No Choices Left Behind? Why National Standards Will Increase Standardization, Decrease Accountability, and Probably Not Work
I suppose it was just a matter of time. After years of floating the idea around in the abstract, a national panel of educators and curriculum specialists are unveiling their draft of new national curricular standards for US public schools. And I confess; I don’t get it. The first attempt at widespread federal intervention into education – No Child Left Behind – was roundly and rightly criticized by, seemingly, everyone. But this time…this time will be different.
Maybe I exaggerated; I do get it. I get that we are living in a time where we simply assume that the larger the scale, the better the result. After all, one of the key arguments against allowing states to set their own standards for their own schools is that…well… states can’t be trusted. (Of course, the idea that decision makers on the federal level can be trusted where state decision makers can’t is never argued for; it is just assumed.) William Bennett and Rod Paige took this line several years ago:
But there’s a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act — which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly.
Tennessee, they cite as an example, reports that only 47 percent of its fourth graders are “proficient” in reading. They also cite Oklahoma, where the reason their number of “needs improvement” schools have decreased is because of changes in their standards, not performance.
All of this may well be true. But is there anything in this argument that suggests that nationalization will tackle this problem and get better results? Just as many arguments for national standards do, Paige’s and Bennett’s argument points to state flaws and ASSUMES that those flaws would be ameliorated at the national level.
Now, here, it could be responded that there is nothing to lose by trying. We have let the localities and states think for themselves for far too long, and it is time to let the fed try their hand. There are several reasons I see AGAINST doing this. Not only are there things to lose, there are reasons that localities are simply better governments than nations. (more…)
Diane Ravitch recently wrote an article called “First, Let’s Fire All the Teachers.” Its aim is at NCLB’s idea of accountability.
The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don’t get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as “accountability.”
Far be it from me to say many nice things about NCLB. It is a federal program that is the equivalent to: “Okay, states. Figure out a way to set standards and meet them. Oh, and figure out how to pay for it.” There are many, many problems with this, none the least of which is the idea of having the folks charged with meeting standards of facing consequences be the VERY SAME FOLKS who set the standards they will be penalized for not meeting. This basically ensures that the standards will be low (at least, in a non-market system where performance record is irrelevant to profits).
But my disagreement with Ravitch has to do with a larger problem: Ravitch seems very opposed to ‘accountability’ measures that would result in under-performing schools having to close, teachers being fired, etc. And since she doesn’t offer any competing vision of accountability, it is difficult to see what type of accountability she’d be happy with. (I will be reading her newest book soon and maybe she offers answers there.)
This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students.
I am well aware of the apparent reasons that schools are not like businesses. So, I will use an anaology cautiously, making it as close to the school model as I possibly can: if I own several tutoring centers, and one of them repeatedly fails to meet quality control standards, how is it of no benefit to shut down the center and fire the workers? By doing this, I prevent future customers from wasting time and money on a product that fails to meet promised results, and open up a ‘blank canvas’ on which I can start over. In fact, if I were to continue offering subpar services knowingly, one would be fair to accuse me of running a scam that actively DOES NOT BENEFIT anyone (except for myself and my staff, who continue to collect money for subpar work). (more…)
Below is a passage I wrote for a PhD class in curriculum theory. The questions was “Who should decide what students learn?” particularly in regards to whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. I post it here because I think it is a decent articulation of my view that families, parents, and children (rather than either education experts or democratically elected board members) should have the ultimate authority over what children learn.
The question is: who is to decide whether intelligent design or evolution (or both or neither) should be taught in schools. Of all the readings assigned for this week, my views allign most closely with McClusky. The problem is that we live in a society that is simulteneously liberal and democratic, while also talking about an institution (schools) that, in some sense, has as its role something neither liberal or democratic. As long as these three ideals are in conflict – and I think they are – one must simply choose which authorty they thinks trumps the other two: experts (nondemocratic and nonliberal), the majority (non-liberal and non-authoritarian) or each individual/family (non-democratic and non-authoritarian). I believe the best way to decide the issue is to leave the decisions in the hands of each individual/ family.
But let me first explain why I believe we are dealing with three incompatible ideals. As a liberal society, we are committed to the idea that individuals have a right to conscience. As a democratic republic, we are committed to the idea that disputes are to be settled by appeal to the vote (at least to vote in representatives whose own votes will reflect that of the majority). And, in the case of schools, we are also committed to the idea that there are certain things which SHOULD be conveyed to children regardless of whether they, their parents, or the majority concur. (In other words, we believe that curriculum is too valuable a subject to be left to non-experts.)
These three ideas, then, are in conflict and, I believe, irreducibly so. That is because recognizing the one negates the other two. (By example, leaving curricular matters up to majority vote abridges individuals liberty to decide educational issues for themselves, and also takes a stand against unelected experts deciding them.) Why do I choose liberalism over the other competing values as curricular guides? (more…)
Recently, I watched an interesting youtube video of economist Thomas Sowell giving a talk about public schools. In response to a question about what to do over the idea that standardized testing may not be objective and may be biased, Sowell said this:
Compared to what? … That’s the question economists always ask: “Compared to what?”… Nothing is easier than to prove that something human has imperfections. I’m amazed at how many people devote themselves to that task.
This very simple statement – it almost seems like common sense! – is quite hard for many to grasp. Whether the issue is standardized testing (whether to do away with it), or any other percieved injustice of society, many people’s reaction is to point out the flaw and use this as prima facie evidence that the system giving rise to it must be fised, abolished, or reconstructed.
Sowell’s point – one I share – is that pointing out a flaw in a thing is not the only step necessary toward arguing against the thing. The next ste – one not often taken up – is to argue that a concrete proposal for a solution will be better than and have fewer flaws than the system trying to be replaced. (more…)
Recently, I have been engaged in discussion with some folks over whether tax-funded public schools with mandatory attendance laws are justifiable. While I can see some arguments in favor of public schooling, I think public schooling also has much to be said against it (for reasons beside the fact that it seems not to be educating very well.) Most importantly, there is a moral argument against public schooling that I think can best be seen by analogizing the public school climate in the US with a theoretical case of public media and compulsory viewing laws.
Imagine the situation:
In 2050, the United States, in an effort to ensure that everyone has access to quality news and information, mandates that a certain percentage of all local taxes will be spent on a tax-supported, governmentally run, media. Because it is in the interest of all to be informed by good information, the government has decided that it will (a) make media listening mandatory for at least one hour a day by all citizens under penalty of arrest; (b) ensure that, while private media are allowed to run, they will be required to be approved/accredited by the Department of Media (c) allow citizens to either listen to the “free” government-run media outlet or pay separately for private media (meaning that they have to pay for the government media they have opted out of and the private media they’ve opted into). If they opt out of the government media, they can only do so by filling out paperwork with their local Department of Media to ensure that they are in compliance with the mandatory listening law by getting their media through a government-accredited alternate media source.
It is easy to spot the problems with this above scenario. (more…)
We talk of how we are going to improve public education, what subjects to teach or not in public education, or how to teach certain subjects in public education. Rarely do we talk about the issue all of these questions presuppose: whether to have public education or whether it is the best way to educate children. If nothing else – and there IS plenty else – Murray Rothbard’s short essay “Education: Free and Compulsory” serves to offer up the seldom heard argument against public compulsory education.
There are roughly three arguments used in this book, each taking up about a third of the book:
The first section talks about pedagogical reasons why public compulsory education is not an ideal. Every child, it is noted, has different capacities, interests, and proclivities. Some are bright in mathematics and like bookish knowledge. Others are more creatively inclined, have no aptitude for math altogether, and are more comfortable with hands-on things. Others may really have no ability for academic kinds of knowledge whatever, but could be best served by technical training.
Public education, of course, is the antithesis of this: by its nature, it is standardizing and “averagizing” (in that, for numerical reasons, compulsory universal education cannot focus on differences, but only similarities). Additionally, public compulsory education ensures that students are not schooled in what their talents/interests are, or what their parents want them to learn, but rather what the state believes they should learn. (Why must high schoolers understand Algebra II? Because the government says it is a good idea.) (more…)
Here is an interesting vido, where Michigan State University Professor of Education Yong Zhau talks about finding a balance between the push for standardization and pluralism/individualism in American education. (The video takes a few minutes to load and is a bit less than 10 minutes.)
A professor of mine at the University of Delaware, Amanda Jansen, pointed me towards this link after following my discussion with author James Bach (who seems to favor a form of self-education where students are the prime movers of their own education). I, on the other hand, am a strong supporter of a voucher system of the type I think is hinted at in Zhau’s video.
It seems that the issue – like many issues – is often framed in a very extreme binary way: either we allow students 100% control to study what they want when they want, or we push for a highly standardized, NCLB style education where a student’s educational trajectory is quite inflexibly decided for them. As a supporter of a voucher-style approach (whether by voucher, tax-credit, or wholly private but subsidized), I think there is a third way, whereby states could mandate certain minimal curricular objectives while leaving parents and students (not just students, mind you) free to choose what kind of education they, or their children, should have.
As Zhau notes in the video, the largest benefit of such a system is that while certain standards do exist in order to ensure that students acquire the basic skills (reading, writing, math) that would need to be employed to acquire more specialized skills, parents and students can choose the type of school that they think would best suit their child. Not only can they choose the type of school by approach (Montesorri, disciplinarian, online, etc) but they might choose the academic focus they want for their child (arts, humanities, technology, etc.) As it stands now, unless parents want to pay above and beyond the taxes taken to support public schools, parents and students have no choice of where to attend school and very little choice of what to study. (more…)
Occasionally, it happens that an assumption that is highly taken for granted is questioned. In these cases one is asked to defend what one never expected would need explicit defense. In this case, the person asking for a defense is James Bach (author of “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar,") and the principal is the legitmacy of coercion for the sake of student learning.
Bach and I have been discussing his book and my review of it for several go rounds. He advocates for a non-coercion principal in education that “respect[s] the integrity of a child’s mind” and sees all attempts to direct a student’s mind where it does not want to go as unjustly coercive. I, as a former schoolteacher and PhD student in Education, argue that in many cases, coercion of children is justified, and one instance that this is so is in coercing students to learn things that they may not want to learn but society feels they need to learn.
(It is important to note that I am a political libertarian and probably have much common ground with Bach in the belief that, on the whole, we should do our best to avoid coercive meaures and that only the most compelling counter-claims justify its use. I am also a staunch supporter of a voucher system with a minimal curriculum in order to (a) ensure that all students can be educated formally while (b) ensuring that only a minimal amount of core curriculum is mandated, while the rest is flexible.)
Bach suggests that coercing students to learn what we (society, parents, teachers, bureaucrats, etc) feel students should learn is analogous to kidnapping a foreign tribe and educating them to suit our need. I quote Bach at length:
In the 1830’s, Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, kidnapped four members of a tribe from Tierra Del Fuego and took them to England. They were “educated” for a couple of years, then brought back to their tribe along with a missionary. That little expedition ended poorly (comically poorly… look it up). Yet, I can’t see the fundamental difference in Fitzroy’s situation and your philosophy. Isn’t a mind a terrible thing to waste? Weren’t those savages miserable and naked? Even the abolitionist Darwin said they were! Wasn’t Fitzroy working that middle ground between enslaving the whole population and enslaving just a few for just a little while? He thought he was doing the RIGHT thing by kidnapping them. Do you condone that?
As mentioned, I don’t think that analogizing public education to kidnapping a tribe of people has occurred to that many folks over the years and, as such, most of us take such analogies as absurd on their face. But this feeling must derive from some sense that the analogy is unjustifiable and that calling it absurd is justifiable. Thus, explicating the distinction must be possible. (more…)
One key question in any discusison about school choice asks what would happen in a deregulated “education market” if (when) parents make bad choices about their children’s education. Dan Willingham has written a brief article regarding this question from the view of a cognitive psychologist.
From his perspective – I agree – it is quite likely that at least some parents will make bad choices on behalf of their children’s education. Some parents may lack the education to make an informed choice; other parents may not put a high value on education and, thus, may not research the decision as much as, say, a decision on which TV or car to buy. Further, other parents may simply make a mistake in their decision; despite doing much research, some parents will just make mistakes about which school to send their children to.
Willingham offers several different reasons why parents may make poor decisions regarding their children’s education, some I agree with more than others. Rightly, he suggests that “may value features of a school that have nothing to do with education quality. For example, that the school is geographically convenient.” (The only criticism i have of this speculation is that for many, geographic convenience IS a necessary factor, as one may prefer a good school five miles away to a decent school 25 miles away for good reason).
Willingham also suggests, wrongly, that:
[T]he outcome measures won’t be all that clear to parents, even assuming that there is better school-level information than is now available. Andy Rotherham made this point persuasively in regard to education policy in US News & World Report, and I believe that the same goes for individuals. Sure, standardized tests are informative, but those will be averages. One can imagine parents feeling that their child seems to be doing fine in his school, even if averages are low. One can also imagine that some parents might simply not believe that standardized test scores capture anything important.
In other words, parents might make bad decisions about schools because all the relevant information may not be available, and some information that parents may want to see (standardized test scores) do not give the parent all the information that they SHOULD take into account. The problem with Willingham’s speculation is that the same can be said about making decisions about cars, colleges, homes, air conditioning units, and any other major (or minor) purchase a person could make. People may care about whether a car can go from 1 to 60 in x mph, or a car’s look, rather than finding out about its reliability or projected resale value. (more…)
Here is an articleexposing one of the pernicious effects of teachers unions; since teachers are so difficult to fire, an exorbitant amount of tax money is spent paying bad teachers NOT to teach. This sould anger the hell out of taxpayers, who have no choice but to pay for, and in most cases send their sons and daughters to, increasingly ill-run public schools. Here’s an excerpt:
NEW YORK – Hundreds of New York City public school teachers accused of offenses ranging from insubordination to sexual misconduct are being paid their full salaries to sit around all day playing Scrabble, surfing the Internet or just staring at the wall, if that’s what they want to do.
Because their union contract makes it extremely difficult to fire them, the teachers have been banished by the school system to its “rubber rooms” — off-campus office space where they wait months, even years, for their disciplinary hearings.
The 700 or so teachers can practice yoga, work on their novels, paint portraits of their colleagues — pretty much anything but school work. They have summer vacation just like their classroom colleagues and enjoy weekends and holidays through the school year…
Because the teachers collect their full salaries of $70,000 or more, the city Department of Education estimates the practice costs the taxpayers $65 million a year. The department blames union rules.
One of the things that angers me about this article is that the last sentence quoted blames unions, which is only partially true. In order for unions (involuntary ones that teachers MUST join to teach in the schools), government has to give them the power of exclusivity. One does not generally have these types of problems in districts where being a union member is voluntary. So, let’s not just blame the unions, but the governments that gave them monopoly power over the supply of teachers! (more…)