Sunday, March 14, 2010

About School Reform

Diane Ravitch makes an extremely interesting point at the conclusion of her piece last week at WSJ, "Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform." She criticizes the Bush administration's NCLB for instigating a race-to-the-bottom in lax standards dumbing down schools, and she warns that educational choice through private school vouchers risks making public education even worse than it is. But most importantly, and most worrisome, "we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship."

This is a major about-face for Ravitch (on vouchers especially), as the title of her essay indicates. Throughout her career she's been critical of educational fads and has been one of the main school reform thinkers on the right side of the spectrum. Her new book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. I look forward to reading it.

In the meantime, there was an interesting essay a couple of weeks ago at NYT: "Building a Better Teacher," by Elizabeth Green. It's a lengthy piece, but the introduction relates to my discussion above:
ON A WINTER DAY five years ago, Doug Lemov realized he had a problem. After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder, he was working as a consultant, hired by troubled schools eager — desperate, in some cases — for Lemov to tell them what to do to get better. There was no shortage of prescriptions at the time for how to cure the poor performance that plagued so many American schools ...

Lemov himself pushed for data-driven programs that would diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. But as he went from school to school that winter, he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.

But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.
And that's the gist of the essay: How to create the better teacher, but especially, what constitutes good teaching? And if you skim down the article, Green notes that more than 1 out of 10 professors of education have never set foot in a classroom. "Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently." The statistics aren't alarmingly high in and of themselves. They speak more to the school of education production model that drives the teaching profession, and radically privileges "progressive" models of instruction and learning. The piece cites Diane Ravitch there as well, where she argues that the focus of "teachers' colleges" and "schools of education" subordinate substantive knowledge to methods, and thus create a "contentless curriculum."

I wrote earlier today on President Obama's new education initiative, so more thoughts there: "
Education for a More Competitive America?"

I'll just add, first, that I'm in sympathy with
Left Coast Rebel's sentiments on the Obama plan: "It will just be more centralization and federal control when the educational system needs the opposite - more local control and privatization." But second, I'm also concerned that even the best privatization and voucher programs will leave the disadvantaged with continued struggles (see another essay on that from Dianne Ravitch, today at LAT) -- and more, I'm skeptical that Obama's even serious about the schools; and mostly, I see society's larger cultural collapse as an enormity that the schools alone can't handle. Increasing wireless communications in the classroom, combined with a gangsta-loving anti-intellectualism among large numbers of kids, makes holding student attention nearly impossible nowadays. I don't have the answers, obviously. But any effort to increase local control has to be tied with a fundamental rethinking of the role of families in education. How do you get administrators, teachers, parents, and kids on the same page? In recent weeks I've seen school administrators worrying about the economy and the very survival of their campuses. I've seen teachers unions worried about nothing more than maintaining fat paychecks -- way fatter, on average, than the private sector workers paying taxes to the state. I've heard little discussion of a new 21st century culture of learning. What's the model for that? We sure need one. Kids are literally being chewed-up on the streets of the urban crisis.

More on this later, much more ...

At the video, John Houseman as
Professor Charles Kingsfield. (I love the case study -- Socratic -- method and I've had good success with it ...)