I like a lot of what education scholar Paul T. Hill writes, but this piece (from nine years ago) includes a line with which I strongly disagree.
The recommendations from A Nation at Risk assumed that educatorsâ€”responding to pressureâ€”would work hard to make a difference in children’s learning. These assumptions ignored three facts: first, local school boards are political bodies pursuing many agendas, of which educational effectiveness is only one; second, school districts allow resources to follow political influence, so that poor students end up receiving the least money and the worst facilities; and third, teachers with seniority and other attributes that make them attractive can usually avoid teaching the most disadvantaged children in a school district.
The system needs to change so that schools are free of politics. School boards should have one job: making sure every child is receiving a good education. This means closing bad schools and creating options for students who are not learning.
Schools in the poorest neighborhoods need the freedom to find the best combination of people and technologies for the children they serve, including access to dollars and good teachers. Schools that get the worst of everything are now frozen by rules and contract provisions.
I disagree because the goal is impossible. Politics never stops, where this much money and these many fates are intertwined.
Dr. Hill was writing in the context of the beginning of serious education reform — the first years of No Child Left Behind. At the time he was writing teachers still believed they were the central actor of the education debate. He was in fact writing in the very last years when anyone listened to teachers — before teachers were encircled
By failing to prepare workers for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), teachers have alienated Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers. By not flattering State power, they have alienated States. By refusing to help Districts in political battles against States, they have alienated the local school boards, too. By virtue of their position as a consumer of education resources, they naturally alienate Publishers. And by refusing moves to allow the measurement of their performance, they have alienated the Federal-Academic Complex.
The politics must continue so change so that the research and experimentation benefit. This means empowering local experimental schools, and empowering the federal-academic complex.
In an daily report from the Hoover Institution published seven years ago, Paul T. Hill makes a profound statement on education reform.
The case for innovation is simple: less than half the schools in low-income areas of our big cities can meet the minimum state performance standards. Educators say, “We know how to make inner-city schools effective, but we can’t do it until we get [fill in the blank: more money, more political will, a higher class of parents].” Don’t let them kid you. We really don’t know how to educate millions of children whose preschool preparation and home supports are far different from the American middle-class norm. [emphasis in the original]
The students “whose preschool preparation and home supports are far different from the American middle-class norm” are a major challenge in education. To add to what Dr. Hill stated, their failure is often overdetermined:
- In social psychological terms, these students often come from families with low socio-economic-status (SES), with few books in the home, few beneficial expert or peer models, poor nutrition, and so on.
- In cognitive psychological terms, these students offer lack general intelligence, creativity, and future time orientation, which place them at a disadvantage in an increasingly mentally-oriented economy
- In Marxist terms, these students often come from the lower proletariat or lumpenproletariat, minimally productive or even criminal class origins with a high degree of alienation of productive roles in the greater proletariat or bourgeoisie.
- In ethnic or racial terms, these students often come from Non-Asian Minority (NAM) (black or hispanic) backgrounds, which are often ill prepared for scholarly activities.
Different types of students face different troubles. It is the students for whom failure is overdetermined — low SES, low intelligence, low creativity, low future time orientation, lower proletariat or lumpenproletariet, non-Asian minority — that we have let down the most.
We don’t know what to do.
We need to experiment, try, and innovate.
Last month, I discussed my invited commentary in Teachers College Record. In that article In a draft, I emphasized that teaching should be a craft:
The reasons for these failures are many. When the American workplace was desegregated along sex lines, the subsidy of cheap female labor that American K-12 schools had received disappeared. Teacher salaries have not kept up, and the low-to-mediocre pay society provides to teachers is answered in the quality of education that society receives in return. Teaching is no longer a womanâ€™s profession â€“ a feminine analog to the legal field â€“ but an artisan craft â€“ in which apprenticeship counts for more than theory. Teachers are not professional who are entrusted to work without supervision for the best interests of their clients. Rather, they are artisans â€“ skilled laborers â€“ who use practical expertise and learned talent to practice their craft
In a recent column in The Atlantic, Education scholar Paul T. Hill voices similar thoughts:
Public education struggles with two conflicting facts. First, public schools are small craft organizations that require close teamwork and constant adaptation to the unpredictable development of students. Second, they are government agencies always subject to constraints imposed through politics and legal processes.
In the more than half-century since Brown v. Board of Education, the second set of facts has dominated the first. Public schools have been subject to court orders about how particular students must be educated; federal and state regulations that dictate how money is used, students are grouped, and teachers work; and labor contracts that force schools to employ teachers who are poorly matched to the needs of students and the strengths of other teachers.
Dr. Hill is on the advisory board of the National Council of Teacher Quality and a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution. It’s cool to see my article (inadvertently) echo one of his thoughts!