A Prescription for Education Reform

The American education system from pre-K through graduate school is a mess. Countless problems abound, and rarely do I hear policymakers propose new or creative solutions to the problem. 

Their proposals are typically warmed over standbys like more accountability provided through standardized testing (which can produce mind numbingly boring classes aimed at getting students to memorize information that will appear on the tests). 

The most "innovative" recent idea may be the campaign led by the former journalist Campbell Brown and others to end teacher tenure and provide merit based pay. While I think an end to tenure and the transition to merit based pay is a great idea, I can't stand these groups.

They  pretend as though ending teacher tenure will magically fix our education system and transform inner-city public schools. In reality, tenure reform is only one element of a comprehensive solution. 

By itself, ending tenure will just allow localities to cut high salaried teachers, and replace them with cheaper, less experienced teachers (though they'll assure you that that isn't why the teachers are being let go) every time the local populace is angry about tax levels, or costs go up elsewhere (local politicians aren't any more courageous than national ones).

But the end of tenure as part of a total rethinking of our educational system might offer hope. As such, I offer my prescription based on 25 years inside of classrooms as a student and teacher. 

1. Abolish tenure— too often everyone from administrators to students to teachers to parents knows who the bad teachers are. I had high school teachers in 2001 or 2002 who were still using tests from the 1970s.

Once when I asked a teacher who was a former union official about bad teachers, he replied, "we know who they are, but the job of the union is to defend them." This sort of tone deaf thinking explains why teacher's unions and tenure, which serve very valuable functions, have gotten such a bad rap. 

2. Dramatically increase teacher salaries and tie pay to teaching quality— I'll offer one possible method for increasing salaries in a separate blog later today, but I don't see how we expect to attract the best and brightest in society to teaching if teachers are paid less than just about every other type of professional.

There is no substitute for attracting our best minds to teaching, because these people are more likely to be creative and think outside the box, instead of teaching to the test and offering the sorts of boring classes that we all hated in grade school. 

3. Less testing— I'll share a story. I had fantastic Spanish teachers in high school. We learned tons of Spanish. But they used a method that involved tons of pop quizzes and produced all sorts of stress. As such, when I got a 5 on the AP Spanish exam, and placed out of my college language requirement, I said hasta la vista to Spanish.

Who needed the stress and rote memorization? (I can see some of you out there shaking your heads, and thinking that I need to toughen up, but teaching someone something, and getting them invested in and passionate about a subject are two different things).

Standardized tests take valuable educational time away from students and teachers. They have their place, especially in elementary school when we need to ensure that all students learn the basics of reading, mathematics, science, and history.

Nonetheless, we have so overdone testing, as to potentially cripple our best teachers' ability to engage students (ask some really great teachers what they think about standardized tests if you don't believe me). 

4. More creative teaching and less one sized fits all education— the problem with so much testing is that it produces boring classes. It's easier to drill students on content than to let them blog, or to have them perform exercises that put them into the shoes of historical figures to evaluate their decisions. 

But drilling and memorizing are unlikely to spark a passion for the subject matter. Additionally,  there is only so much content that can be memorized, and over time, much of it slips away. We ought to be focusing on producing creative, adaptive thinkers, who can read critically, write well, and apply knowledge to new situations. 

Far better are methods that recognize the individuality of each student and offer them the opportunity to learn the same skills through real world experiences. 

If you force everyone into the same box, you risk losing students who might not be all that stimulated by the traditional course tracks, but who might be captivated by equally rigorous classes on different subjects, or by different ways of learning. 

What do I mean? Philadelphia's Workshop School (http://www.workshopschool.org and http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/07/22/327062946/getting-things-done-at-the-workshop-school) is a perfect example of a place that gets it.

Students have some traditional classes. But they also learn traditional subjects through experiential, project based learning (for example turning a closest into a recording studio, or building a miniature solar panel). Students generate their own questions and work together to solve them. 

To provide an example of my own, students who are passionate about food could build a business plan for a restaurant, grow their produce in the school garden, learn cooking techniques, etc. This exercise could involve skills from the traditional english, math, computer science, home economics, biology, and environmental studies classes. 

The downsides of this model are that it could be quite expensive, and it doesn't lend itself to traditional metrics like pen and paper tests. Financially, if such education, at least at the high school level, produces a more creative populace, it's not inconceivable that it might lead to a more robust economy, which would in turn produce greater tax revenue.

It might also require reexamination of our government spending. Some programs might need to be cut. But, again, we spend millions each year on programs designed to solve problems caused by our failed educational system, so we might save money in the long run. 

In terms of evaluation, I'm puzzled by the use of pen and paper examinations in general. They aren't how we're evaluated on a day to day basis in life. So why not create more realistic assessments?

Why not ask local professionals to contribute to schools by assessing students' projects in the way lawyers judge moot courts? To return to the example above, a local chef, an advertising executive, and a farmer might evaluate the work done by the students. 

What I know for sure is that the classes that most excite my college political science and history students are not the ones where I lecture at them. They are the classes where students get to do activities that make them think and debate, and that often help them to learn about the political process by experiencing it. 

5. Regionalize school funding. Do we really expect students to succeed in schools without libraries, nurses, guidance counselors, and countless other essentials? Some suburban school districts may spend 1.5-2x as much per student as urban school districts do.

To give examples from my own area, in the last year we have data, 2011-2012, suburban Lower Merion, Radnor, and Cheltenham spent $22,140, $18,117, and $17,922 respectively per pupil, while Philadelphia spent $12,351, in spite of having more impoverished students who often need more educationally because of deficits brought about by poverty)

Given the historical reasons that variances in property tax bases developed between cities and suburbia (white flight, redlining, restrictive covenants, and all the legal machinations tied to them—see Kevin Kruse's White Flight and Tom Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty among many others for details on these processes), this disparity in per pupil spending is immoral, and fails to reflect the fact that suburbanites take advantage of the city around which they live. 

6. Stop viewing charter schools as the solution to urban education problems. I like the general concept of charter schools. But the current model is broken. They divert funding from traditional schools without reducing costs for those schools  (for example, if each school in a district lost 25 students to a charter school, they would likely still need to offer the same number of classes, but without the funding attached to those 25 students). 

Additionally, charter schools should be used solely to experiment with innovative models and methods (for example something like the workshop school discussed above, or a performing arts high school).

But regular schools run by private charter school companies just make traditional schools try to do more with less. That's not to say that mismanagement isn't a problem in schools. It is in many places. But charter schools don't solve that problem. At most they are putting a band on a gash that really needs 10 stitches. 

7. Get corporate America more involved. Companies put their names on everything from stadiums to subway stops. Why not invest in schools? Lots of companies could use the positive PR boost from donating to local schools and/or buying naming rights to parts of a school. It's one method to generate more funding for our schools without raising taxes.  

Is this prescription perfect? No. But if we gave teachers more latitude to innovate and paid them at a level commiserate with what other professionals make, I suspect that we would solve many of our educational problems. 

It's mystifying that we so dramatically under compensate a profession doing one of society's most important jobs (which is why I'll devote an entire separate blog to one potential solution). 

It's also odd that so many of our educational methods remain static even as we see that creativity and innovation are the keys to success in 21st century (i.e. Apple and Google).