Monday, August 31, 2009

Blocking Educational Reform - commentary

I was channel surfing the other night and clicked on an Obama speech where he was promising better education for our children. Sometime ago, I was watching a movie of an old JFK campaign speech and oddly enough heard the same thing. It happens every four years. The politicians get serious about our “failing” education system and promise to reform it, and yet it never seems to happen. Attempts at serious reforms are always sidetracked by one or another of the three P's of education: parents, politics, or profit.

A young, idealistic inner city teacher back in the 60's, James Herdon, wrote a book entitled The Way It Spoze To Be. When he would try to innovate in hopes of teaching his mostly illiterate students something, they would inform him, "That not the way it spozed to be," even though “the way it spozed to be” had been of little value to them.

Parent's often resist significant reform because, based on their experience, "That is not the way it is supposed to be." They are particularly interested in sustaining all the social and athletic affairs, as well as custodial care. A little reform is alright, just so it doesn't interfere with the way it is supposed to be. The truth is parents pretty much have the kind of schools they want, in spite of what the politicians and professional educators complain about.

Politicians too stand in the way of significant reform. They often pass laws effecting education with little understanding of what is truly needed or of the unintended consequences. They wind up creating huge bureaucracies. To understand this, think of boats. One thing that makes those pesky little personal watercraft so much fun is that they can zig zag at high speeds. However, if you were out on the ocean on an aircraft carrier, it would take you 15 miles to turn around.

If you had an autonomous school district, you could try one thing and another. If what you tried worked for your community, you'd keep on doing it. If not, you'd turn around.

However, when you are controlled by a cumbersome bureaucracy, you are like the aircraft carrier. Now, if current practices aren't right, it takes forever to turn things around. Also, bureaucrats tend to see things in universal terms which means if it is good for Los Angeles, it is good for Jonesboro. If the bureaucracy introduces a reform and it doesn't work, you hurt an entire generation before things get turned around. If a district is allowed to act autonomously, only a few students get hurt.

Bureaucracies usually produce little more than mediocrity. The only thing I hold against Ronald Reagan is that he failed to keep his campaign promise to do away with the Department of Education.

If you can slip educational reform past the parents and politicians, you still have the profit factor. Twenty years ago there were three primary industries deeply involved in education to lobby politicians. Now there are at least five.

The most politically active group is the teacher's union, the National Education Association. Its primary function is to protect the employment of its members. Any reform that looks like it will jeopardize teacher jobs will meet with strong resistance. The NEA invests a lot of money acquiring political capital and doesn't take lightly anything that might interfere.

Another big special interest is publishing. Any suggested reform that affects the profits of this industry will also be resisted. Remember, education is a five to six billion dollar industry and business doesn't like new trends that might shrink the bottom line.

Schools of education also have a major interest. They don't mind a little reform as long as it does not affect their jobs or bottom line. Since many proposed reforms have to do with the way we certify teachers, universities can get real defensive in a hurry. One of Arkansas’ reforms is the growing non-traditional teacher certification program. It offers a pathway to licensure for those with degrees in areas other than education. I hear occasional grumbling from people involved in schools of education because they have encountered a non-traditionally certified teacher they didn't deem to be very good, as if the traditional route produces nothing but the best. One problem with traditional licensure is that a teacher may find, after spending time and money getting a degree in education, she is not cut out for the job. Since the degree hasn't prepared her for anything else, she hunkers down for the next twenty-five years, doing a mediocre or worse job of teaching.

The new players on the scene are the providers of technology, both hardware and software. Twenty years ago there was little or no money being spent on classroom technology. Today we are spending millions, if not billions, on classroom technology.

Rapidly expanding players in the supplier of educational services are the producers and processors of standardized tests. The money spent on this across the
U. S. has grown exponentially since “No Child Left Behind.”

All these special interests have lobbyist. It is no mystery as to why significant reform never seems to happen. Any real reform is going to affect one or more of these special interests. I will make a prediction: In twenty years or less, public schools will be populated by the poor, the lazy, and the special needs students, and the teachers will be as much social worker as teacher. The rest will be in private schools, home schools, or virtual schools.

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