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school-choiceThis month begins the 99th session of Missouri’s General Assembly. It will also begin a new administration in America’s capitol. Both capitols are now dominated by Republicans who believe they can finally “fix” education. Both are poised to push public education into the private sector through expansion of charter schools and some form of money-follows-the-child system, often called choice. There are so many challenges to doing this, where public money flows to private interests. How do you hold a private business accountable without hamstringing them with the same rules that are hampering the public system? How do you give parents enough of the right kind of information in order to make these choices, and what is that information? How do you handle something as basic as getting kids to all these different schools? The question no one seems to be asking is, what can these alternative schools do that make them successful (in the limited cases where they are more successful than the local public system) and what prevents the public schools from doing those same things? Wouldn’t that appear to be a simpler way to “fix” the problem rather than moving everyone and every dollar around?

There are two things that could be done that would provide a great bang for the buck. Both have been done by Massachusetts so we have data that demonstrates that they are effective. The 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act affected teacher preparation, professional development, assessments, and student learning simultaneously. Thus far Missouri has only focused on standards and professional development to improve education, which have been only nominally effective in changing outcomes. We remain in the middle of the pack of most academic metrics.  So what can we do to have a greater impact on student achievement?

One – Change our colleges of education to produce content area experts, not pedagogical experts.

John Dewey did a lot to harm education in the end, but he did have one idea that should have been retained in the colleges of education. Read any mission for education today and you will find the words “critical thinking” listed as a primary goal. Fact-based instruction is ridiculed as ‘mindless repetition of facts’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘three R’s’ – read, remember, regurgitate.’) Dewey believed that that critical thinking and creative expression MUST be accompanied by firm, factual understanding. Thinking is dependent on factual knowledge and factual knowledge is useless without a mind trained to think about it. Sadly, this concept is lost in most teachers colleges. Our current education system is wildly lopsided to focus only on critical and/or constructivist thinking. Thus our students are trained to be critical of things they know little about.

Our teacher preparation programs changed ninety years ago from academic subject mastery to developmental psychology as the foundational resource for teacher preparation. We produce teachers who are told they can teach anything with the pedagogical tricks they themselves have been taught. Their ability to think critically about their subject then is greatly diminished. They cannot survive challenges by the students, parents, administrators or school board members when it comes to content. As a result, their input into the curriculum selection process has been greatly reduced as well.

I frequently find teachers who are frustrated with their district’s choice of curriculum which they are forced to use. One school’s attempt to identify a better curriculum, involving a teacher/parent panel which reviewed several different curricula over the period of a year, ended with the district stepping in and dictating that the least popular math curriculum be used instead. It remained a mystery to those on the panel why the district chose to do that. The panel members, however, walked away with the belief that their input was not appreciated or wanted, which brings us to the second point.

Two – More input to and transparency in the curricular choice department to select higher quality curricula.

Last week US News & World Report ran an opinion piece that said, when looking at all the education reform measures being used, curriculum is a little emphasized but large factor in student achievement. However, when we look at how curriculums are being chosen, we find a protective cartel of Curriculum Directors who shield themselves from “undue” influence in a process dominated by the big three educational publishers. We know from Bill Gates own statements that Common Core was meant to fully and formally entrench this control, because common standards would create “a uniform customer” thus actually reducing competition in the curriculum market. Free market economists have taught that competition is what keeps a market vibrant and leads to continual product improvement. The lack of such competition has led, in the field of education, to a predictable drop in product quality which has been studied and written about for decades.

Joy Pullman wrote a comprehensive piece on this whole topic a year ago that was published in The Federalist James O’Keefe’s Common Core Videos Are Just The Tip Of The Iceberg, Part I. You will recall these undercover videos exposed the greed and callous nature of curriculum sales through a comment by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee Dianne Barrow, “You don’t think that the educational publishing companies are in it for education do you? No, they’re in it for the money.”

Pullman writes,

“Concentrating the power in the hands of a few people exacerbates special-interest control because it makes it easier for a highly motivated faction to dominate everyone else simply by capturing the few regulators. A tiny faction can’t convince the majority to do what it wants. But government-run central planning means it doesn’t have to. The faction only has to convince a few key regulators the rest of us don’t even know exist….

This means the big guys can just put pressure on a few people up at top through gladhanding rather than getting their butts out into the market and convincing individual teachers or schools one by one that their products are the best ones for the children in those specific classrooms. We call this cronyism—and our system is designed for it. It is less the publishers’ fault that they have gotten good at leveraging a crooked system than our fault for allowing it to be so crooked in the first place.”

It turns out, however, that the choice of curriculum could actually be what makes or breaks a school district. This is a significant point given that most of the fixes being considered (class size, teacher effectiveness, minutes in class, school choice, funding equity, early childhood ed etc.) do not directly address curriculum and are frequently more expensive than curricular changes. US News compared how we think about curriculum to improve student outcomes, to trying to improve patient health through implementation of better administrative procedures. Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute said, “It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.”

Studies show, for instance, a possible 9 to 12 point rise in student’s percentile rank at the end of a school year, depending on the curriculum chosen. Research has also found variation in effect of curricula on subdomains within a particular curriculum. The policy implication is that districts may need to either choose a few different curricula for a particular subject or prioritize which subdomains they will focus on when selecting a curriculum.

Back to the original question – what do charter schools do that public schools do not that leads to different outcomes? The three best-performing charter networks in New York City – Success, Icahn and South Bronx Classical – “all explicitly emphasize a coherent, content-rich, multiyear curriculum. South Bronx Classical, for example, has a meticulously planned classical curriculum that has students learning Latin starting in third grade and studying debate starting in fourth grade” according to US News. The classical education model is still producing high scoring students even though it doesn’t specifically focus on creating critical thinkers or preparing students for the work world.

Before Betsy DeVos or the Missouri legislature spend a lot of time finding ways to force schools to implement some of the more expensive ed reforms, they might want to invest in some research on the impact of curricula and its implementation which might be the least disruptive and most effective reform possible.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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