A Comment on Education Reform

My friend Lexington Green encouraged me to read the post, “The Insanity of Federalized Teacher Evaluations” by Bruno Behrend. Bruno’s work is fascinating because he accurately captures many of the forces at play in the education reform debate, while also reflecting the view of someone very empathetic to teachers who is obviously very frustrated by the insanities of the system.

It appears we are both addressing this issue systematically — Bruno’s use of the term ‘Government-Education Complex’ is clearly similar to the one I use, ‘Federal-Academic Complex.’

I encourage you to read the whole thing. In this post I describe what Bruno’s written, but for the most context you should read the entry on the blog, Chicago Boyz.

Bruno is correct that the States are part of a coalition against Teachers and Districts. Another part of this, though, is that Teachers have been using Districts to support their own welfare at the expense of other stakeholders, while simultaneously not being empathetic to the needs of those other stakeholders. State and District quality can both differ in quality, but there are reasons why Districts are now weak and States are strong.

With regard to gym teachers, Bruno’s correct that physical health is probably not best measured by standardized test scores. The context makes it appear, though, that it’s math and writing skills, not physical fitness, which are being measured through standardized tests. This isn’t odd at all — Google famously ties all employees compensation into the success of Google+ — that is just a clear way of signaling what the top (reading and writing) and lesser included (physical fitness) priorities are. These priorities may be right or wrong, and they may be being evaluated well or poorly, but prioritized evaluation is not insane.

Bruno is right to say the education reform movement has been hijacked by the states, if by this he means the states are one of many stakeholders in education reform. Others are parents and employers. Being empathetic to the desires of someone else is a basic way of getting what you want. The states want to divert power away from teacher-led Districts, parents want their children not to fail at life, and employers want the American population to be employable. This is a great part of the coalition that is pushing education reform.

Bruno is right in citing the teachers union, who points out that we evaluate mechanics by outcomes but teachers (increasingly) thru process. The reason is two fold: currently we don’t evaluate teachers at all except in cases of gross neglect, and we don’t pay teachers enough to attract professionals into the field. A process-focus evaluation system makes sense if you have abandoned the hope of attracting high-killed individuals into the field. If you believe you can attract — and pay — high skilled individuals, then you should pay them like professionals.

I completely agree that money should follow success in the education system. Right now it doesn’t, and one reason is that it is hard to measure success. The construction of a testing infrastructure is necessary for such a future to be created.

I do not agree, however, with Bruno’s proposal for radical decentralization. Such an outcome would be politically unsustainable and, from a national security perspective, dangerous. Low-performing populations easily fall into a ‘steady state’ whereby poor and mediocre districts provide jobs for teachers, daycare for parents, etc., and so please all local stakeholders: but still produce unemployable mouth-breathers who birth more kids and just repeat the cycle. A similar steady-state emerges for medium-performing populations. The reason is that parents are generally risk-adverse, and are happy as long as the child’s outcomes is not noticeable worse than what ‘should’ be.

From a national security perspective we need to stop this weird system where our critical infrastructure is designed, built, and run by foreigners because we can’t produce employable citizens. Radical decentralization just cements our current outcomes in place.

Dismantling the entire system just won’t happen — it is like attempting to roll-back the national income tax or direct election of Senators. There is much about society I would change if given the divine power to do so, but that does not mean those goals are actually achievable.

I wanted to add some thoughts about group learning. My thoughts as a student were identical to Bruno’s here — my thoughts now are quite different. Group learning is described in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner by teachers, because it is sold to them in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner. American schools, while academically awful compared to Chinese ones, are brilliant at training for leadership positions. Group learning teaches future leaders how to manipulate the less-productive into getting out of the way, and trains how-performing workers into how to recognize each other. It’s a form of battle school, and the fact that it takes place in schools (as opposed to the real world) means that it occurs before social sorting has taken place.