Category Archives: Education and Schooling

More on Chester Finn and school reform

Chester Finn, no less than Arne Duncan and his “Race to the Top,” labors under the (mis-)conception that student achievement levels depend primarily on what the educators, – the teachers, administrators, and politicians — do, and that downward or flat, as at the present time, achievement levels call for additional reforms.

Maybe, but so far a long series of public school education reforms  beginning in this country in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik into orbit 4 October 1957, have done little or nothing to raise the achievement levels of all our students, and have done particularly little for our most vulnerable, most impoverished and most often minority, Latino, Black and other, students, those for the most part living and attending school in our largest inner cities.

Why is this? The answer is obvious but so far educators have not been paying attention. What have we ever learned ourselves that has not come primarily from our own efforts, from our own active involvement in the learning process?

Why would it be any different for kids? For what students learn, translated into measurable achievement levels, depends most of all (as for the rest of us) on what they do for themselves, not on what we do for them.

What reforms, if any, have sought to make the students primarily responsible for their own education, for their own learning? The three reform movements of which Chester Finn speaks, national standards, data driven instruction (testing), and school choice, have little or nothing to say about the role of the students in all that.

As it is now, even the best students, the so called “good students,” are probably doing what they do in school to please their parents or teachers rather than themselves. Although they may be learning the lessons of the school and classroom, what they’re really learning, what’s becoming an integral part of their makeup, and most important for their future lives, is probably not what they’re doing in school.

When and if learning does take place, if progress is made and achievement gaps are narrowed or closed, it will be most of all thanks to the efforts of the learners, of the kids themselves.

I thought of all this while reading David Brooks writing about the devastation brought about by the earthquake in Haiti. The extent of the devastation, he says, is much more to be blamed on poverty, that which had made for a totally inadequate infrastructure of support systems, as well as permitting contractors to build without meeting proper building code requirements.

Brooks reminds us that an earthquake in the Bay Area of Northern California, on October 17, 1989, just as powerful, 7.0 on the Richter scale, did a tiny fraction of the horrendous people and property damage that we are now witnessing via the Media’s constant coverage of the aftermath of the quake in Haiti. The poverty of Haiti and affluence of Northern California are the explanation of the hugely differing quake damages in the two places.

Then Brooks goes on to say that all the development aid of the past several decades has done little or nothing to reduce, let alone dispel the poverty not only in Haiti, but in the under developed world generally. He concludes with the simple admission that “we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty.”

Brooks then quotes the economist Abhijit Banerjee who has this to say about the effectiveness of aid to the undeveloped world: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

And it was here that I thought to myself that similarly, or analogously the best way to raise our students’ achievement levels was not to go on tinkering with the public school environments and curricula, for perhaps making real progress in reducing ignorance and raising achievement may also not be within our power or control.

And in fact the real growth and development, that is taking place in countries like India and China, is not to be attributed to international aid efforts, such as those of the World Bank and others, but to the efforts of the Indians and the Chinese themselves. Similarly perhaps real student achievement will only take place when the students themselves assume the major responsibility for their learning.

This clearly has not yet happened.

Schooling and Education, Two

Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato's "school" in Athens.)

Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.

Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.

A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself… Lincoln's teacher was a book, Darwin's was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.

The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.

OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the "soft" or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.

What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.

Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.

So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child's formative years) demands.

What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?

Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child's interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?

The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the "good students" of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.

Is school destined to fail because it doesn't give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child's body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child's time everywhere but in school?  There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both "reforms" have failed to make schools also a place of learning.

Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he's not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.

What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.

It's not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.

Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.

The race is to….

There are fast learners and slow learners. There are bright kids and dull kids. There were those who could run faster and throw the spear further and who as a result found themselves at the head of the class. And there were those who struggled and ultimately failed to run fast and throw far and found themselves left behind.

Things have always been so. However, in past ages we heard only about the strong, those at the head of their class. Their stories were told and celebrated. No one wrote about the stragglers, nor was anyone troubled by their not being in the race, let alone their not sharing in the benefits that went to the winners.

In the modern world things are different. First Christianity and then democracy have brought the needs of the slow and the weak to the foreground. Now developed nations are intensely preoccupied with how the advantages of the few and the strong might be extended to the many and the weak. And the primary means, probably the only means, of doing so has been and is still to take from the former and give to the latter. One might even say that the redistribution of wealth is what governing is now all about.

On the face of it, good democrats and good Christians that we are, we could not disagree with this new strategy. For we recognize the intrinsic worth of each individual life and it therefore becoming incumbent upon us to create the conditions in which all lives, not just those of the strong, can flourish. Not easily done of course.

Our public schools, at their beginning in the 19th century as well as during the present epoch of No Child Left Behind, were and are an heroic attempt to have everyone in the race and have everyone finish. Of course this hasn’t yet happened. Large numbers of our children are still dropping out of  school altogether, and even larger numbers, although they may have “finished,” or graduated, have acquired in the process few of the skills and only bits of the knowledge they will need to succeed in their endeavors.

For 100 years or more reformers have been asking what is to be done and there have been at least as many answers as reformers. But up until now the answer is what it has always been. Those who run fastest and throw furthest are still at the head of the class, and ultimately go on to occupy the positions of authority and power in the nation. Too many others are still far behind and we don’t yet have the answer.

Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

Milton Friedman is dead. His voice, now quelled, was probably the strongest voice ever raised in this country, or anywhere else, for doing away with the government monopoly on education. During his lifetime he was listened to in this regard, but not nearly enough.

For example, vouchers were one of his ideas, but vouchers haven’t yet been tried in any meaningful manner. The latter meaning that the student, or the student’s parents, receive a voucher at least as large as the dollar cost of each pupil to the local school system. This didn’t, and hasn’t happened. And as long as vouchers are small, both in numbers and amounts, there will be no definitive answer to the question, will vouchers solve some of the worst problems of the public schools, especially those within our inner cities where failure is common and drop out rates are high.

"As a libertarian, Mr. Friedman advocated legalizing drugs and generally opposed public education and the state’s power to license doctors, automobile drivers and others. He was criticized for those views, but he stood by them, arguing that prohibiting, regulating or licensing human behavior either does not work or creates inefficient bureaucracies." (See the obituary in today’s NYTimes.)

Friedman liked to say that, "unimpeded private competition produced better results than government systems. ‘Try talking French with someone who studied it in public school,’ he argued, ‘then with a Berlitz graduate.’"  He might also have said, try testing a fourth grader’s knowledge of the times table and other math facts, and then those of a Kumon student of the same age. Although he probably oversimplified the issue, in regard, for example, to the reasons for the Berlitz graduate’s success, those of us who have taught in the public schools would have to admit that our students were never learning more than a fraction of what they could have learned if they had  been motivated and interested.

OK, you’re right. Even more important than the public-private thing is the motivation of the learner.  Friedman seemed to assume that on the part of both teacher and learner in a private school environment motivation and interest would be highest. Maybe so, although we haven’t found that out yet. But isn’t it true that ownership, meaning in this case owning one’s place in the learning environment from having paid the purchase price, is more apt to result in hard work and the assumption of responsibility on the part of the learner? In any case there is very little of both, hard work and the assumption of responsibility for one’s learning, to be found in our failing inner city  schools.