Education Debate (Part I)

Note: This is the first of a series of posts regarding a comprehensive public education system written in cooperation with Mark of Publius Endures. The following is my opening proposal.

Introduction:

Education is the magic bullet, that single issue that holds the potential of making better so many different aspects of modern life. Within the confines of reason, a vastly improved education could result in a stronger economy, lower crime, richer additions to the cultural experience, and a strengthened democracy. It is through our educational systems that the shape of the next generation is molded and if we build that mold properly, then there is no reason that we shouldn’t be able to fulfill that single generational promise that they will receive a better world than we did or, at the very least, be given the tools required to clean up our mistakes.

It is the comprehensive nature of education that leads me to believe that people will pay a price, pay a high price in fact, if only they were getting their money’s worth out of it. Business owners would be willing to pay a little more for a work force that is higher trained and better prepared than any that came before them, while economists and businessmen alike could hardly ignore the boon such a force would be, and their buying power, in the economy. Crime would drop as more people are given the opportunity to earn a decent living without having to resort to illegal means. But this isn’t just about creating a working class either, this is about creating a comprehensive education, one that builds thinkers and writers and musicians and painters, scientists and artists, pragmatists and dreamers. It is only through a system that encourages every child to reach their full potential no matter where that potential may lead them can we as a society stand to reap immeasurable benefits for our investments.

Sadly, public education and the kind of educational system we should be demanding are oceans apart.

I’m not an educator. I’ve never been one and have little background in the topic with the exception of that which I learned as a lecturer in the military, and through my own public education experiences. Still, I think some of the answers to the obstacles that stand in the way to giving our children the strongest education they can possibly receive are not as complex as the problem would imply; it merely requires the effort to look at the problem from a different angle, willingness to argue with someone who doesn’t agree, and the humility to realize that other opinions are valid, whether it be someone playing devil’s advocate here at home, or the dozens of countries outside the United States that have higher rated education systems than we do.

It is at this juncture I want to recall Mr. Fiddler. Mr. Fiddler was my eighth grade math teacher and he inspired a few of the proposals I will make below. Mr. Fiddler also stands as proof that the problems are fixable, that there is a way to get the children to learn even if it seems impossible. Many people encounter a single teacher that changes the course of their lives, the one teacher that got it, or at least got you to get it. For me, that would be Mr. Fiddler.

And I wasn’t the only one. The magic that Mr. Fiddler accomplished was astounding. Students that struggled or failed in the rest of their classes, or even their previous year of math, flourished under Mr. Fiddler’s tutelage. Kids who were never expected to go very far not only passed Mr. Fiddler’s class, but excelled, and at a time when most students were entering High School at a pre-Algebra level, a significantly high percentage of Mr. Fiddler’s students entered High School taking Algebra.

I will never forget the words Mr. Fiddler spoke on our first day of class. Small, with olive skin, dark curly hair, and a face of comically emphasized features, he said, “Learning is one of the most pleasurable experiences around.” He said this to a group of burgeoning adolescents and he did so without a hint of irony. As though anticipating the skepticism the room would surely meet him with, he continued, “Not this. Not homework. Not doing the same thing over and over again; that’s busy work meant to keep you occupied. I’m talking about really learning, I’m talking about struggling to grasp a concept until you reach that one shining moment when everything falls into place and you understand it, and something explodes in your brain as more electrical connections between brain cells are fused permanently together and that… that is one of the best feelings in the world.”

And he was right. There is that spark, that sense of joy at having made new connections. It is this simple euphoria that I think we can sell to the tax paying public, and if we give them their money’s worth, they will not only not complain, but be grateful.

Sadly, we’re nowhere close to that kind of education system. Instead we have a broken down system, one in which the kids who need the most help often times are the most ignored, one where a high school diploma is barely worth the paper and ink used to create it, and now with the implementation of NCLB, we have a system that doesn’t fix problems but shifts them around from one school to the next while at the same time hindering teacher creativity, narrowing the potential of student achievement by focusing on and teaching to the test.

No Child Left Behind must necessarily be left behind. But not our public schools. We can, and should, make them the cathedrals of learning that they deserve to be. What follows is by no means a definitive and hard set plan but instead some broad strokes that I look forward to refining with my friend Mark in what I think is a laudable goal.

Research and Development

This proposal will contain a number of ideas on improving our public education system; however, it is important to understand that perhaps the best minds to probe on education are those belonging not to the political punditry class, but instead the most trusted and gifted educators our country has to offer.

Keeping this in mind, all provisions that I offer in this proposal should remain subject to change based on the advice of the best educators we can find. As a result, the first thing I propose is to establish two committees comprised of those professionals who lead the field in education.

-The first committee will specifically focus on homegrown educational proposals and research. They will coordinate and collect data on studies on everything from neurology to technology to come up with new ideas on how to make our classrooms more effective. There are studies out there already on such things such as optimal lecture length and this commissions should be ready to employ such information to adjust curriculums. But this committee should also be empowered to commission studies as well.

Not only should their curiosity not be quelled, but should in fact be encouraged and satisfied at every possible juncture in order to further strengthen the foundation of our schools.

-The second committee will focus on the information to be had abroad. Currently there are dozens of countries whose educational systems are rated higher than our own. There is a current in this country that out of some irrational sense of hubris or nationalism defiantly ignores the wisdom of other nations, but this kind of arrogance blocks the most important thing; knowledge that can be used to our own benefit.

This second committee will act in humility instead of arrogance. There is a wealth of knowledge to be had from the programs of other countries and they will focus on collecting that data and working on methods of implicating this knowledge into our own systems.

While at a first glance, this second committee may appear to have a shelf life, I think it is important that they be established as a permanent entity that acts as our educational emissary throughout the world. I want to join an international education community where America holds a significant chair at the table, and so what starts out as a fact finding group I hope grows into a significant part of the international community.

Smart Funding

Now, I agreed not to talk much about funding for public education for various reasons, but there was one idea that I had that I wanted to toss out there because I do believe that the old standby of just throwing money at the problem does not work.

We can dump an infinite amount of money into our public education system and still not receive appreciable returns. Much of this has to do with the effectiveness of the programs we’re paying for, but it is also reasonable to expect that we treat the money wisely and not as though we were simply throwing it into a pit and hoping something good happens as a result.

I know I don’t understand how school funding works, so I open myself up to criticism here, but having been a federal employee for the entirety of my adult life, I sort of have a feel for how funding works. Everything is budgeted, and it is almost the job of those people in charge of spending the budget to max out every fiscal year. There’s a rationale behind this; if you don’t use your full budget one year, then you’re liable to lose some of that money the following year.

Whether this is a problem that exists in our public schools or not, I don’t know, but I do think it is reasonable to assume that money’s not necessarily getting where it needs to be and I think I know a possible solution on fixing that.

I want to create a national, universal account for public schools. Instead of trying to govern public school funding at the federal level, I think it would work best if we took a simple two step program approach to make sure money gets where it needs to go.

The first step is a permanent periodic funding level. While some necessities come and go, there are obviously some costs that remain static. For each school, there should be a minimum permanent periodic funding level which represents the bare minimum amount of money needed to keep the school up and going, and this money is thusly allocated no questions asked.

Every cent not spent on the PPFLs should thusly be placed into a universally accessible account. Here all schools are allowed to go to the well, so long as they can prove a reasonable necessity to do so. Perhaps a school in Dayton Ohio wants to purchase a new set of literature books, this would be where they go to get the money. And we know it’s there because Florida, already having had the books mentioned for a school year has thusly not taken any money out of the account.

There obviously would need to be tons of fine ink and procedure written on this, but the goal is simple. I think the goals of education should be national. We’re training our children to enter a global economy at all levels, from labor to innovator and at each level they’re going to have to compete worldwide. But while the goals we need to reach are should be the same whether you’re in Hawaii or Illinois, the challenges are obviously going to be different from one school to the next.

What this fund does is act kind of like the education version of Al Gore’s Social Security lock box (or, I guess, maybe Superfund?). It creates a pool of wealth specifically for education but it takes the responsibility of managing and allocating that wealth to the local needs of each individual school. Thus we don’t have one school constantly buying books it doesn’t need to keep its book budget in tact, while at the same time ensuring that if the classrooms in another school needs new desks, it can get them with very little hassle.

Building Better Teachers

I know I’m not the only person that believes that there is something woefully wrong that being born lucky can result in a multi million dollar lifestyle, while those who not only work hard but hear the call of civic minded duty to teach in our public school system make notoriously low wages.

Teachers mold our young and provide the first and best shot at shaping a generation that can lead the world. The person who develops the next bit of technology that changes the world, the leader who breaks barriers to usher in eras of peace and prosperity, even the guy who manages to get up every day to collect your refuse, they all of them were once guided along their path by teachers and I say it’s time we start recognizing that.

First things first is to get teachers out of the doldrums of poor salary. You offer 30, 40, 50K a year for a teacher, you’re going to get teachers that are worth that much. Sure, you’re going to find a lot of teachers out there that work for so little money, but you’re also losing so many more people who could change the world with their teaching, but couldn’t justify the pay cut.

We need to raise the bar here, and seriously contemplate making teachers either a very high five figure salary, or a low six figure… at the minimum.

But there must be balance to this system and so here goes.

-I propose a merit based system of elevating the salary of public school teachers. There is rightfully much animosity based upon how to determine said merit, but I think it can be done. Remember one of my opening premises: I think people will pay the money if they think they’re getting their money’s worth. When it comes to merit based pay, I don’t think there is one single best way of determining a teacher’s merit. Instead, I think you have to create a comprehensive report card that would be based upon a weighted combination of different metrics. Student test scores (which will be discussed in greater detail below), student feedback, parent feedback, principle feedback, and independent evaluation. I think it’s possible to take snapshots from all these and possibly other metrics and come at least close to knowing whether a teacher is doing their job up to standards, exceedingly well, or poor enough to earn reprimand.

-We need higher standards on teachers, and we need to start from education. If we want our children to have the best education, we need to make sure that their teachers are the best trained in the world. We also have to remember that for much of the day, we entrust our children to their stewardship, and so yes, the bar must be set almost impossibly high. I want advanced degree requirements as well as psychological evaluations for teachers. They should be required to undergo teacher training in some of the most adverse environments and I think it reasonable to ask that all teachers be required to meet the standards of a federally appointed board of educators.

The goal here is simple: when you walk into a classroom, no matter where it is, you can be assured of the fact that the person who stands at the head of the classroom has met the highest standards of excellence and earns every cent of their elevated salary.

-It’s true, I want some high standards for our teachers, but I think that we need to do everything we can to help people meet those standards. There should be a program much like the military has called “Troops to Teachers” only based in high school which allows younger people to transition seamlessly from the high school learning career, to a collegiate curriculum focused solely on teaching, to getting straight into the classrooms and teaching.

I think it would be money well spent funding the college education of young people, and perhaps in return we can expect from the some mandatory service; teaching in schools known to be problematic in the past for a lesser wage, etc.

-Alternatively, there should be incentive pay for teachers who take on the tough jobs.

Measuring Growth

One of the greatest challenges to developing an education program is deciding what works and what doesn’t. How do we measure success?

In the realm of education, the concept of standardized testing has been much maligned and for some historical good reasons. For instance there was the supposed cultural bias of the SATs from years back. There is the pitfall of teaching to the test that current NCLB standards provide, there is the luck factor of multiple choice examinations and the list goes on and on.

And still, the maligning of standardized tests provides us with few acceptable alternatives, and I think a wholesale abandoning of standardized tests leaves us with no useable solutions. Thus we need to adopt a more progressive approach towards standardized testing.

First we have to understand that multiple choice standardized tests have a place, just, perhaps, not the place that it currently has. As the student progresses throughout his or her educational career, there will later come a need for more diversified testing, but in the early years, I think we can all agree that there are a certain number of basic subjects that are vital to be tested.

For the early years of education, there should be standardized tests based on these basics. Reading, writing, arithmetic, these things can be monitored I think adequately from a young age through standardized testing and I believe cover the most basic and essential disciplines that are needed by all of children in order to grow into well educated and useful citizens.

But as will be discussed in the next section, I think as the student grows, the range and scope of education should not only advance in grade level, but also diversify and specialize. As a result, so too should the testing. While I think it is reasonable to ask that younger children all meet the same standards, I think it is also reasonable to expect that as the education grows, the testing must necessarily change.

Testing should match the classes taken, this opposed to the mandates of NCLB which holds students to the same standards throughout their education. What I’m saying here is that we shouldn’t have to worry about testing for literacy at the high school level, that should happen before the student even gets there.

Also, I feel that all tests that count for a permanent record should be remote graded. This is to prevent the bias of teachers who have a personal relation to the student affecting that student’s educational career, for better or for worse.

Further, tests shouldn’t be limited to the old standardized models, but instead match the creativity and the needs of the subject at hand. English subjects should be tested using short essay, and long form essay examinations. Mathematical examinations should not rely on the luck of filling in a bubble, but instead show all the work (as anyone who has studied math would know, often times the answer is not nearly as important as the work used to get to that answer).

Examination boards should be established to allow for even more creative methods of testing, from personal oral examination to surveillance based methodology.

Finally, examination results should not be used as merely check valves; go-no-go tests, but instead be used as intended, to monitor the student’s abilities, and use that information not to punish, but to help tailor their education to best meet their needs. This will be covered in the next section.

Cultivating the Future

Now we finally get to the place where the metal meets propulsion: the classroom. I think we can make a world of difference in the schools. Some of these changes will be easy, some will be very difficult, but I think all of them are worth considering to give our children the best shot they have at receiving the best education available anywhere.

-Nutrition. The body is a complex machine, and like any machine, it’s operation is directly proportional to the materials and fuels used to build and power it. There is a ton of evidence to support the assertion that the functions of the brain are much aided by a healthy diet and exercise. Now, we have no control over what parents choose to give their children for lunch; it’s a right that all families have to send with their children a meal and beverages. But for those children who eat school lunch every day, we do have control.

I propose we get sodas out of the schools, get junk food out of the schools, that we remove from our school’s lunchrooms those foods that not only grossly fail to meet the nutritional needs of our children, but also contribute to the obesity epidemic that plagues this country. We can and should ensure that food served in public schools meets an established nutrition standard.

-Shrink Class Size. There is a logical reason why many educators believe that smaller classrooms benefit children in their education. The reason why is because we are all different. We all have different ways in which our learning is optimized. Some learn best through oral presentations while others retain written knowledge better while other students are best served through hands on learning.

When a teacher is inundated with too many students, one of the problems that is faced is that a teacher can only spend so much time per student. As a result, students who need more attention may miss it, students whose optimal learning process is ignored struggle grasping the material. By contrast, in small classes, teachers are given the luxury of better measuring their own students and ascertaining how they learn best.

Thus, based on the success of getting more and better teachers, we should strive to have a maximum class size of twenty to twenty five students in all schools.

-Positive Reinforcement, and Effort Based Merit. I want to take a moment and recall the teaching style of Mr. Fiddler. After giving us the lecture on how great a thing learning is, Mr. Fiddler explained his policy. He said that if you attempt the homework, every problem you gave an honest effort for, you would receive a C. That to him, was average. It took getting the work and answers right to elevate a student’s grade to B or above.

Meanwhile, the only way to fail was to not try at all. It seems like such a small thing, and I can imagine that some may grumble and protest over this, say that this doesn’t prepare the student for real life and gives the student an unrealistic distortion that results don’t matter.

I would say that I suppose there are valid points to this, but education is just that, education. It’s not competition. We are training them, teaching them. Further, whatever risks there are I think are far outweighed by the benefits to be had.

There is one thing that Mr. Fiddler’s policy did; it gave kids a reason not to give up. I think one of the major obstacles for many kids is that they are stuck in a system that looks more to them like a wall and less like a path to success. For children with learning disabilities, or for those in problem areas. For children who are too used to seeing Fs and Ds on their class work and report cards, the message we too often send is “Don’t even bother trying, you’re not going to make it.”

By contrast, on that first day Mr. Fiddler sent a clear message to every student that struggles, “If you give me your effort, I will help you see this through. I will help you pass.” This got the attention of students who had been held back years, who squeaked by at a D – average, and I am here to tell you that in one year they went from being failures to being above average in mathematical studies.

We need to change our educational focus from one of pass vs. fail to one of accomplishing what you can do. Of course there should be educational standards, but the default to not meeting these standards should not be failure, but instead an increased effort to educate the child.

-Longer school years. One of those nation’s that does better than us consistently in the realm of education is Japan. Now, here in the states, we send our children to school for about a hundred and eighty days a year; roughly half the calendar. In Japan, however, their students go to school some 240 days a year. An extra sixty days of instruction that we’re losing.

I think it’s vital that we start taking this seriously, I think we need to establish longer school years.

-Pre kindergarten education- Here is something else I’ve seen first hand. I have two daughters. My eldest has been in a professional curriculum based daycare for her entire life. On the other hand, due to circumstances, my younger daughter has spent some time in a private home day care.

I began to notice that my younger daughter’s speech was not developing as fast as her big sister’s did and this eventually began to worry me. We then switched my youngest to the same daycare as her sister, and within a week results were not just noticeable but obvious. In that short of a time frame, my younger daughter’s vocabulary at a minimum doubled.

Studies have shown that the human mind is at its most absorbent in its early years, thus I think we would be remiss in not offering a plan that makes pre kindergarten education affordable if not free to all parents based on their income.

-Also, I propose a vigorous after school program that has a focus on community building as well as supplemental education. I want to encourage tutors and teachers to volunteer their time to help children with their education in the hours after the school day while parents are at work.

-Progressive Diversification. This is the key. In many countries, Germany and England for instance, a student’s path is partially decided before the equivalent of high school is reached. On one hand, I appreciate this, not all students are cut out to be scholars and its unfair to try to hold all students to the same standards.

On the other hand, I always felt this take on education is incredibly immobile, and it feels as though it is too quick to seal someone in their fate. I want a happy middle. I want to get out of the rut that we’re in studying general education as late as college, but I don’t want to be choosing who’s going to be doing what in kindergarten.

Thus I propose progressive diversification of education where a student’s performance and interests continuously define their educational career. This is to say that assuming you have met your early basic standards in grammar school, as you progress through high school your requirements will not be based upon as much on general education subjects as they would be on the more specialized subjects you chose. The idea here is to help students fast track and tailor their educational career to the actual paying career that they want.

As an example, let’s say that there is a student who wants to be a mathematician. They would be required to meet all the normal standards through grammar school etc, but starting probably as early as middle school they would increasingly need to meet perfunctory proficiency standards in things like social studies and sciences while at the same time mathematic and science based classes will comprise the bulk weight of their educational evaluation.

On top of this, I propose a seamless high school to college program that gives students all the help that they need to minimize the effort required to move from mandatory to higher education. For those students for whom higher education may not be a feasible option, I would also like to see a strong job placement program, or a seamless trade school program as well.

The goal of progressive education diversification is simple. The High School diploma is obsolete. This would be fine, except for many children high school is the last bit of free education a lot of children get. As a result, we’re looking at about twelve years of education that doesn’t go far enough.

PED’s goal is to make the High School Diploma mean something again. To ensure that every student who graduates from High School is either on a seamless path towards higher education, trade education, or going straight out to the real world to earn a living wage.

Conclusion

I’ve offered a lot of ideas here, and I think this is probably only a fraction of what I have going on in my mind but I’m not doing this alone, and I think I want to save time and room for my friend Mark. As of the time of this writing, Mark has yet to make this proposal, but I will update with a link to his when it’s up.

5 Responses to “Education Debate (Part I)”

  1. Thomas says:

    The bottom line is that you can do whatever you want with your own children within the law. But you don’t have the right to make me raise my children the same way, nor do you have the right to take money away from my family.

  2. Mark says:

    Initial part I posted. Will hopefully make two more posts later tonight.

  3. Wow, I just skimmed and I can already tell this is going to be fun.. But for now, I have other work to do.

  4. Mark says:

    The rest of my part I posted in two additional posts (three total).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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