Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Barking Up the Wrong Tree a Bit When it Comes to Education Reform

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the ideas found in the recently released book Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America's Future by Brian Crosby that I felt had merit. On the whole, I think Mr. Crosby (a veteran high school English teacher from Southern California) is on the right track with his suggestions for reforming America's government-run schools. However, I do believe he completely missed the boat with certain of his ideas.

Bad Idea #1. Moving teachers rather than students from classroom to classroom between periods. Mr. Crosby does acknowledge that this would only be possible if every student in the class took the exact same courses, but dismisses this concern:
"With the push toward more academic rigor, why can't they take the same classes? The students in the advanced classes are already tracked together; those who would be in a vocational track would likewise be taking the same coursework."
This is a false assumption. While certain honors classes may tend to enroll many of the same students, not every student in them is taking the exact same schedule as every single one of his/her classmates. In my high school during 9th-11th grades, I would say that probably 75-85% of those taking honors math also took honors science, and there was roughly the same overlap between honors English and honors history. However, there was a much lower overlap between honors math and honors English, only around half to two-thirds. Senior year, by which time almost all students had already met the school's graduation requirement for 3 years' each in science and history and many had chosen to drop one or both, had even more variations in schedules.

That's not even taking into consideration electives such as foreign languages, computer science, psychology, economics, statistics, the performing arts, study hall, etc. My friends and I tended to be in mostly the same core courses, but we took all different types of electives depending on our particular interests and post-graduation aspirations.

On top of the normal variations among students' schedules, I knew several individuals who were taking courses either ahead of or behind the typical grade level. A good friend of mine doubled up in math her freshman year so that she could take a distance learning university-level math course in 12th. I personally chose to start studying Latin as my second foreign language in 10th rather than the typical 9th (when I had tried Spanish but got frustrated with the lack of academic rigor in that particular sequence).

In addition to problems with coordinating students' schedules, there is also the issue of courses requiring specialized classrooms. Mr. Crosby, the English instructor, may very well be able to teach in a generic classroom. But what if he taught chemistry, biology, computer science, or a foreign language and needed specific equipment available on a regular basis?

Bad Idea #2. Having teachers instruct classes Monday-Thursday and then spend every Friday in professional development. Mr. Crosby writes:
"What do the teachers get to do on Fridays? They do something they only rarely get a chance to do- share ideas with other teachers....It also frees up one day a week for teachers to attend conferences without having to miss teaching to their students."
I agree that teachers ought to have more time available in their schedule for collaboration and pursuing continuing education. But devoting 1/5th of their working time (which is already quite a bit shorter than most other professions) to these activities seems excessive. I could see perhaps 2 Fridays per month, but not every single week.

Bad Idea #3. Bashing teachers who go above and beyond what they're required to do by their contracts for love of their students. This one just struck me as pure selfishness:
"I have often heard from principals how proud they are of teachers who volunteer to advise a club or chair a department. Yet these slave laborers are inadvertently harming the rest of the teachers....Many teachers, partly due to their strong Judeo-Christian ethics, sincerely believe in the 'I'm there for the kids' credo and view their jobs as missionary-like, a 'calling' if you will....These instructors sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, but what they are really sacrificing is their own profession."
*HEAVEN FORBID* that certain teachers actually put the welfare of their students ahead of their own greed! The problem with today's schools is *NOT* that too few teachers share Mr. Crosby's self-centered opinion on this issue but that far too many do :-(

One of the major reasons that certain charter schools like the KIPP ones outperform their traditional government-run counterparts is that they attract teachers who put service to their students above selfishness. Who's going to do a better job for his/her students- the teacher who views the profession as a calling or the one who's "all about the Benjamins"?

The cynic in me suspects that Mr. Crosby is uncomfortable with his more altruistic colleagues because they make those who share his selfish mindset look bad...

Bad Idea #4. Bashing educational alternatives to government-run schools like private schools and homeschooling. Like #3, I suspect that Mr. Crosby's antagonism stems primarily from self-interest rather than what's best for the students. He nearly says as much in the final chapter of Smart Kids, Bad Schools, when he writes:
"I'd rather have a broken public school system than have millions of kids stay home to be schooled. I'd rather deal with bureaucratic headaches than have vouchers given out to millions of parents."
Wow, I'm glad to know that Mr. Crosby is willing to put ideology of "believing in the public schools" ahead of the welfare of millions of American children.

Earlier in the book, he makes the astonishing claim that:
"Except for religious reasons and spiffy uniforms, there is no sound argument for educating children in private schools."
What about the fact that the government-run schools in many areas are truly dreadful? In Mr. Crosby's hometown of L.A., only 48% of students in the city's government-run high schools graduate in 4 years. Compare this with a 97.5% graduation rate in the city's Catholic high schools for students from low-income families, according to a recent study done by Loyola Marymount University in L.A. Also, test scores are consistently higher among private school students than among students in government-run schools.

Mr. Crosby notes that private school salaries are typically lower than those paid in government-run schools, and that often private school teachers lack state certification. He then makes the extraordinary claim that:
"The best teachers out there know this and that is why they work in public schools where they can command higher salaries."
I know plenty of wonderful teachers who feel that the greater autonomy, significantly better working conditions, and higher caliber student populations at private schools outweigh the somewhat lower salaries.

In addition, evidence is lacking that traditional teacher certification actually improves student achievement. In his book Education Myths, Jay Greene of the American Enterprise Institute notes that (emphasis in the original):
"After examining every available study on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance--171 in total--Eric Hanushek [of the the Abell Foundation] found that only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship between credentials and student performance, five found a significant negative relationship between the two, and 157 showed no connection. "
Mr. Crosby also dismisses parental concerns about there being far too much standardized testing in government-run schools. He points out that most private middle and high schools require an entrance exam. True, but that's *ONE* three hour test taken during the application period and it's typically prepared for outside of the normal classroom time. By contrast, California government-run schools require annual tests from grades 2 through 11 administered over several days. In addition, many schools these days devote a significant portion of the school year towards preparation for these standardized tests, resulting in less time available for other educational activities.

As for the brief half-page discussion of homeschooling in Smart Kids, Dumb Schools, it's obvious that Mr. Crosby doesn't know much about the topic; he regurgitates the same old tired stereotypes about socialization, spelling bee winners, and speculation about racial segregation playing a role in the decision to homeschool. I'm not going to waste my time dignifying them with a response as they've been so thoroughly debunked in the past better than I could ever hope to do myself.

Bad Idea #5. Parents should *ALWAYS* defer to the "authority" of the teacher, and should *NEVER* question the teacher's "expertise" or want to influence what their child should learn. This highly patronizing and paternalistic attitude is probably the biggest beef I had with Smart Kids, Dumb Schools. Mr. Crosby even goes so far as to title chapter 36 "Would You Ever Question Your Child's Pediatrician?"

Well, guess what? I don't automatically defer to my pediatrician- and she's got a medical degree from Yale. Not to sound like too much of an educational snob, but that requires a whole heck of a lot more brains and hard work than getting a credential from some no-name state college (what the typical teacher holds). The typical newly credentialed teacher in the U.S. has a SAT score placing him/her in the bottom third of college graduates.

But back to my relationship with my child's pediatrician- while I do take into consideration her advice, I may or may not choose to follow it. She's not God and I'm not going to take what she says as the Gospel truth simply by virtue of her position. In general, I have a lot of confidence in her diagnostic skills and often follow her recommendations. But when it comes to a situation where we disagree about what's best for my individual child (such as whether to follow the standard vaccination schedule or a selective/delayed one), ultimately I'm going to make that judgment call.

Mr. Crosby goes on a 5 page diatribe against parents, insulting them as "nasty", "manipulative", "pushy", and "busybodies" simply because they dared to "question the authority and knowledge of the teacher". He laments that:
"In the old days, parents would listen to what teachers and principals had to say about their children without questioning their expertise or authority...But with [today's] teachers, half of whom have master's degrees, parents seem to have no compunction whatsoever about suggesting ways to teach their children.... As Evan Chase wrote in Edutopia, 'Somewhere along the line [parents] have gotten the implicit or explicit message...that they are somehow entitled to unprecedented influence over what their child will learn and think they know better than classroom teachers what's best for their kids.'"
I hate to break it to you Mr. Crosby, but parents DO know their children better than someone whose interaction with them is limited to around 1800 hours for the typical high school teacher. So please forgive us parents for having the nerve to believe that we should retain the ultimate say over our own kids.


Henry Cate said...

"I'd rather have a broken public school system than have millions of kids stay home to be schooled. I'd rather deal with bureaucratic headaches than have vouchers given out to millions of parents."

Wow! There are many who seem to feel the important thing is to keep the government school system going, rather than figure out what is best for the children.

J Gall said...

I don't defer to my child's pediatrician OR my own doctor just because of their position or occupational title... so I don't get his attempt to make a connection there.

As for the rest... I'm so glad I homeschool (albeit with the help of a coop/PSP), the more I hear come out of the government system the more I'm so glad I don't have to deal with it.