Monday, April 29, 2013

A different path for education reform

Recent readings about education reform and conversations with teachers have convinced me that the current emphasis on high-stakes testing is misguided, and that education reform as we know it is more about enriching for-profit educational testing and curriculum companies and privileged charter school networks than about strengthening public education. That's not to say that national standards for what children should know are a bad thing, but that the current punitive improve-scores-or-die regime creates all kinds of perverse incentives for a system ill-equipped to meet those standards.

An article in the current issues of Foreign Affairs, Why American Education Fails and How Lessons from Abroad Could Improve It, by Jal Mehta of Harvard, charts an alternate course that's in line with my longstanding sense, based in part on my experience as a parent, of what's wrong with our current system. While I have some caveats, three of Mehta's core premises seem to me to get at the heart of the problem:

1) You can't 'raise the bar' for students without first raising it for prospective teachers:

Any attempt to reform American education would have to start with attracting better teachers, retaining them, and helping them develop their practice. The most striking finding of comparative international research is that the best-performing school systems draw their teachers from the top third of college graduates, whereas lower-ranking school systems do not. A recent McKinsey report found that most U.S. teachers come "from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, and, for many schools in poor neighborhoods, from the bottom third." In Finland, teaching is the single most preferred career for 15-year-olds, a priority that allows the country to accept only one in ten applicants to its teacher-training programs. Similarly, in Singapore, only one in eight is accepted to such programs. By contrast, in the United States, even the most prestigious education schools commonly accept 50 percent or more of the applicants to their teacher-training programs. 

2) Teachers should be rewarded for teaching excellence, but not by making each student a potential profit center, i.e.,  by providing direct financial incentives to produce better test scores. Recognized teaching excellence should lead to increased responsibility -- an "organic" path to better pay:
Any attempt to reform American education would have to start with attracting better teachers, retaining them, and helping them develop their practice. The most striking finding of comparative international research is that the best-performing school systems draw their teachers from the top third of college graduates, whereas lower-ranking school systems do not. A recent McKinsey report found that most U.S. teachers come "from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, and, for many schools in poor neighborhoods, from the bottom third." In Finland, teaching is the single most preferred career for 15-year-olds, a priority that allows the country to accept only one in ten applicants to its teacher-training programs. Similarly, in Singapore, only one in eight is accepted to such programs. By contrast, in the United States, even the most prestigious education schools commonly accept 50 percent or more of the applicants to their teacher-training programs.
The premise underlying this proposal is that teachers need to learn from each other. While our current test-heavy initiatives put the cart before the horse, Mehta acknowledges that current reform efforts have generated more teacher mentoring, classroom engagement on the part of principals, and collaboration in "professional learning communities."

3) Better trained and qualified teachers will require less input from the heavy hand of the state (a worthy "conservative" goal):
If the country succeeded in building a skilled and knowledgeable teaching force, the role of the state -- including federal, state, and local government bodies -- would change. Currently, a central part of the problem in American education is that government officials are trying to remake teaching from afar. But teaching is hard work and has proved difficult to change from above; efforts to do so have set teachers against policymakers. If the country implemented the needed processes to ensure skilled teaching -- better recruitment, training, knowledge development, and school organization -- teachers would come to be seen as experts, like those in other professions. 

While Mehta does not bring a lot of specific data to bear, his prescription is data-based in the broad sense that he's identifying common features of the world's most successful education systems-- that is, the top scorers on the Program for International Student Assessment,( Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea). That does suggest a correlation/causation assumption. That assumption is probably at least partially warranted: if the U.S. could attract better students into better teaching training programs with the promise of better professional working conditions, more status and pay, we would leave fewer children behind. At the same time, as with healthcare, crime, and a host of other measures of social well-being, relatively low U.S. scores are doubtless partially a result not only of our "weak welfare state," as Mehta calls it, but of our heterogeneous population -- ever a nation of immigrants -- and the enduring legacy of slavery, as well as our growing class divide.

The article includes other assertions and assumptions unsupported by evidence:

1) Mehta holds up medicine and law as paragons of professionalism, effective professional education, and self-imposed quality control.  While medical training in the U.S. is in fact orders of magnitude more rigorous than teacher training, doctors are egregious failures at policing their own, and the profession's incentives are skewed in ways threatening to bankrupt the country.  As for lawyers, the reputation of law schools is currently at a nadir, and complaints that law school provides poor professional preparation are eternal. The salient differences between legal and teacher training are pay and status.

2) We are told that "leading charter school networks" exemplify the practices touted herein. No evidence is brought to bear.

3) Mehta does offer a bit of evidence that education research and development is underfunded in the U.S. He also seems to assume that age-old curriculum battles have been or readily can be settled by research. The problems involved in assessing research, measuring results and forging uniform standards strike me as unprobed (though marginally acknowledged) here:
The good news is that there are a number of independent pockets of knowledge that the profession can expand on. Education scholars have conducted serious academic research on several practical topics, including how to teach early reading, the guidelines of which are developed and specific enough to be used in the classroom. Charter-school operators and independent researchers have also studied what the best teachers and principals are doing and, through books and videos, have shared these insights. Teacher-to-teacher websites help break down the isolation of teaching and allow educators to draw on the work of their peers in developing lessons and units. Schools and teachers can turn to many commercial and nonprofit institutions that offer advice and programs, although they vary widely in quality and few mechanisms exist to separate the wheat from the chaff. What is needed is a substantial push, either from the government or from private philanthropy, to integrate these different sources of information, develop shared standards by which they can be vetted, and build new knowledge where it is lacking.
 All that said, I think that Mehta is pointing out the right track. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share