A Lesson From My Students

I’ve been teaching adult ESL classes this fall, and one of my recent class discussions with my students from other nations—Korea, Japan, China, Spain, and Taiwan—revolved around the history of American public schools and their current travails, both fiscal and academic.  It was a peculiar and occasionally painful class discussion as I tried to answer their questions regarding what they have heard about our schools and what their own children are—and are not—learning in our classrooms.

First off, they find our crazy quilt system of funding through local property taxes appalling.  Coming from societies where schools from both the richest and poorest communities receive exactly the same funding through their national governments, they cannot understand why American students should be punished academically for growing up in a town with lower property values and less money to spend on their educations.  Especially for a society that claims to put such high premiums on equality and opportunity for all, it seemed to them a contradiction that spoke to a deep-seated hypocrisy about those values we Americans claim to honor.

Moreover, as far as my adult ESL students were concerned, all students in American schools should also be allowed to go to whatever area school they choose to attend without restriction, although those who chose to attend schools out of their local area should be fully responsible for their own transportation costs.  To their minds, this would foster some healthy competition between school systems for students and the funding attached to them while allowing parents to make choices regarding their children’s educations—a particular concern for those parents who felt their child’s school was not providing a high quality education.  School choice was hardly an issue in their own countries—public schools are generally of a uniformly high quality—but they keenly felt the need for some competition in our troubled American educational system.

Homework?  What homework?  When we discussed recent proposals for lengthening the school day and/or school year, they almost all had the same comment: “Why don’t they just give homework?  It adds up to the same thing.”  It’s a good question.  After one of my recent guest commentaries, I had some email correspondence with a local school board member who seemed to believe that homework was a fairly pointless—if not actively damaging—endeavor for students.  When I tried to explain the reasoning behind the emails from this particular school board member, my students just shook their heads in dismay.  Coming from cultures where the highly competitive educational environment demands sustained effort beyond the regular school day, they found the idea that daily hours of homework were not necessary for academic success to be just a bit odd.

As for standardized testing, they all come from cultures where regular, rigorous testing of students is an established fact of life, and failure to measure up is a grave problem because it cut off students from full-ride scholarships and admission to the most competitive universities in their countries.  As a result, students and their families typically work very, very hard on a daily basis to ensure that difficult material is mastered and goals for achievement are met.  Although they almost all agreed the system of competitive national exams was dreadfully stressful, they also pointed out that life itself is usually a stressful affair—and the sooner a child realized this, they more likely they were to buckle down and achieve to their maximum potential.

Please understand that my foreign students, although some parents and educators may not agree with their views, are for the most part incredibly dedicated parents who want only the best for their children’s futures.  They all see a demanding and comprehensive education as key to their children’s successes; some, in fact, have moved to the United States just so that their children can better master English, which is now the language of choice in international commerce and academia.  These are not cruel or unfeeling parents who want to drive their children to despair with academic pressures; they simply understand the intensely competitive global market we all now inhabit, and they want their children to succeed in the daily contest that divides our planet into winners and losers.

I would love to have been able to trumpet the supremacy of the American model that many times places self-esteem over self-reliance, but I was loathe to try because we continue to see our country’s students’ achievement decline in relation to their peers in other nations.  The fact of the matter is, for all the excuses made for our students—the tests fail to measure all the amazing knowledge in their minds, the tests are misaligned with learning standards, our children tend to blossom academically at a later age than those from other nations—we are at a educational crossroads here in America.

We can continue down the same path and achieve the same sad results that speak to our failing schools—increasing rates of graduation too often oddly coupled with declining high school test scores—or we can turn the ship around.  To do so we must embrace a model that celebrates the highest standards across the curriculum and realizes that the most secure and lasting self-esteem springs from actual achievement—not pencil-whipping students on to graduation ceremonies that too often recognize little but seat time attendance in busywork “Recovery” and “Recapture” classes that exist solely to provide a diploma to those students who are least prepared for a competitive world of work and higher education.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record—I’ve said precisely the same thing before—we are well past the time for more half-measures reforms and gimmicky instructional fads.  The time is now if we do not want to simply wave goodbye to our nation’s leadership in the world economy because we can not find it within ourselves to make the desperately needed improvements in our public schools.

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The Agenda For Now: Needs, Not Wants

The midterm elections are over, and the people have spoken.  Now we are onto the hard, messy, and sometime maddening business of forming new political alliances, rolling up our sleeves, and diving into the many pressing problems our new legislators were elected to solve.

Of course, the 900-pound gorilla in the room is easy to identify—we are out of money.  Our local governments, our states, and the federal government may have all reached the functional limit of their ability to borrow against expected future revenues to pay today’s expenses.  We’re not quite at the end of our fiscal tether, but we are much too close for anyone’s comfort, and we perhaps see visions of our own draconian fiscal future when we look across the pond at the difficult choices now being made by the United Kingdom and so many nations in the European Union.

What are we to do?  It seems obvious that we need to very significantly cut spending and consider raising some taxes and fees as a first step to climbing out of the hole we’ve spent so many decades digging, but the political questions of whose spending is cut and whose taxes are raised too often gets caught up in the partisan media echo chamber and is distorted into choices that range from killing grandma today to selling our children into slavery tomorrow.

Perhaps we simply need to turn down the volume and work toward establishing broad guidelines for the most basic needs we expect our government to fulfill.  Hopefully, we can all agree the following list, offered in no particular order, may be a good start for our discussion: Public Safety, Education, Infrastructure Rehabilitation, National Defense, Medicaid and Medicare, and Public Pensions and Social Security.  However, even these items are beyond our present ability to tax—or borrow—and spend, and each will both strain our coffers and the forbearance of our citizens when it comes to additional taxes, fee increases, and the cuts in benefits and services necessary to make the numbers add up.  Nothing should be so sacrosanct as to be beyond discussion, and a little imaginative “out of the box” thinking would be more than helpful—as long as it does not involve some more of the financial sleight of hand that got us into this mess in the first place.

With this in mind, we need to start budgeting the way we all do in our own households: First ask ourselves if any proposed spending is a “need” or a “want”.  We may want to keep funding purchases of new public lands, buy a piece of public sculpture, or put a new marina on a lake.  Any of these—or ten thousand other ideas—may create a few jobs, provide an opportunity for a photo op, or put a smile on the faces of the local politicos the week before Election Day.  However, it does not mean we should do them.  Given our grim situation, we need to adjust to the idea that Santa Claus does not—and should not—visit every single day of the year.  We are well past the point when we can any longer afford to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need.

Moreover, when it comes to establishing our list of needs, please note that I left off one item that is near and dear to most our politicians and many of our voters: economic development.  This is not because I do not believe in economic development; we certainly need jobs.  However, given that government-sponsored economic development typically boils down to passing out taxpayer money in the forms of tax breaks, loan guarantees, or simply shouldering many of the costs of development, it seems an exceedingly poor idea to continue down this path during an era of record deficits in every nook and cranny of our governmental structure.  If a project—whether it is a sports stadium, convention center, or retail complex—makes economic sense, a private developer will surely step in to assume both the risk and reward.  If we have to remove all the risk to encourage a private developer to get on board, perhaps we should carefully consider the inherent logic of asking taxpayers to assume responsibility for the downside potential while allowing the rewards to go elsewhere.  Capitalism is a wonderful system; we should let it do what it is designed to do—make the difficult and dispassionate calculations of risk and return—and get out of the way.

And so we get back to that pesky question of discerning the difference between needs and wants.  It will be a long and difficult process, and our nation’s founders intended it to be just that.  If we can develop a dialogue that does not descend into name-calling and sloganeering, we have a fighting chance of succeeding at creating the necessary consensus for change.  Failing this, we can only look forward to more gridlock, more hand wringing over broken government, and more troubles down the road.  The path to fiscal and economic recovery will be a hard slog that is ours—and ours alone.  We may “want” a magical happy ending that is all smiles and sunshine, but we “need” a hard dose of common sense and a keen sense of reality to get us back on course.

Why We’re (Really) Angry

During these days leading up to the November elections, we’re talking about voter anger—a lot.  Each day we’re treated to more news stories about how we’re so, so angry—and we’re not going to take it anymore.  However, few seem to discern just why we’re actually angry.  It is not, I think, that we truly believe Medicare is unconstitutional, health care reform will put our elders to death, or we are interested in teaching Ptolemy to our children.

It seems to me that what is really driving our dizzy rage is the sense that we’ve been had: by our political leaders, our financial wizards, and our own belief that hard work and honesty are inevitably rewarded in both the marketplace and our daily lives.  Too many of us seem to feel like yokels who have had their pockets picked at the carnival; we were so busy watching the colorful wheel of fortune spin and listening to the beguiling call of the barker we somehow failed to notice that stealthy hand stealing both our wallets and—in too many cases—our futures.

Think back to what we were told only a short time ago.  Tax cuts for the wealthiest will create jobs galore—and have no negative consequence for our nation’s finances because the tax cuts will more than pay for themselves.  We have “defeated” the normal business cycle, and we can look forward to lives of unending prosperity driven by both the skyrocketing stock market and the handy wealth created by the inevitably rising value of our real estate; moreover, “relaxed” lending standards will allow more Americans to own homes, and the resulting “ownership society” will usher in a golden era of political, economic, and social stability.  Most importantly, thanks to our courageous leaders who forthrightly have ditched Depression-era financial regulations that prohibit banks from taking on risky investments, our nation’s financial system is now poised for explosive growth and record-shattering profitability for all time to come.

And, of course, those who attempt to argue caution, that we are blithely putting ourselves on the path to eventual economic ruin, are nothing but nanny-state socialists who want to control our lives with their fears.

It now seems like a faraway world from another time we have to squint hard to recognize.  Today we work—if we are lucky—to pay the taxes that allow us to make interest payments to those who loan us the money to run our government.  If the wealthiest and most powerful happen to make horrendously stupid decisions, we continue to pour our tax money on them so as to avoid further crippling our economy.  After bailing them out with our hard-earned dollars, our nation’s leading banks now have been kind enough to continually obstruct any effort to restructure our mortgages so we can stay in our homes—while at the same time paying us close to no interest on whatever money we still manage to have on deposit in their “too big to fail” institutions.  In addition, thanks to a combination of political myopia, weakened regulatory oversight, and our misguided faith in the cleverness of our financial legerdemain, we are facing a ticking pension bomb that will likely make all our previous problems seem like the smallest of potatoes.

I know that some are worried our grim rage will lead us down a path that will cause even more harm because we will turn to those who shout the loudest and lay blame the most effectively—whether or not their ideas make any sense.  In addition, there is the concern that we will elect leaders who will twist our anger to suit their own political and social agendas and cause grave damage to the traditions of tolerance we have worked so hard for so many generations to make a part of our daily social fabric.  Perhaps there is the very slimmest of risks that a demagogue will take us down the path of darkness, but I do not believe that, when all the poll-driven shouting is done, we will ever wake up to tyranny—we have far too much common sense imbedded in the souls our citizens to allow such a thing to happen.

I suspect the largest danger is that we will lose whatever hope we still somehow possess—and be left with only silence as even the angry voices disappear.  Right now we are energized to act, and it would be a shame if all this energy winds down to dull silence and acquiescence because those who benefit from today’s broken systems somehow manage to frustrate our will for honest and clearheaded change.  No matter how messy and annoying it may seem at times, we need to keep up the volume, ask impolite questions of our political, educational, and business leaders, and demand that those who are unable to effectively lead step aside and let others take charge.  All politics may be local, but our nation can—and I’m sure will—gaze upon our problems with eyes that see the broad national scope of both the needs and the dreams that need be fulfilled if we are to continue to realize our nation’s many promises to both our own people and the fragile world we help to lead.

We Need To Develop The Tools To Find The Best Teachers

The President of an advertising agency where I used to work in Manhattan had an entirely unsentimental—but highly descriptive—saying about our staff: “My most valuable asset goes down the elevator at the end of every day, and I just hope they come back up again in the morning”.  He knew, as all good managers do, that the success or failure of his business was entirely dependent on hiring and retaining the best employees.

However, imagine, if you will, trying to run a business without having any clue which of your employees are good or bad at their jobs—leaving you to grasp at whatever measure seems handy in an effort to make a marginally informed guess about who to promote and who to fire.  If this notion seems a bit odd to you, you obviously have never worked in public education.

Let’s face it: most schools in the United States have very little idea which of their teachers are good, bad, or indifferent because the pertinent data is often simply not there—and, if it is, school districts and teacher’s unions are loath to peek at the numbers.  This point is amply illustrated by the recent experience of the Los Angeles Unified School District with a system known as “Value-Added Analysis”, which ranks the effectiveness of teachers based on the academic performance of their students from one to year to the next.

The system of value-added analysis has been kicking around for years, and has been used as a part of teacher evaluations in school districts ranging Tennessee to Washington, D.C.  In the case of the Los Angeles school system, administrators had the raw data available for years.  It was, however, left to the Los Angeles Times to obtain the data, hire an expert from the Rand Corporation to run the analyses, and, in a case of first-ever civic transparency that has L.A. teachers, school officials, and union leaders doing somersaults of shock and indignation, publish the value-added analyses for over 6,000 elementary school teachers and 470 schools in their newspaper.

What they found when they ran the numbers was not all that much of a surprise: a child’s teacher makes a tremendous difference, a difference that is breathtaking in terms of the effect that a single year with a very good—or very bad—teacher can have on the educational future of a child.  In fact, the teacher assigned to a child was three times more important than the school he or she attended in terms of that child’s chances for academic achievement.  Moreover, excellent teachers were found by other studies of the district to be just as excellent for all their students, regardless of the student’s English language proficiency, race, or family income—which certainly blows a big hole in the oft-repeated claim that all that is wrong with our public schools today is that too many of our students are poor, black, or foreign.

However, what might be surprising to some is that the value-added analysis showed that teacher education, experience, and training seems to not make a lick of difference in a teacher’s effectiveness—good teachers are good at their job for reasons that have nothing to do with attending workshops on Teacher Institute days or the number of years they have stood in front of a classroom.  In addition, some principals seemed utterly befuddled to find out that the teachers they thought were excellent were, in fact, ranked right at the bottom in terms of measurable student achievement.

The problem is, of course, that we have spent a great many years stabbing in the dark with frightening ignorance, whether willful or not, when it comes to hiring and tenuring public school teachers.  Lacking any reasonable basis for judging whether a teacher is good or bad at their job other than a handful of pre-arranged classroom observations, administrators often resort to bean-counting disciplinary referrals, leafing through piles of basically meaningless certifications, and insisting on properly formatted lesson plans when it is more likely the ability to do the job is based on qualities of attention to detail, personal integrity, and devotion to the profession that don’t show up anywhere on a standard teacher evaluation form.

Given that public school administrators have to do something when it comes to evaluating their teachers, I suppose it is not surprising that so many have, for lack of a better system, resorted to their own idiosyncratic methods of deciding who will stay and who will go when it comes time to grant tenure; we are, however, likely ill-served by a system that is too often a relatively capricious exercise masquerading as entirely dispassionate science.  When we look at the dismal, and often declining, performance of so many of our public schools, it is not hard to recognize the need to start asking some very pointed questions about whether we are daily digging our own graves by continuing to rely on vague and often pointless criteria to grant a lifetime of employment to those who educate our young.

When all schools routinely publish value-added rankings of their most and least effective teachers based on standardized test data, which is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future after a consortium contracted by the U.S. Department of Education finishes creating computer-based tests that generate immediate results throughout the school year, it will likely cause a great deal of discomfort for both teachers and administrators.  Nonetheless, given the alternative—that alternative being today’s system that combines the worst of subjectivity with the best of obfuscation—it is impossible to argue we should not move as swiftly as possible toward a future that recognizes teachers must be able to teach with measurable effectiveness if they want to remain in the classroom.

When Public Schools Fail, Regulators Succeed

When it comes to any number of services and products I purchase on a regular basis from local businesses—groceries, insurance, auto repairs, restaurant meals, clothing, etc.—I have a pretty clear recourse if I’m an unhappy customer: take my business elsewhere.  It is a direct and effective method for ensuring quality products and services—and one of the simple wonders of competitive capitalism.  Any business that cannot do a good job at a fair price will no longer enjoy my patronage.

That’s the end of the story, unless, of course, there is only one grocery store, restaurant, or insurance agency—that is, additionally, operated as an government agency supported with taxpayer dollars dispensed by complex bureaucracies whose existence is dependent on denying choice to the taxpayers who supply their paychecks.  In these cases we are introduced to that peculiar species of government employees, the ones who spend their careers writing regulations and revisions in the hope that a large enough book of rules will ensure positive outcomes.

Please understand I am all for regulations meant to ensure our health and safety that are not premised on restricting my choice of services and products to but one.  I would be more than a little concerned taking over-the-counter medications not checked by the FDA, flipping on a light switch if there was no electrical code, or driving over a bridge that was not regularly inspected.

However, it is a simple truism that government monopolies have a tendency to accrue regulations in direct proportion to their lack of results—and this is sadly more and more the case with our public schools.  If you ever have a few free days, you might want to attempt to read the entire Illinois School Code.  A good portion of it is available through the Illinois State Board of Education website, and it is peculiar bureaucratic testament to best intentions—best intentions that, sadly, fail to recognize the core problem of our current system of taxpayer-funded education.

If parents have to rely on sagging bookshelves of regulations to ensure their children’s futures because public schools are by statute the sole fiduciaries of our tax dollars devoted to education, all you will be able to count on is that more regulations will be written to “solve” the problems of our failing public schools.  No matter how you look at it, the basic problem is one of lack of options for parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s education, and even the charter school law fails to address the underlying issue because for it allows, for example, a failing local public school the right to deny permission for a more academically rigorous charter school to operate within their district boundaries—welcome to the Kafkaesque world of public education reform.

Of course, if you are fortunate enough to be able to live within the school district boundaries of one of our nation’s pricier suburbs, you’re likely wondering what all the fuss concerning achievement is about; your schools have been blowing past the minimum standards for years, and your high school graduates are off to the finest colleges and universities in the nation.

However, if you live in a community less blessed and are counting on your local public schools to take your tax dollars and level the playing field for your child while you are working two jobs to put food on the table, you should probably be more than a little frustrated that your only option should you need to provide a better education for your child is to somehow pay for private school above and beyond the tax dollars you and every other person and business already pay.  It’s just a little wacky when you stop to think about it.  We can go to the market and scan an entire snack aisle of salty treats to find just the right cheesy chip for any occasion, but each child’s choice for a taxpayer supported school is—by law—limited to just one highly regulated and all too often unsuccessful option.

It is likely that public school administrators will complain that chaos that will surely result from allowing parents to take their per-pupil tax dollars and spend them on private sector educational alternatives.  How can we plan properly if we don’t have a captive market, they will ask?  Of course, many much larger and more complex enterprises somehow stay afloat without a legislative decree mandating that customers patronize only their businesses; we also seem to survive market-based approaches to a huge variety of governmental and private endeavors.  Why continue to insist that public schools alone should be exempt from the consequences of continuing failure?  Allowing parents to make choices with their federal, state, and local tax dollars for their children likely could not result in a system worse than the current one that—as a recent College Board report notes—is busy creating a generation of children less well educated than their parents.

Perhaps we can now recognize that the time for committees devoted to further study of the problem of improving public education is long past—and the time to loudly insist on a complete paradigm shift for delivering quality education to our children must start now.  Otherwise, we can continue to wave goodbye to a competitive marketplace of educated countries and their citizens who are surpassing too many of our students on a daily basis and leaving our nation’s institutions and economy at grave and growing risk.