The best education reform money can buy — until next time

We are in the midst of a transformation in the education reform industry, it seems, as big money is set to do to local school board races what it’s done to state and national elections. One local race, for a volunteer position, already has more than $125,000 in donations, with $100,000 donated to a PAC in large amounts (multiple $10,000 and $15,000 contributions) vs less than $30,000, with an upper limit of $900, on the other side. Both candidates are challenging for a vacant seat so there is no incumbency benefit there.

Since all of my political awareness started in the Reagan years, I’m forced to ask, what are they buying with that money? A school board seat is a volunteer position but demands a lot of time, with work sessions before most peoples’ work day begins as well as public meetings, all of which also require preparation. Who wants to work an extra 20 hours a week for no pay? The board has oversight authority over the superintendent but doesn’t have executive power. So at best it can guide and support a superintendent or worse, allow them to run amok as we have seen with recent incumbents. But still worse, a majority could dismantle the public school system, all in the name of reform.

Local university science professor Cliff Mass has some idea what’s going on here. He sees this as the latest attempt to apply business management techniques to the classroom.

So let’s look into that.

If a classroom or school were to be run like a manufacturing plant, this assumes that the raw materials coming in are of a consistent quality or that there is a refinement process that gets them to that standard. I think anyone who has ever been to school knows that students do not enter school as identical lumps of clay to be stamped or molded into shape. So what’s the solution in this manufacturing-patterned model? I haven’t heard anyone in the education reform industry discuss assessments for all incoming students or remediation for students who are not quite ready. I hear a lot about the standards teachers will be held to but nothing about the responsibility for student preparedness.

That responsibility lies at home. Students in the elementary grades are in school for six hours each of the 180 days in a school year. Of that, when you subtract lunch, enrichment like art, music, health and fitness/PE, and recess (anyone who says you don’t get recess in the working world needs to explain how coffee shops in business districts stay in business), it’s about 5 hours of instructional time. Where are the kids for the balance of the 24 hours? Same place they were for the first five years: in their family’s care.

What happens in a business when customers are lined up at the register or can’t through on the phone or can’t pick up their work at the promised time? Business that want to stay in business increase staff or improve their systems. I never hear anything about increased family support or improved social services in the schools to address a student’s lack of readiness. An elementary school with 300+ students in this large urban district might have a counselor for an hour or two a week. Many schools don’t have a full time art or music teacher as was common 30 or 40 years ago, or a full-time nurse. We have fewer staff per student than when many of the loudest voices for reform were in school. How does making something worse improve outcomes?

One of the goals I often hear about is making schools more efficient but since there are no details given, I have to assume that means “cheaper.” So that means high student:teacher ratios. So we have varied levels of preparedness and no remediation process and at the same time, we think that having more kids per teacher is somehow better. Where I have a hard time with this is that the people backing these ideas are considered to be very smart. They’re almost always successful business people and that’s taken as a proxy for intelligence in our culture. But no one ever asks them to defend specifics like higher student to teacher ratios as the means to improving education outcomes. If someone ran a grocery stores like this, shutting down cashier stations until customers started to leave, how successful would they be?

There seems to be some idea that processes are always improved by reducing the staff headcount. But there’s a point beyond which is doesn’t work. Nine women can’t make a baby in one month. But does anyone really think a teacher can reach and inspire and educate 30 kids as effectively as 20? Effectiveness is what we should be striving for, not efficiency. But how to measure that? The usual tests and assessments never seem to be enough. And those metrics point to teachers, not the students and their families, as the party most responsible for student outcomes.

Another idea that we hear a lot about is competition, that we need to make schools competitive. Why? Competitive with what? If you are going to set up a competitive structure and pit schools against each other, this means some students are going to go to second-rate schools. This doesn’t create winners, it creates losers. When did that become a desirable educational outcome?

What they mean is allowing for-profit schools to be set up alongside the public schools in publicly-funded and maintained buildings but with the freedom to ignore all the constraints of class size, of a centrally-mandated curriculum, and with the freedom to turn away students who might lower the school’s performance metrics. Why not just let public schools have that much autonomy?

In the past couple of years, a historically low performing middle school here in Seattle secretly tossed out the district-mandated math curriculum, the poorly-regarded Discovery Math series, and used the Saxon math textbooks. As a result, their math assessments were up sharply and the racial achievement gap narrowed. Kids who had struggled learned math better with those materials, based on objective measurements prescribed by the state. But the school had to break the rules to make that happen. You’d think reformers would be all over this as a vindication of their ideas. I’ve not heard anything. If anything, I suspect they would argue that this reinforces their attitudes toward teachers, a profound mistrust.

This mistrust of teachers and lack of respect for teaching as a professional discipline is a big component of the ed reform movement, an attitude that is unique in the developed world. Other countries and cultures respect teachers and parents expect their children to respect their teachers and value education. This growing antipathy toward public school teachers, beginning almost 100 years ago, is documented in Bryce Nelson’s book Good Schools: The Seattle Public School System, 1901-1930 []. Anyone who hopes to serve on the board or work in education policy who hasn’t read this isn’t ready yet. What Nelson found is that in the post-WWI era, just like today, there was increased pressure to make schools more efficient and accountable. This was an outgrowth of Taylorism, the time and motion studies fad that turned proud craftsmen into dissatisfied wage slaves. If you really want to know what teachers do all day, it seems like a simple problem to solve: go sit in some classrooms or help a teacher do kindergarten assessments and you’ll learn a lot more than you will protesting about the budget at a board meeting.

This devaluation of teaching as a profession is why we get things like Teach for America. It sounds like a great idea, taking recent college grads who haven’t yet begun their careers and putting them into classrooms in underserved areas. But what does it really say? It tells me that some people think that these five week wonders are good enough, that people who have gotten a four year degree in educations and then a post-graduate certification are not really worth it. There seems to be pretty obvious disconnect there, that we are concerned about underserved student populations but we don’t want to assign university-trained teachers to those schools.

Today’s teachers are trained to a higher standard than ever and at the same time education has become more complex, as we learn more about learning styles, cognitive and auditory issues that affect learning. Maybe if we valued professional educators as professionals, like engineers, nurses, even business school graduates, we wouldn’t have underserved student populations. If these educational reformers are serious about things like competition and autonomy, as they seem to be with charter schools, why aren’t they advocating for recruitment incentives in hard to fill positions? We know the answer already: Teach for America is cheaper and it furthers the goal of undermining professional educators. No one will admit that’s the goal but the net effect is the same.

As long as the public holds teachers accountable for student performance but not the parents or society as a whole, we’ll keep hearing these people talk endlessly about what’s wrong with the schools, never acknowledging that schools are a mirror of society. If you think your schools are broken, you might be right but that’s what doctors called “referred pain.” The cause of the pain isn’t where it hurts. But we keep applying fixes and wondering why they don’t take.