Education Reform, Redux
Ever get the feeling that we are having the same old educational debate, over and over? A glance through the archives of the Atlantic Monthly helps to cement the notion.
One writer describes schools as “society's dumping ground,…a vast refuse heap for any and every unwanted service or task that other social or governmental institutions and agencies find too tough to handle. The community, the home, and to some extent even the church have used the public schools to relieve their consciences of feelings of guilt by passing on unfinished business which they have found [too] difficult …or just burdensome." That was 1959.
Another pleads for “education reform," while admitting that the term has been so overused as to become virtually meaningless. “America has been oversold on pedagogical gadgets which never perform up to expectations," he says. But, since “standards in American public education are deplorably and inexcusably low," something must be done. In a democracy, he writes, every citizen deserves “an education… [grounded] in learning, in mastery, in growing insight, in standards which really operate – and not just in going to school. So when multitudes of young people accumulate credits, pass courses, carry off elegant [diplomas], and come out knowing little or nothing, it is simply intolerable." That was 1939.
Why Aren't We Closing The Achievement Gap?
When it comes to closing the academic achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income families, we share the fate of Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced to spend eternity pushing a giant rock uphill, watching it roll back down, and then repeating the task.
The gap in school performance comes “pre-installed," as it were, beginning well before children ever step foot in the classroom. By the time they enter kindergarten, poor children are already at a huge disadvantage relative to their counterparts from high-income families. By the time they take their first standardized test, the differences in vocabulary, background knowledge, and non-cognitive skills are so large that most poor children will never overcome them – no matter what school they attend, which teachers they are assigned to, or how these teachers are evaluated. And, like Sisyphus, whatever gap-closing progress we may make with each cohort of struggling students after they enter school, we must start all over again with the next.
What can be done? Stop putting out fires and prevent them – address the achievement gap before it widens.
Failure To Communicate
Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews recently sparked some interesting online chatter about why students aren’t better prepared for college-level writing, and what can be done about it.
In a first article, Mathews introduces us to high school history teacher Doris Burton, who asserts that state and district course requirements leave “no room” for the assignment of serious research papers of 3000 words (10-12 pages) or more. According to Mathews, “We are beginning to see, in the howls of exasperation from college introductory course professors and their students, how high a price we are paying for this."
Teachers Matter, But So Do Words
The following quote comes from the Obama Administration’s education "blueprint," which is its plan for reauthorizing ESEA, placing a heavy emphasis, among many other things, on overhauling teacher human capital policies:
Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success.
Specific wordings vary, but if you follow education even casually, you hear some version of this argument with incredible frequency. In fact, most Americans are hearing it – I’d be surprised if many days pass when some approximation of it isn’t made in a newspaper, magazine, or high-traffic blog. It is the shorthand justification – the talking point, if you will – for the current efforts to base teachers’ hiring, firing, evaluation, and compensation on students’ test scores and other "performance” measures.