropout rates among some minorities, the declining test scores and the fact that so many high school grads need remedial help when they enter college? No, not a bit of that, it’s because “Never have I felt more certain that public education itself hangs in the balance.” The continued existence of the public school system is the focus of her crisis.

Ravitch mocks the report’s assertion that (in her words) “our teachers are not coming from the right strata of society.” Thus, paraphrasing the report again, we must “seek to recruit the best and the brightest with salaries ranging from $45,000 and to $110,000.” That actually makes her “blood boil.” Her suggestion: “Set the top salary at the median of the income earned by members of the commission. My guess is that it would be about $300,000.”

Actually, the report recommends that teachers be recruited from the top third of college students, not necessarily from the Ivy Leagues. A starting salary and range in line with engineering grads does not seem out of line. Her argument is rather specious for such an esteemed educator.

Racitch worries about what she calls the “super-high stakes” test at the end of tenth grade recommended by the report. She contends that “this eminent group of leaders feels that we have not done a good enough job of sorting kids into winners and losers and preventing the less prepared from going to good colleges.” Losers? Those who go to trade schools or community colleges she calls losers.

Most of all Ravitch decries the “complete privatization of American public education.” She claims to have “read it. I read it again. Then I read it again. I still could not believe it.” It appears that Ravitch is in need of remedial reading herself. The report reads that the role of school boards would be to approve performance contracts with these managers and monitor their performance. It seems not to have registered with her that the top bosses are the publicly elected school boards. The private firms that run the schools work for the school boards.

Ravitch asks, “What secret do private organizations have that has not been shared with the nation’s educators? What is the logical connection between privatization and quality education?” It appears that she also has not heard about the benefits of competition, the free enterprise system, and the American way.

In a piece called “For Whom the Bell Curves: America's Education Dilemma,” eminent economist Arnold Kling wrote:

“The best sign of a vibrant education sector would be more institutional failure. With sufficient competition and innovation, we would see colleges and universities fold or merge at the same rate as ordinary businesses. We would see schools shut down because parents send their children elsewhere. We would see large layoffs in some school systems, with hiring taking place among successful start-ups.”

Ravitch does not believe in competition: “Public schools are not a private good. They are not like shoes or soap or cars, where we shop around to find the best thing at the lowest price.” She’d shop around for the best lawyer she can get for the lowest price, but teachers, oh no, they are a “public good.”

I believe the report contains many excellent proposals and some that are wrong-headed. (See my post “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” 2/27/07.) However, I saved my most severe criticism for the end. Neither the report, nor any of the critiques that I have seen, mention the single most critical issue.

David Brooks writes in the New York Times (3/1/07): “Family relationships matter more than anything else. Schools filled with students who can’t control their impulses, who can’t focus their attention, will not succeed.”

Being a “NYT conservative,” Brooks believes that government needs to do something about family relationships such as “providing young mothers the sort of cajoling and practical wisdom that in other times would have been delivered by grandmothers and elders.” Here is an argument for another time, but the need is obvious.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gave my students three weeks to learn 35 roots, meaning of the roots and one example of the root used in a word – i.e. cosm – universe – cosmos and over ½ of them failed their first two tests. They were to read to pg 63 in their novel, and over ½ haven’t even bought their books yet. Now tell me who is at fault here?


7:48 AM  
Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 07 07

Helen Dumbassery is responsible for that behavior. Plain and simple. I finally decided to start dropping kids who don't study because I can! I feel that it is a huge waste of time to try to teach those who don't want to learn. Screw them and let them find some do good programme to save their souls. That is not MY or YOUR job!

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joel Klein is not and never has been an "educator." In fact, he has driven every educator from his close circle of advisors. If he were an educator, perhaps NYC's schools would not been the constant turmoil that have marked his tenure as chancellor.

7:00 AM  

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