Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Some thoughts on Education Reform

Note: This was put together as part of a project in a Leadership for a Future class I am taking with the Institute for Labor Studies here in Rhode Island. This is an Alinsky-style community, religious and labor organizing course to prepare people to take power from those who have it and give it to those who don't. Think about taking this course next year if you get a chance.

Current education reform planners seem intent on corporatizing public schools. In fact, high level school administrators seem to spend most of their time schmoozing corporate and business leaders for grant money or arranging for the outright sale of our schools to private sector educational businesses, rather than working to improve our student's access to educational opportunities. There is big money to be made here, and profits, not the education of our children, seems to be the primary driver.

It is important that we heed the research on education, if education is truly our goal. Real studies on educational improvement show that high stakes testing, of the kind that is currently being advanced by so called educational reformers, does nothing to improve educational outcomes, but does place students under enormous, counter productive stress. In most debates over education, ideology trumps science.

High stakes testing creates perverse incentives, as can be seen by the still developing high stakes testing cheating scandal in Alabama. Statisticians have shown that test scores have improved across the country in a way that is statistically impossible, unless we assume that such cheating is endemic and pervasive.

Real reform would concentrate on proven methods of educational improvement.

We should start by reasserting the concept of teacher autonomy. Instead of a one-size fits all curriculum, teachers should be given latitude to construct lesson plans that best fit the both the needs of their class and their own strengths as teachers. This is, after all, why teachers receive the training they do.

Related to this would be a recognition of a teacher's professional status. Teachers need to be seen in our society as trained professionals akin to lawyers and doctors, not as quickly trained, low skilled workers flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant. Just as we trust our doctors in providing health care and trust our lawyers to resolve our legal difficulties, we should start trusting our teachers to provide education.

Teachers should not feel that their jobs are imperiled whenever some new, untested testing regimen is applied to their students. The current treatment of teachers in our country is preventing our best and brightest students from considering a career in teaching, and who can blame them? Extensive and expensive training, poor on the job treatment, and no job security are not exactly enticing employment prospects.

High stakes testing is counterproductive. What are the alternatives? One method is portfolio reviews, which allow a student to show steady gains and improvements rather than be beholden to arbitrary and frustrating metrics. In our current political climate, we don't seem able to trust our teachers to teach, even as we consider arming our teachers to engage in shoot-outs with armed sociopaths.

We need to take a breath here. An application of science and reason to this debate is long overdue.

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