Monday, May 16, 2011

One Way or Another

The never-ending tug-of-war over education reform continues, with the Common Core side digging in its heels to avoid getting pulled into the mud pit by newly energized small-government types. It's the usual policital arguments over regulation-vs-trust-the-professionals and activist-federal-government-vs-state-sovereignty. And as with all the other areas of life over which these dichotomies have imposed itself, the arguers treat their position as Simply Right--correct because it's God's way. And when both sides of the battle claim that God is on their side, you can bet the result will be blooshed.

So let's put aside whether God and George Washington would have approved of government regulation of education. It's not helpful. Let's first ask: What is actually going on in education? Why does it need help? Do we even bother to diagnose our problems anymore before prescribing a cure? Republicans think a tax cut is the right response to both a surplus and a recession. Democrats think government programs are the right response to personal and infrastructure problems. It's like a doctor prescribing a drug just because he likes the drug, with no thought to whether it's an appropriate cure to the disease. "You know what I love? I love that Lipitor stuff. Works like a charm. I use it for everything."

Why do some people believe we need Common Core standards, and then maybe assessments, and then maybe curriculum? Because no one knows what the hell anyone is teaching in the classroom. From room to room, you may find absolute chaos within a single course. Forget about from school to school, district to district, or state to state. Even if the teachers are all using the same textbooks, what they teach diverges.

So why is that? Before we impose new standards, let's pause and remember that the old standards didn't actually solve this problem. Why is there so little agreement over what should be taught within a single course?

Is it that there's a huge spectrum of content-knowledge within our teacher corps, and teachers tend to teach what they know best? If so, then imposing new standards won't change anything...unless that change leads to a change in the way teachers are trained and prepared.

Ah, but we have wildly divergent training and preparation demands from state to state. Some states demand a Masters degree; some don't. Some states demand a degree in the subject area; some are ok with an Education degree. Some require a test; some don't.

Is the problem that there's a huge spectrum of excellence and achievement within our teacher corps, with many of the best and brightest in the field leaving the profession within five years? We hear that said very often. Is it that the corps is simply not capable?

That argument, it seems to me, lies at the heart of the tug of war. Countries like Finland and Singapore do not regulate their teachers or their curriculum. HOWEVER, they make damned sure that the best possible people are placed into those roles, going so far as to subsidize the education of their best young people, if those young people choose to become teachers. Then they pay them well, make nice buildings for them to work in, and provide an ample social infrastructure for parents, to help them send healthy and well-prepared children into the schools.

And then, having done all those things, they leave them the hell alone. Because they trust them to be self-monitoring professionals.

We do none of those things. We allow our neediest schools to be pits of despair, with bars on the windows and food on the floor. We demean and insult our teachers. We subsidize them not at all, encoruage them not at all, and pay them poorly. We allow the bottom quarter of our college classes to enter the profession, because everyone else has "better" options. We have an economic system (and personal levels of material greed) that demand all parents work, full time, and refuse to raise taxes to provide supervision and enrichment to children outside of the home.

So why do we feel the need to regulate every aspect of the teacher's life? Simple. It's because we don't trust them.

Personally, I don't trust oil executives and investment bankers to do their jobs properly without regulation. They have not earned my trust. But we have to look at the nature of that loss of trust to figure out what, exactly, needs regulation. Same here. If teachers don't know the subject they're teaching--teach them better. If they're not as competent as they should be--support and train them better. If we're not attracting the right people into the job in the first place--make the job more attractive and competitive.

But that's hard, isn't it? Much easier to write regulations.