A few ideas for systematic changes in education

by Mr. Sheehy

I imagine Bill Gates’s recent article in the Washington Post generated a lot of talk this week. It’s not a perfect article and certainly leaves some areas for questioning. My colleague pointed out that if we are to assert that “Over the past four decades,the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled” it would be nice to examine, even if cursorily, what exactly has doubled in that time. Four decades is a long time, so I’d imagine that inflation has something to do with that number. Have police budgets also more than doubled as cost of living has gone up since 1970? One doesn’t need to itemize that statistic for it to be relevant, but it seems to pull much of its shock effect from its imprecision.

Yet I enjoyed the article much as I enjoy almost any article that aims a few shots at education’s sacred cows. Some of his targets are long overdue. For example, a friend of mine explained that another school district in the country was paying for its teachers to get master’s degrees. As a teacher, that would be a nice benefit–I certainly wouldn’t turn it down–but I couldn’t help seeing it from a taxpayer’s viewpoint: what a waste. That means taxpayers are paying for teachers’ schooling and then paying teachers more salary with the understanding that they’ve improved the teaching, but the dirty truth is that the degrees are not improving many of those teachers. Says Gates,

Another standard feature of school budgets is a bump in pay for advanced degrees. Such raises have almost no impact on achievement, but every year they cost $15 billion that would help students more if spent in other ways.

The sacred cow takes a deserved shot. For the most part Gates’s article isn’t bad, though it’s not Earth shattering. Studying what effective teachers do has been done before and so far I have not seen that information put to use in a manner that could be helpful when analyzing teachers. Our district uses a test in its hiring process that is supposed to reveal how good a teacher someone is, and while the results of these tests are kept under lock and key in our human resources department, there are a few cases well known among teachers where amazing instructors have essentially failed the test. If these kinds of analysis become the result of the work of the Gates Foundation, then their work will be a failure. Obviously I hope for better for them.

Yet I don’t want to react to all these new and controversial topics of teaching reform with a stock dismissal, and recently I was thinking about big changes in education I would be interested in exploring and under what circumstances I’d appreciate those changes. I have listed them here, and I emphasize that none of these ideas are fully thought out opinions; they’re just the beginnings of ideas about systematic change.

Be cautious about tying teachers’ pay to students’ achievement

In principle this idea sounds great, because our goal is increasing students’ learning, and the more students learn, the more a teacher should be paid. Yet there are a few elements I don’t like in this. The first is well documented in articles about this issue. Students at the top of academic rankings achieve more, and students at the bottom achieve less. One can counter that the measure would be of net increases, not of gross learning, but every teacher knows that the reason there is a learning gap that grows wider through years of schooling is that students who are at the bottom have a much flatter rate of growth. That’s how they ended up on the wrong side of the achievement gap; they were not keeping up with the pace of the high academic achievers.

Another element I do not like about tying teachers’ pay closely to students’ achievement is that it places too little of the responsibility on the student. Is not the student the primary party who should be held responsible for his or her learning? I am convinced that entitlement attitudes are the number one cultural threat in our schools. Parents and students are convinced that it is the teachers’ responsibility to make learning fun, to motivate students, and to make it easy enough that anyone can do it. “I’m sitting here–why don’t you teach me!” Tying our pay closely to students’ learning enforces the idea even further, putting more emphasis on the teacher and less on students’ initiative and work ethic. In a more sinister way, I am convinced that if the teacher is put in a position where students can essentially abuse them by withholding effort on tests measuring learning, a real problem lurks.

Test Better

I would suggest that there is a place for measuring students’ learning and tying it to incentive for teachers, despite my resistance to emphasizing it. Yet for any such plan  to work, we must develop and use valid tests and measurements. NCLB wanted to hold schools accountable, but my school is measured by one test given once a year to a different group of students than the previous year’s test. Theoretically that seems valid for measuring a school’s overall success, but in some years we have failed these tests by fewer than five students in sub-groups of statistically questionable sample size.

When it comes to using data to help specific students or to track how we have served particular groups, the case it worse. We test our juniors in April. You can track our improvement or decline through the years, but the tests are ultimately meaningless because we have no measure of what those students who were tested were capable of as they moved through our system. So we had 65 percent test as proficient or advanced; so what? Were 65 percent of those tested proficient last year? We don’t know. Last year we may have bombed the section on literature terms, but the year before we could have aced that part. Should teachers change their teaching somehow in response to that data? Why would they? The data only tells us about the students who are a semester and a half away from graduating. It tells us nothing about 80 percent of the students in the school.

Further, the precise material on these tests is kept in strange secrecy (at least in my state), so when the standard is general, like “Students can analyze a text within cultural, geographical, and historical context” teachers are left wondering what a test question on that standard looks like. The range of ways to teach this standard is limitless. Do our tests test it in the way our teachers are teaching it? I am all for testing students to measure what they know, but I would not want to be judged even more by strange and amorphous measures on invalid tests.

Cut the curriculum

Gates mentions that one of his foundation’s studies found that “83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.” That’s an intriguing question and I hope he asks a few other outside the mainstream questions. For example, what if he asked if teachers would be more comfortable being measured for success if the curriculum requirements for particular subjects were cut down so teachers could focus on realistic goals? Our sophomore English classes are responsible for covering research papers, a Shakespeare play, Wiesel’s Night, the four main styles of essay writing, poetry, and the old semester long speech requirement. Oh, and by the way, we have to make sure students improve their grammatical structure too. It’s too much, and to think that someone can cover all that in an adequate manner is a bit of a joke. The following year when students take their NCLB tests they get dinged because they don’t have a proper handle of the term allusion. No wonder. I have found in my personal life it is easy to exchange accidentally the good for the great, and often we lose the great by adding too much good to our lives. I see this in our curriculum. To increase learning in language arts, cut the curriculum down significantly so students and teachers can focus on learning the most important things well.

Cut the time spent sitting in classrooms

School exists to compliment families, not take over the raising of children for families. This is a firm belief of mine, and it colors my opinion in this area, I admit. For years I have heard the argument that our achievement is lower than other countries, so we need to spend more time in school. This argument drives me batty as it ignores the concept of diminishing returns. When I read to my young children I have to be careful not to read past the limits of their attention spans because I do not want them to develop bad habits of inattention. Slowly I can increase the length of time I read to them, but if they begin to shut down, I need to stop. At school I often think I am looking at dozens of students who have spent 10 years honing time-passing skills. They’re not thinking, they’re passing the time. It’s a worst case scenario when you’re training tomorrow’s work force, and adding more time to their school days will not help them a bit.

Yet what about cutting time spent in school after cutting down the curriculum? For young students especially, spending time with their families would seem to me to be the best thing for students whose families are doing a good job raising their kids. True, some families are not capable of providing that same structure and support, but what are we doing to our culture when we essentially penalize wonderful families by mandating that they give us their kids? Aside from that debate about younger students, it seems to me that with the extra time generated by shorter days we might even consider involving the community in alternative programs. Require high school students to take part in at least one job shadow each school year. With the school day being shorter, students could do the shadow even if they were in a sport. Such a program would involve the community in the education of our children and expose students to the possibilities of the future. It might help much of our trouble with “relevance” because students would see it.

Quit spending so much money on technology

Was there a day when schools bought all our students pencils and paper? Why do we try to buy them all computers and not let them bring their own to school? I watch students grow so frustrated over our technology and in their pockets they have more powerful devices than we can provide. Is there a way for us to provide a suped up wireless network that students can connect to and have them be responsible for their own documents and materials? Students who can’t afford a device that works can borrow something from the school. Grants could provide technology for poor families as well. Learning environments can be set up online (some sort of content management system) and teachers can know when students are in them or not because students would have to log in. As schools, we cannot keep up with the cost of technology, and we cannot keep up with a consumer economy. I wonder why we would try, however, when we do not have to. I know there are legal issues here, but I think it would be worth trying to get past them somehow. It would certainly be cheaper.

Create two kinds of high schools

One of my pet ideas has become that we should stop regular school after ninth grade and allow students to choose to enter one of two schools for upper grades. By the end of ninth grade a student is basically literate and capable of entering the adult world. Yet we make students sit there for three more years studying things they hate. What if we were to create trade or technical schools and students could enter them in 10th grade and attend them for two years, and then their third year they could either be hired onto a job as an intern for a semester or be hired directly into a trade? Technical schools are thriving in communities around our country; why do students have to fake their way through three additional and practically meaningless years of school before they can begin entering these programs? Students who want to attempt a four-year college track could stay in the traditional program, which is what the other school would be, but by allowing those who are not committed to it to leave, the pace and quality of instruction would surely increase.

In South Dakota our students now cannot drop out of school until the age of 18. I understand our desire to keep these kids from dropping out, but it seems to me that the reason the drop out age used to be 16 is that by the age of 16 a young man or woman knows whether this school thing is going to work out. They might have known even earlier than that, actually, but at 16 we can let them leave and get a job. At least, that seemed to be the logic behind it. If we are going to make these kids stay in school, though, shouldn’t we rethink what we’re making them learn? Why not train them in something at which they might succeed? Why not break the pattern of time-passing to which I referred earlier?

I first began touting this idea to friends because I am convinced it would allow students who are serious about academic work like reading and writing to excel. I have become practically passionate about the idea by thinking about the kids who would enter the trade program. The problem with saying we’ll leave no child behind is that many children have achieved Plato’s ideal and know themselves–they know that academia is not something they want. We passed a law that says every child will read proficiently, but the child who has spent 10 years failing classes knows he will not pass our test, and he long ago stopped caring whether he did pass it. For us to insist that he pass it can only fill him with despair. To give him a trade, however; to allow him to work with his hands, to allow him to learn something that is not this traditional schooling material and at which he can succeed and work hard instead of pass the time–that is to give that young man or young woman hope. At least, it’s vocational hope, and if we’re teaching it like it matters–and allowing them to learn a trade instead of reading more Shakespeare affirms that it matters–it can help these young people know they have a role in our culture that our society values.

I don’t think these ideas will be in the materials developed by the Gates Foundation, but it was fun to consider them like they matter. At least now that I’ve written them down I can go back to thinking about little things, like what I am going to do with my freshmen this afternoon . . .

Thanks for reading.