Education Debate (Round 2)

Well, Mark and I have both delivered our opening proposals and comments in this education debate.  My initial proposal you can take a look at right here, and since Mark’s first entry was broken up into three different posts, I’m going to link to them individually as I go on.

But before I get to rolling my sleeves up and replying to Mark’s contribution in earnest, I wanted to again thank him, and I wanted to remark upon something I noticed as I read through his thoughtful posts.  It’s funny, but we both seem to see a lot of the same problems, and in some cases, I think we find ourselves desiring similar overall outcomes.  The largest discrepency between the two of us focuses on going from point a (where education is now) to point b (where it should be).

The great thing about this is that while we have very different ways of getting there, the fact that we both have a good idea of where to go, and that we oppose each other philosophically on how to get there means that we can really take this opportunity to strengthen each other’s ideas.  All things considered, I think that means we’re going to have a very successful experiment here.

On with the show.

In the first of Mark’s offerings, he singles out what he sees as the largest problems facing our education system today.  While I will summarize each as I provide my own contributions and musings, I do suggest you read his comments first.

1)   I heartily agree with Mark on his first point; the top down direction of the curriculum is a pox upon our public education system.  More specifically, there is the tendency for our school system to try to fit a multitude of differently shaped pegs through a square hole (so to speak).  This is the primary purpose behind my Progressive Diversification proposal which most importantly recognizes the fact that since students are not all one size, our educational system should not be one size fits all.  What I’m going to add here, and I think this is going to set the tone for the rest of my argument in this post, is the role that Federal Government should play in molding the curriculum.

I think I’ve beaten around the bush on this, and part of it is because I have only just now honed this one single idea.  I remember in my opening proposal making the point that all different regions, demographics, etc. have their own challenges, but given the globalization direction that the world is heading, our overall educational goals should be directed on a national level.  Sure, a kid in Alabama may have different obstacles to contend with than a kid in California, but when both are done with their secondary education, they should be on something resembling a level playing field.

At the same time, we must recognize that no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to put everyone on a perfectly equal and level playing field.  As a result, I think we have to take the Federal Government, and set the mission statement there.  There should be, on a national level, an assurance that once a student completes his or her secondary education college may not necessarily be guaranteed, but something that fits that student’s abilities, needs and desires is.

In otherwords, I think it should be nationally mandated that completion of high school guarantees training  that meets one of the following standards:

-Training has been received to a point where the student is able to attain moderate skill labor job capable of earning a living wage.

-Training has been received to provide a seamless transition to extended trade based training (ie. carpentry, automobile maintence, etc.).

-Training has been received to provide a seamless transition to higher education (aka, traditional college).

The fact is, high school diplomas stopped meaning anything at least ten, maybe twenty years ago.  Even associate degrees are pretty much worthless, and bachelor degrees are getting there.  The problem is, of course, that High School is the where the free education stops.  So we need to retool the system such that after the free education is over, you are adequately trained to where you don’t have to kick more cash in just to get a better job.  That is a self defeating situation when you think about it for longer than a couple minutes.

2) I agree to a point with Mark on the ills of standardized testing, but also see it as something of a necessary evil.  There has to be some way of measuring the academic growth of students for two reasons.  The first is to measure the effectiveness of our education program.  Now to this purpose, we can probably get along with abolishing standardized testing completely, and focus instead on college placement, job placement, etc.  But we also need to measure the growth of each individual student in order to identify problem areas, areas of growth, and collect the data needed to better teach them.

Thus, we need to build a better mouse trap when it comes to standardized tests, and I think the first step is to increase the human factor, while at the same time remove it.  When I mean reduce it, I think that for a lot of tests, the administration of the test should be done by someone unknown to the student, not the student’s teacher’s who have developed relationships with their classes.  On the other hand, it is difficult to definitively ascertain whether a student has a good grasp of the material by a serious of filled in bubbles.

Thus, I think we need to take our standardized tests to another level, and I address this some in my opening proposal, but to give a little more guidance here.  If a student is taking a path that focuses on automobile maintenance, perhaps a good “standardized test” at the end of their secondary education might be to take apart and rebuild a car engine.

Another idea is, as mentioned above, we’re changing the tone in High School to make it prepare our students for the next step (as opposed to it being merely a rite of passage, which is kinda what it is now).  I have a feeling Mark’s going to like this, but we can cut the middle man out.  For students hoping to go to college, why not have their college entrance exams and application essays actually serve as their high school final exams?  For students taking a trade based pathway, their real world certification exams could double as standardized tests.  This would almost guarantee that the High School diploma actually has a meaning to it.

It’s just an idea.

But yeah, I don’t like standardized tests much, but they are a necessity, and we need to find a way to get out of teaching to the test, or, at least, if we are teaching to the test then the test reflects the adequate level of knowledge and proficiency to represent the attribute being tested.  Thus, I think here is probably the first point that Mark and I are going to have to spend some extra time hashing out.

3.  Competition.  This area that Mark points out I will nominally agree with in that a lack of competition or the absence of retribution for poor performance can be a factor in the poor performance of our public school system.  But since Mark revisits this topic later, I will only outline some concerns I have with privatization or injecting too much competition in our school system.

Primarily, my number one concern is that in even fully privatized systems, there is still a stratification of quality.  Take shoes.  Shoes are fully privatized; you get what you can pay for.  Now I spend about ten dollars for a pair of shoes.  They serve their purpose, however, doing so means coping with a lack of comfort, durability, and style.  My ten dollar shoes, for instance, aren’t going to make it in fashion magazines, which I can live with, and since I don’t walk very much throughout the course of my day, comfort is not a particularly big issue.  Still, for someone who rides a desk all day, I find it somewhat dissappointing that my ten dollar shoes still end up losing their insoles before a year is up.

Had I been willing to spend a hundred dollars for a pair of shoes, not only would I find myself wearing something that looked nice, but I would also expect them to feel good and last me for a decent amount of time.

The problem with education, and on a bigger scale, all mandatory services, is that here is where I believe stratification of services does more harm than good.  Without government intervention to ensure an even playing field, sure, you can inject competition in education, however, you will still find that kids in lower income areas receive lower quality education.  And unfortunately, these are the same kids that probably need the higher quality education the most.

I also worry about diverting too many funds out of public education.  When you stop to consider that private institutions are also often religious in nature as well, this is even more troubling to me because what I see happening is diverting money away from secular education to sectarian education, and then cordoning students towards the religious institution.

Finally (and these are broad strokes, there are, of course, other arguments), diverting students from problem schools to private institutions, or even to other public schools that perform better runs the risk of exporting the problem as opposed to fixing it.  Keep in mind that factors external to the school often play as large of a role if not more than the school itself in the quality of education.  Thus, if we were to take an inner city school that serves an impoverished area with high crime rates, and we export those students to a private school out of the area, the private school is not going to help the individual children as much as adopt the problems that they bring with them.

I feel that it is important to improve the quality of the school in the inner city in the first place.  The vision that I have is for our schools to emerge as centers in the community, a place where children can go to learn, but also to congregate, a safe alternative to the streets.  But, more on all of this later.

I do believe that healthy competition will benefit our schools, and I’m not completely aversed to school choice, but I think this will be the second area that Mark and I will have to spend some extra time on, and I think we need to do so in order to provide competition while at the same time providing a medium for underperforming schools to improve and without limiting access to quality education to all students.

4. Cookie cutter education.  Yes, I completely agree with this.  We can’t have an educational system in which we ask all students to be the same, meet the same standards and have disturbingly similar goals.  Educational obstacles can be biological as well as qualitative, to be sure.  That’s to say, there are plenty of people that no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to comprehend advanced calculus.

Everyone is different, posessing differing levels of drive and intellect, as well as affinities for different fields.  I think that we can and should make a public education system that caters to that, and in fact I think that Progressive Diversification as outlined in my original post is at least the starting point for this.

5. Teacher incentives.  Now, I’m going to pass on the chance to bash Hillary here (Mark leaves the door wide open, and I’m struggling to be the better person and shut it…).  And again, I think I have at least the beginning of a decent standard of merit based pay for our teachers.  Shorter, I think to combat this problem, we need to establish a three pronged attack, and understand that it’s going to be an expensive problem to fix.

a) Pay good teachers more money.

b) Help teachers actually grow into good ones.

c) Be ready to fire teachers that don’t meet standards.

Again, being a federal employee helps me here.  In order to get fired, I need to basically commit a felony while on the job to lose my job, and even that is debatable.  This removes any kind of leverage employers have on under performing employees, and as Mark aptly puts it, “rewards the worst teachers.”

Now, in the second of Mark’s posts, which can be viewed here, he provides his proposal on education which is heavily based upon competition.

I’m going to address this post in reverse because, in the second half of Mark’s proposal he graciously and almost completely endorses Progressive Diversification (if I keep talking about this, I’m going to start believing PD is an actual policy proposal) with some reservations, thus, talking on this will be easier and quicker.

Mark mentions that the only real substantive problem is that of testing, and even offers up a pretty good solution that comes close to my own in anonymous grading.  I love this idea, and want to further express a belief that I think we can make standardized testing if we step back and take a new look at it.

Standardized testing serves several purposes.  Is the student learning at an adequate rate?  Is the educational system operating properly?  Does the student meet the requirements of various programs/paths/curricula?  On top of that, we should be able to use our standardized tests to determine how a student might better be educated, or if maybe he or she is trying to answer the wrong calling.

Now if we apply these measurement goals to the subjects, I think we can create a system of testing that would not result in students being taught to the test, but instead aptly measuring their progress and determining where they can succeed and where they might flounder.

For one, I believe completely in anonymous testing.  That’s what England does; no finals that depend upon the temperament and objectivity of the individual teacher, but instead are graded by a remote board.

Next, for some things, tests can be very cut and dry.  2 + 2 will always equal 4.  There is no need to create an overly complex testing system to adequately guage whether a student knows this.  However, if a student is studying American History, for instance, instead of hurling at them a massive laundry list of trivia based questions, we can much more effectively measure their growth and abilities by giving them several long form essay questions.  Hell, I say make it a two parter, the first part being a research paper as research is an absolute necessity for in depth historical study, and the second being an in class examination in which the student is asked to answer several medium form essay questions.  These questions should then be graded PRIMARILY upon the student’s grasp of the topic at hand, the tests should remain within the scope of the subject, and should not be penalized for things like spelling and grammar unless these errors are so great that they prevent the grader from reading and understanding the answer.

For more on how I think testing should be addressed, you could review my original post.

The first half of Marks proposal centers strongly on competition and allowing the private education industry to compete on a level playing field with public education.  Now as I’ve said before, I have a great many concerns over privatization of education, but we’re going to see what we can do.

Tentatively, I’m not completely against creating a system in which tax credits are used to fund a child’s entrence into a private institution.  But I also know that as things stand right now, public education is going to be a dive, and if we were to enact this immediately, I think what would happen is that we would end up funding the private sector using government funds.

Let’s face it, our public schools suck right now, and opening the market up to public schools now would only rob money from public schools before we had a chance to retool them.  So the very first thing I would insist upon is a grace period in which we enact the other programs and proposals discussed in the hopes that when we do open things up to private/public competition, the public schools at least have a fighting chance.

Next, I’m not just leery, but quite adamant about government money, even tax credits and rebates, being sent to private schools that subscribe to a religious doctrine.  This is particularly important to point out given the reinvigorated church and state debate that has risen from Mitt Romney’s recent speech.

I would also want to see a protection against education quality stratification based on demographics.  You know it’s going to happen.  If we move too quickly, or too much to private schools, the higher quality schools are going to up their tuition, and this is going to get to the point where the government can’t feasibly subsidize this in any way, and we’re going to be right back to where we started where the poor kids are getting the poor education.

Finally, standards.  I know part of Mark’s deal with private schools is that they don’t have to meet public education standards, but if they are going to get public money, I want some way for them to prove that they do this in some way.  Now as I think about this, and as we talk about PD which is starting to look like an integral part to our program here, I think I can pinpoint one way to do this.

Now, thus far, in a purely public system, PD goes on under one roof, which would necessarily result in larger schools, but I think PD also grants us some play room, and even provides the local system some wiggle room as well.

In fact, and this is just an idea, we can say that each school district must meet the full requirements and goals of PD, that is to say that all students deemed mentally capable and not criminally divergent, should be able to receive an education that meets the requirements of my initial post.  College kids should have a seamless path to college, trade students should have a seamless path to trade schools, and other students should be able to receive a living wage right out of their secondary education.

Now here’s where it gets good.  If we put the PD requirements on a district, and not on individual schools, I think this opens the entire program up to a great amount of diversification, competition, and flexibility.  Now, we can have private schools in the mix, and let’s say, one private school wants to focus on trade education.  Even better.  We have after high school trade schools already, if we open PD up to the district instead of the school, what we could have is trade schools that open themselves up to the four years of education out of middle school, and it doesn’t get more seamless than that.

I think I would still require public schools to be under one roof, but again, there is plenty of room for flexibility here, and depending on the needs of the community, and population of the community, the system can flex to fit.  For instance, in very small communities, you’re probably only going to have enough people and resources for one institution that addresses all areas of PD.  But this works, see, because let’s say we have a prepatory school that is private, a trade school that opted to open its doors to secondary education, and a traditional public school.  What I think would happen is that the two private schools will draw students away from the public school which will free up resources and teacher availability to maximize the quality of the public school.  Depending on student distribution along the lines of PD, perhaps that public school will become THE place for college bound students, or, may end up being the best place for children to go who are looking to enter the work force directly after their secondary education.

Meanwhile, if we were to go to an inner city school district, or somewhere else with a very dense population, you’re going to have several of each type of school, and since PD will help mete out the distribution, what I think is going to happen is that the competition that Mark wants will be put into place, however at the same time, your going to get the same kind of relief from public schools that will make them more effective.  Since we are making PD requirements based on the DISTRICT, that means that you aren’t really ever outsourcing the problem, and we’re keeping this improved educational system IN the community, which I would hope has a net positive effect throughout.

So that becomes my answer to Mark’s proposal essentially.

-grace period to let public education programs we propose here to catch up.

-assurance that we aren’t subsidizing religious education.

-make PD a district based program as opposed to a school based program to allow both public and private schools to kind of sync up with each other and provide an overal set of schools that give the equal treatment and fair playing field that public schools can provide while at the same time inject the competitive aspect of the market as well.

I would have to see what Mark thinks of this, and probably have to reflect again on this, and maybe sleep on it a night or two before I gave it the go ahead but this feels like the right direction.

This brings us to the final post in Mark’s initial contribution which can be read here, and covers some concerns and comments he has on my initial proposal.  I think now is a good time to recall my initial sentiment in this post, that we see eye to eye on many things it is merely that our philosophies are at odds on how to fix them.  With Mark’s final post, he really brings this out, showing that while I’m hit and miss with him in my methodology, the overall impression is that we’re close to the same spot just coming at it from different angles.

1)  First up, Mark seems to be warm to the idea of the domestic and abroad committees, but feels they should be a little less powerful in setting binding curricula.  I’m going to make this offer.  First, let’s combine them into one committee and the foreign and abroad can be further broken into subcommittees.  Also, I would invite members of private education to be members of the committe (unpaid, though I’m sure there could be some incentive, I don’t know, haven’t thought about this much yet).  I will meet Mark in the middle on how binding their powers are.  Of course, we can’t make their recommendations binding to private institutions.  I want to say they have the power to at least start trial runs for new ideas.

This would be voluntary, given the size of the country, I’m sure if they look hard enough they can find a school willing to volunteer for a new idea without forcing it.  And I will say they should have the ability to START binding resolutions on the education system, but this should necessarily be rare and meet many requirements that I’m sure Mark and I would have to go over (and I would myself have to think about at greater length).

In other words, this would be an advisory committee that should constantly have open lines of communication with private educators and foreign educators.  They would normally make no binding resolutions, but could if there was a compelling enough case, and they could enlist schools for trial runs on varying programs and ideas, and based on those trial runs make broader recommendations.

2) In regards to a central pool of funds, Mark worries that doing so would create more bureaucracy than it would help funding.  I’m going to say at this juncture, I would at least like to try the idea, and call it a wash considering neither one of us has the administrative experience to answer this one definitively.  If there are any talented Bureaucrats out there that think they can help with this one, it’d be appreciated.

3)  Merit pay and higher certification standards.  Not exactly Mark’s favorite, but I’m going to press the issue here on a few things.  He first reminds us that teachers only work nine months out of the year.  Now, I’ve proposed lenghening the school year, but to be dead honest, I’m about as ambivalent to that one as Mark.  I know other, more successful educaiton programs around the world have longer school years, so I figured, you know, there was a correlation.  But I think making the year longer, or you take that off three months and perhaps make that a training time for teachers, or research, or something of that nature, that might not be a bad investment. 

He also isn’t a fan of extra certification, but I’m going to keep the ball in his court on this one.  I’m for the time being going to insist on somehow raising the bar on the quality of teachers and see if he can’t perhaps come up with an idea that we can do this in such a way that we make sure we get better teachers, we get more of them, and it’s all not just an empty gesture.

4) Skipping standardized testing now for the same reasons as Mark.

5) Nutrition.  I’m going to disagree with Mark, and ask for more clarification on fat science being bad science.  On the science aspect, I’m more looking at the benefits of good food on the education process as a opposed to the negative health aspects of bad foods, though I think both are important and that the schools shouldn’t be contributing to the problem.  But where I’m going to disagree with Mark is that opening up schools to competition is not going to fix nutrition.

In fact, I think over privatizing schools might hinder school lunches, and the reason why is because we don’t choose schools based on the food.  We choose schools based on the quality of education.  Particularly in private organizations, you strengthen what’s going to make you strong, and you save money on parts that don’t matter.  You’re not going to lose students unless the food you serve is so bad it induces nausea, and if students in general just stop eating school food, hey that’s just a bonus.

Because school lunch is not taking center stage here, therefore, its quality isn’t protected by principles of the free market.  Thus I think it is still imperitive to mandate a certain standard of food quality in our schools.

6)  Smaller classes.  Largely, this one is a non issue anymore with I think the progress we’ve made thus far, though Mark does point out that for smaller class sizes you need to make the teaching profession less restrictive as my plan for setting higher standards for teachers would.

What I want to do, and I mentioned in my initial proposal, though, is increase standards, but also increase the amount of help we give teachers meeting them.  There are many ways to do this, but I’m going to move on.

7) I’m going to skip Positive Reinforcement as I agree with Mark that PD would largely fix this.

8 &9) No need to revisit pre-K and longer school years either.  One caveat though.  The optimal length school year would be just the kind of thing for the committee mentioned above to look into…

10) After school.  Again, Mark and I are seeing eye to eye here.  I agree it shouldn’t be mandatory, however, I think in areas where such programs would do the most good is where we really need to focus our resources and creativity to keep as many kids going there as we can without forcing.

Drug testing I’m almost eye to eye with him on this too.  The one thing that gives me pause is that, yeah, the kids on drugs are the ones that need the after school program the most, my biggest fear, though, is that these programs become another market for drug dealers.  I don’t know how to combat this, and perhaps there’s really no realistic way to do so without infringing on rights which I’m loathe to do, but I’m going to for now pass this question back to Mark.

And, in fact, I think I’m going to put everything in Mark’s court now.  As this debate continues, one thing that I think is really shaping things up is Progressive Diversification, and my big hope is that the idea of taking PD and making it district wide, and thus encompassing private institutions as well, I hope that helps get the ball rolling.

As a final aside, before I hand it off to my friend, this has so far been an incredible experience and look forward to his next contribution.

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