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Education Debate

  • The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

    Written on April 21, 2011

    Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

    Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

    This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

    One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.

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  • A Big Fish In A Small Causal Pond

    Written on April 13, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    In three previous posts, I discussed what I’ve begun to call the “trifecta” of teacher-focused education reform talking points:

    In many respects, this “trifecta” is driving the current education debate. You would have trouble finding many education reform articles, reports, or speeches that don’t use at least one of these arguments.

    Indeed, they are guiding principles behind much of the Obama Administration’s education agenda, as well as the philosophies of high-profile market-based reformers, such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. The talking points have undeniable appeal. They imply, deliberately or otherwise, that policies focused on improving teacher quality in and of themselves can take us a very long way - not all the way, but perhaps most of the way - towards solving all of our education problems.

    This is a fantasy.

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  • The Elephant In The Classroom

    Written on April 5, 2011

    The current education debate seems to have developed a laser-like focus on teaching. In response, some have offered serious commentary; others have resorted to humor; many others have expressed outrage at the seeming myopia.

    Since common sense is said to be the least common of senses and a picture is worth a thousand words, here are my 1350 words—1000 of them in illustrations.

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  • A Wisconsin Moment For Our Education Policy Debate

    Written on February 24, 2011

    There is an obvious, albeit somewhat uncomfortable connection between what’s happening in Wisconsin and what’s been happening in education policy discussions.

    A remarkably high proportion of the discussion is focused – implicitly or explicitly – on the presumed role of teachers’ unions. The public is told that our school systems are failing, and that teachers’ unions are at least partially to blame because they protect bad teachers and block “needed” reforms such as merit pay. In this storyline, unions are faceless villains that put the interests of adults above those of children.

    Wisconsin represents a threat to this perspective in at least three important manners.

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  • Why Does Joel Klein Keep Misrepresenting Al Shanker?

    Written on December 8, 2010

    Outgoing New York City Chancellor Klein loves to try to wrap himself in the mantle of Al Shanker. He is especially fond of pulling clipped Shanker quotes out of his hat—and out of context—when speaking about his favorite education “reforms." At first this may seem puzzling, because the ex-Chancellor is disinclined to give either the United Federation of Teachers or its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, credit for much of anything except intransigence. It must be an inconvenient truth for Klein that Shanker devoted his life to making both organizations into the strong and aggressive advocates for teachers and teaching that they continue to be.

    In "What I Learned at the Barricades," a December 6 Wall Street Journal column, Klein leads up to his latest Shanker references with a characteristic litany of inaccurate claims – ones that Al would be quick to correct:

    First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential." And “Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc —aren’t going to get the job done.
    Really? It’s hard to imagine which barricades Klein learned at. There is plenty of evidence to support the impact of all of these.

    But, for those of us who knew and worked closely with Al (I did from 1967-1984 and from 1989 until his death in 1997), what’s truly galling is Klein’s distorted use of Al’s thinking to shore up a simplistic, narrowly punitive agenda that Shanker would have discredited.

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  • Talking About But Not Learning From Finland

    Written on October 5, 2010

    Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?" context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow. 

    Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.

    Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It's very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).

    But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions).

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  • The Test-Based Language Of Education

    Written on August 30, 2010

    A recent poll on education attitudes from Gallup and Phi Delta Kappan got a lot of attention, including a mention on ABC’s "This Week with Christian Amanpour," which devoted most of its show to education yesterday. They flashed results for one of the poll’s questions, showing that 72 percent of Americans believe that "each teacher should be paid on the basis of the quality of his or her work," rather than on a "standard-scale basis."

    Anyone who knows anything about survey methodology knows that responses to questions can vary dramatically with different wordings (death tax, anyone?). The wording of this Gallup/PDK question, of course, presumes that the "quality of work" among teachers might be measured accurately. The term "teacher quality" is thrown around constantly in education circles, and in practice, it is usually used in the context of teachers’ effects on students’ test scores (as estimated by various classes of "value-added" models).

    But let’s say the Gallup/PDK poll asked respondents if "each teacher should be paid on the basis of their estimated effect on their students’ standardized test scores, relative to other teachers." Think the results would be different? Of course. This doesn’t necessarily say anything about the "merit" of the compensation argument, so to speak, nor does it suggest that survey questions should always emphasize perfect accuracy over clarity (which would also create bias of a different sort). But has anyone looked around recently and seen just how many powerful words, such as "quality," are routinely used to refer to standardized test score-related measures? I made a tentative list.

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