Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Candid Discussion on Education Reform

For those who haven't seen this, I squared off on Fox 59 over education reform last week with Josh Gillespie, Hoosier Access's chief blogger and Dan Burton staffer. You always get edited for TV, but it still captures some of my sentiments.

The part that got edited was me saying that if we wanted to improve education for everyone, and we truly believed teachers were the difference-makers, we'd do whatever it took to get the best teachers in the worst classrooms, which would benefit entire schools instead of giving a fraction of students the opportunity to leave for something "better."

I concede that I am wrenched by this question: who am I as a white professional to tell a single, working-class, African-American mother to keep her child in a crappy school just because she doesn't have the money for private school tuition?

But we have to acknowledge that, in many cases, certain schools and systems thrive, not because their administrators and teachers discovered the mystical formula for educational achievement. It's because the schools are populated with kids whose parents are two-income, high achievers who reinforce the value of educational attainment by modeling it. In short, when people move to Fishers for the schools, it's not because Fishers does it so uniquely; the parents are buying an educational peer group based on social class. In fact, in that kind of school, if you have one or two kids who act up, the peer pressure will likely make those two kids conform to the norm of caring about learning.

In contrast, if you have a classroom with a lot of kids from dysfunctional families, kids who have no help at home because either parents aren't available because of insane work schedules, or they don't have the knowledge or inclination, you're likely to get more classroom disruptions, which makes it harder for the children to learn.

You think I'm wrong? Then why does IPS have the highest-ranked school in the entire state on ISTEP scores, even with its top-heavy administration and its allegedly overly-friendly union contracts? Here's why. Because the Merle Sidener Gifted Academy is a magnet school of talented students, meaning that when you put kids who want to learn under one roof, IPS smokes everybody. The problem is that IPS doesn't have enough of these kids to populate every school. Carmel Clay does.

If somebody in Fishers or Carmel thinks I'm wrong, let's do an experiment. Give me the four best teachers in a given elementary school, and I'll send you sixty students who are tragically below ISTEP levels from a Marion County suburban schools and from IPS. Your designated teachers switch out 15 student in their class for 15 of mine. In six months, let's see if the Marion County students have improved, or if those students are the same or worse while the Fishers students have lost ground.

You might say, "Oh, we'd never get sixty new students into our best school because there are already too many students from the neighborhood," to which I'd respond, "There's your voucher program - take just enough to not tip the dynamics of the class, but not enough to give everybody an equal shot at 'quality' education."

What Republicans want to do with vouchers is reinforce a vicious cycle by taking money out of schools that need it the most because its teachers have the most difficult jobs. Do I think IPS could cut some of its 170-plus administrators with $100,000+ salaries? Absolutely. But I doubt that would be enough to recruit the "great" teachers from other school systems, which is what needs to happen.

If Republicans were serious about reform, they'd try to show us all that charters and voucher systems work by passing a law that says if they get the right to do this, they would guarantee existing funding levels plus annual increases to offset inflation for existing schools. I'd let them do their experiment if it didn't cost existing schools. Then they could say, "Look! We told you we'd outperform you!" They won't do that, of course, because charters have mixed records, and they aren't interested in investing more in education.

Or how about this. You get pro-voucher philanthropists to donate to an endowment for a new charter school, and instead of selecting from a lottery system, you select from the poorest ISTEP performers in Marion county. After a year, if a majority of the students haven't improved by 25%, the endowment is forfeited to IPS's worst school with a restriction that the money can ONLY go to acquire new teachers. Will somebody put their money with their mouth is if the student body isn't self-selecting based on a higher degree of parental involvement (which in most cases means higher achievement anyway)? I bet not.

This whole GOP model is upside down. If I had run the Colts back when they were terrible in the 1980s, would I have said, "Hey, fans! Sorry we're terrible. Take your money and watch the Bengals!" No. I'd have opened up my checkbook and paid big money for a free agent or a 1st-round draft choice known as Peyton Manning (who the Colts got by BEING terrible, by the way), and I'd use the new talent to right the ship.

I haven't heard of anybody in either political party who looked at the ISTEP scores, graduation rates, and drop-out rates in this state without concluding that a lot of our schools are sinking ships. But here lies the difference: Republicans want to get a select few "passengers" to the lifeboats. Democrats are trying to save everybody.


1 comment:

guy77money said...

The best darn teacher I ever had in public school (high school Freshman General Business) Mr. Jacobson would absolutely not tolerate any funny business in his class. You got one warning and then you were sent to the office. We had five out of twenty two kids that were kicked out through the first two weeks in class. Thanks to him I learned how to take notes in classical college style and he even went out of his way to teach us how the stock and bond markets worked. We had five grand to pick stocks and (no internet just the stock quotes out of the newspaper) we had to follow them daily. I came in second place in all five classes. He changed my life and got me hooked on investing.

Let it be said I was going to a rural school and a very small percentage of the kids went on to college. I know public schools try not to give up on their kids but I think it is time to get rid of the kids who are disrupting the rest from learning and separate them from the one that do. We need to teach the disruptive kids who are not going on to college some real world skills. Heck maybe all high schools students need to know about rental leases, credit cards, contracts, how to apply for a job,etc... The list goes on. You will always have those kids that don't care or have problems schools just cannot fix. Do not bring down the rest of the good students because of society ills. Public Schools cannot be baby sitters and teach kids to learn at the same time. It is too much to ask of a teacher. There is very little time in a students life to teach them to function and prosper in society. Lets not make the ones who do suffer because of the unfortunate ones problems are holding them back.