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.

5 thoughts on “A Comment on Education Reform”

  1. Thanks for the compliments in your post.

    I will have to think about your views (and data) on “low performing” students and “steady states.” My gut tells me you are correct that this is a problem to be addressed, but I don’t think it undermines my argument for radical decentralization.

    First, let me explain what I mean by that. It is my goal to dismantle the entire “district” system. I lay out how that would be accomplished here…


    This is hardly controversial, nor outside the realm of political reality, as it has been done in one form or another in New Zealand and Sweden.

    Adding to the ideas in that link, we have the advent of options of money following the child to private schools and to individual courses.

    The goal is to drain districts of schools (charters), students (vouchers), and courses (digital learning) up to the point where districts/schools must either perform better, or be drained of funds.

    This is an entirely doable “decentralization.” I think it is good policy too.

    I agree with you that we DO need some sort of centralized benchmark in terms of measuring content acquisition. This need not be a “high stakes test,” but could take the form of on line tests, quizzes, writing assignments, etc.

    Any federalized test will, by simple operation, create a national curriculum. This may be unavoidable, but I can think of a few ways to avoid such a result with more positive outcomes.

    Back to the “steady states.” I would love to see some studies on this. I’d also like to strategize as to ways it can be ameliorated or solved, and I think more access to more choices is one way to do that.

    Radically empowering poor parents with education choices may not show an immediate positive result for everybody. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to move in that direction.

    The existing education est. uses your excuse to say “we can’t change because the rabble isn’t ready for a real education system.” No choice until EVERYBODY benefits.

    This is nonsense. Let’s not allow cars to be built until EVERYBODY can buy one.

    If you watch “The Experiment” (New Orleans post Katrina), or witness the battle here in Chicago over closing 12 utterly failing schools, the tension MUST occur.

    The “steady state” parents are manipulated by the unions, and the parents aspiring to better outcomes for their kids are manipulated by the transformers. We are right, they are wrong.

    Starve the cancer of its blood supply (money), and the system will dismantle itself over time. I think we are winning this battle, but I can’t guarantee that we do.

  2. The foundational work on time orientation and social class dates at least to the 1950s. [1] The foundational work on how social class is taught by American schools is by Jean Anyon in the early 1980s. [2,3] Time orientation appears to be be a heritable measure of social class going back centuries. [4] Consider what we know about assortive mating [5] and you have a hard problem — what I think is the fundemental problem.

    If our concern is simply maximizing individual freedom, then this is not a problem. I think, however, that an unemployable population is a national security issue.

    Thank you for describing what you mean by dismantling the district system. Such a move would make sense, as districts are part of the teachers front organizations that has failed so many stakeholders [6].

    If I understand you correctly, your description of centralization involves parents and States gutting districts of their power, and dividing it between themselves. This would seem to be sensible.

    I also agree that high-stakes testing is a mistake. [7]

    The same people who think “Equality” mattered in the civil rights debate think it matters in the education reform debate. It is a code word. Of all the links in this comment, if you read only one, please make it [8]. Only the deluded victims of the code-word — and well meaning people who take others by their own — believe it is meant in anything like the sense in which it is received.

    I’m sure awful schools can be closed down in novel ways, but ultimately the debate isn’t against the bottom 1% or the bottom 10% of schools — it’s about ensuring our current standard of mediocre falls below what is minimally acceptable. This is the hard slog.

    [1] http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/abn/47/3/589/
    [2] http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=W9GHPA3zK0IC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1250&dq=social+class+behaviors+taught+school&ots=9E-fticzLa&sig=bjMS6zkwXqUaAsgWEH9CelZZ6g0#v=onepage&q=social%20class%20behaviors%20taught%20school&f=false
    [3] http://faculty.rcoe.appstate.edu/jacksonay/anyon.pdf
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/01/20/review-of-a-farewell-to-alms-by-gregory-clark.html
    [5] http://changelog.ca/quote/2011/09/25/assortative_mating_and_general_intelligence
    [6] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/12/29/the-encirclement-of-a-united-front.html
    [7] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2012/02/03/high-stakes-testing-is-a-mistake.html
    [8] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2012/01/31/educational-equality-the-civil-rights-struggle-of-our-day.html

  3. Bruno,

    I sent a LinkedIn request 😉

    My background is as a PhD in Educational Psychology. This blog has nothing to do with my job — I’m not in an PR, marketing, etc., role, I don’t work on education policy on my job, and blogging isn’t part of my work at Microsoft.

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