Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of Oversimplification and Education

I just finished reading a piece in The Economist, "Flipping the Classroom". It begins by detailing the laudable work of Sal Khan in Silicon Valley, which is leading to great classroom success in teaching mathematics to children in the 5th-7th grades among local schools in and around Mountain View and Los Altos. The Khan Academy also has great potential for supplementing middle school science instruction, at least. But then the article morphs into a discussion of teacher appraisal systems, and tries to connect Khan Academy results to the latter.

This tendency to seize on a success in a limited span of the academic spectrum with a limited section of the total student population and to then apply the principles discovered to every subject and all students is typical of people from fields outside education when they venture (as they so frequently do) to publish their opinions on how to solve the problems inside American education (I haven't noted this tendency elsewhere). These opinions are almost always, in a word, simpleminded. The Economist is actually quite a sophisticated publication; but to pretend that Khan Academy-style dashboards can properly measure the success of all teachers in all subjects is simple-minded in the extreme. Exhaustively running through all the objections that might legitimately be raised to such a proceeding would pointlessly tire me out; but I will mention just a few.

The central question here is, How should a teacher's professional performance be appraised? I will quote from One World Secondary School's contract for teachers to provide a model for what I support: 

The criteria for assessing this are knowledge and understanding of curricula; planning, teaching, and class management; assessment, recording, reporting, and accountability for student achievement; pastoral and co-curricular support for and involvement with students; and other professional responsibilities, including approach towards professional development as well as interaction and cooperation skills.

Of these five categories of criteria, only one has to do with student performance on assessable work, whether formative or summative, and that is the second ("assessment, recording, reporting, and accountability for student achievement"), and only a portion of this is attributable to what the students do; the vast majority of these assessment criteria are determined by what the teacher does, that is, by the one being assessed (and promoted or fired, in The Economist's vision), not by someone else. Deepening one's understanding of the curricula one teaches, planning for and managing classes, and supporting students outside of class time are also very important professional responsibilities for a school like One World Secondary, and for nearly any other secondary school as well; and yet note the qualification, for I do not believe, in spite of my support for this particular set of appraisal criteria, that it is necessarily the right answer for every school in existence; and therefore our approach to teacher appraisal, and to commenting on educational issues in general, is not so simpleminded.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lawyering For America

I have been reading with some horror accounts of the Los Angeles Times's decision to publish value-added scores for individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (my one-time employer), and in particular the story of the suicide of one of the teachers named in the paper with the implication that he was a bad teacher. It's easy to feel, under these circumstances, that the editors of the Times have blood on their hands.

Accountability is a concept that has spread from the business world into education across the English-speaking world for the last two decades, and has become allied to another characteristic of the English-speaking peoples, the tradition of a free press, to produce a marked emphasis on reporting school results. Recently, this has shifted, due to some suspect reasoning that I have questioned in a separate post, from reporting on accountable public schools to reporting on accountable public school educators (especially teachers and principals).

Some make the lazy argument that there is no other profession in which practitioners are not held accountable for their results; but in other professions such accountable results discussions mostly take place in private offices between employees and their immediate supervisors, not in the public press. Such reporting is bad public policy and a disservice to the public. Among other effects, one can well anticipate that it will drive some young people who might be considering teaching as a career into other occupations, and so drive up the cost of education to the public by reducing the supply of teachers. By contrast, I believe that Scotland has an admirable system of educational accountability, which highlights the public posting of inspection reports along with the results on upper secondary examinations that have real consequences for the students, instead of our system foolishly designed with no real incentives to prevent students from making funny face designs on their multiple choice Scantron forms, which used to happen at Locke High School when I first started teaching there (who would do that on an SAT that they had paid for?).

But I have a proposal for those who take extreme positions regarding reporting the results of accountable professionals: let's impose what's being forced on teachers on some other professionals. Failing hospitals don't just produce substandard scores, they kill people, as was believed to be the case in the community surrounding the King-Drew Medical Center in Watts when I was working nearby at Locke High. Perhaps it's not enough that this hospital was shuttered, and only allowed to reopen under different management some years later (a hospital turnaround); why don't we go after its doctors by name, and publicly name in a large-circulation newspaper doctors whose patient mortality rate exceeds the norm anticipated? We can come up with associated terms corresponding to value-added metrics for these bad doctors; perhaps the mortality-added measure of Doctor Murderer? Wouldn't that have a salutary effect upon the medical community? 

Or how about lawyers? They can kill too, instead of just producing disappointing results on nearly meaningless tests; culpable negligence on the part of a defence lawyer, for example, can lead to innocent human beings being put to death in countries practicing capital punishment. So they too might have their mortality-added measures calculated; or perhaps other metrics for allowing criminals to escape conviction (this would let us calculate, and publicly report, a prosecutor's crime-added metric), or for false incarceration, or contribution to general injustice.

Of course, if we publicly humiliated other professionals in this way, we would probably hurt education, since we can anticipate that the supply of young people willing to subject themselves to this form of shaming would be diminshed, and a decrease in supply would drive up the cost of a doctor's or lawyer's labours in a free market economy; and a major reason why American schools are so thinly staffed, in terms of student-teacher ratios, is because American teachers are relatively expensive compared to their peers overseas, but still feel underpaid since their salaries are so low compared to the sky-high costs of American professionals in other careers like law and medicine.

But I can think of another solution for that, as well: let's introduce new, alternative certification programmes for law and medicine, programmes that would increase the supply of the practitioners, and thus drive down the wages, of these professions by taking recent college grads, giving them six weeks of supervised summer training in hospitals and law firms, and then unleashing these ambitious young people on the public.

One name comes immediately to mind: anyone want to sign up for Lawyering For America?

The doctors' equivalent forces me to think a bit longer . . . what do you think of Meds For America?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Seeming Paradox Regarding the Use of Time in Education

American politicians--mayors, governors, presidents--have made a fashion lately of calling for longer school days and years, and with some reason: high performing charter school networks such as KIPP (the Knowledge in Power Program) depend upon longer school days, Saturday schooling, and brief summer sessions to maintain their impressive results. But where the money would come from to pay for this increase in schooling is unclear, and the evidence on the relationship, if any, between the length of the school day and year and consequent student success is also far less clear than is often assumed by those whose knowledge of education stops at our shores.

For example, Eurydice, the educational knowledge network and database for Europe, studied the widely varying uses of time among the 37 nations belonging to it and found no correlation at all between the length of the school day and year and student achievement on measures like PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD. And two of the top performing educational systems with which I am familiar, those of Finland and South Korea, also provide counter-evidence to the simplistic thesis that more time in school necessarily leads to more learning. In Finland, students don't start school until age seven, and they spend fewer annual hours in school than any other country in Europe, yet their test scores are ahead of those of all other European (and American) countries by the time the students are 15. And in South Korea, while the school year is longer than the American and tops 200 days per year, the annual number of hours teachers are scheduled to be in class is the lowest of any country in the OECD.

What to make of this data? The key point, I think, is that the question of how students use their time is not equivalent to the question of how long they are in school. This is where socioeconomic status, and in particular the culture of the home, prove vital. European citizens with rich cultural offerings and thorough social safety nets offer their young a wealth of activities outside of school time, which some of them are wise enough to enjoy (not all do). Koreans and other east Asians, especially in their teen years, spend long hours attending cram schools or being tutored after school, and it is this use of time, rather than anything special happening in their schools, that leads to their dominating the international test score league tables. Wealthy Americans have their children in numerous activities, especially sports, after school and on weekends, and some have the means of taking their children on long summer vacations which can be very culturally enriching in their own way. But poor Americans in ghettos have virtually nothing to do all summer long but watch TV or get in trouble with local gangs.

This is where equity issues get tricky. On the one hand, spending more on the schooling of some students than on others in order to buy the former extra time with teachers feels innately wrong and unjust because it violates the principle that all people deserve equal treatment. On the other hand, in a Western country with such gross social inequities as the United States, it is patent that if we don't intervene in schools to try to compensate for the inequities elsewhere in our social system, we are confirming those inequities, and dooming most (a few of outstanding talent will escape the ghetto anyway thanks to our meritocratic opportunities) poor children to second-rate lives.

Utilizing the approach to social justice experimentally derived in Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, which implies that we make equal distribution of social goods whenever we can and prioritize giving to the underprivileged first whenever we don't have enough of some good or service to go around, I think summer schooling for all a sound if, for now, utopian social policy, and suggest that we begin by lengthening the school year of our most underprivileged first, and gradually lengthen it for everyone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the Exetasecrats

I just coined that word--I derive it from (also my invention) exetasecracy, "rule by examination".

Jay Mathews did me the honor of quoting me in The Washington Post about a month ago, and specifically my phrase "government of the people by the highly educated for the well placed vested interests". Here I am drawing attention to the middle of those three prepositional phrases. In contemporary American civilization, a highly educated person is someone who will have taken many tests, and have done exceptionally well on them. Democrats, Republicans, talking heads supporting education reform and those opposing it, virtually all (including me) of those participating in any of our education debates, now that the Bush Administration is out of power, are exetasecrats, people who did well on tests when they were in school, and, because much of their self-validation derives from their performance on those tests, believers in their validity and usefulness.   

But this post continues (and will probably conclude, for now, since I am actually a fan of TFA, on balance) my attack on Teach For America, begun two posts back and now in its third installment. TFA, being highly selective, is filled with bright young exetasecrats who are setting up an occupational sideline in education while they are between tests (LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, exetasecrat). Having amassed two or three years in the classroom before they moved on to other jobs, possibly involving telling the rest of us how to rearrange the educational system, they are likely to be very thinly informed, from a research standpoint, on the possibilities and limitations of various assessment systems; but because they are intelligent, they are likely, especially if they did their teaching in primary schools, to recognize that even our typical substandard state tests are more defensible, from a pedagogical standpoint, than the ludicrous high jinks that their older colleagues sometimes come up with and impose upon the public (I had a colleague once, a dear lady, whose idea of an appropriate final exam for her summer school English class was an African marketplace--not that she had ever been to a real one [not much English in the one I went to]).

But when one has experience, perhaps from teaching high school or college English, in working with more rigorous and admirable testing systems (I am thinking of those from Cambridge Assessment and the International Baccalaureate, but there are others), which do not reduce the complexities of human intellectual activity in the extreme way required for American educational data systems to be of any use--the reduced, lost information and truncated discourse of the machine--then one is far less enthused by all the simplistic prattle accompanying proposals to base our children's education more and more squarely and narrowly on the very imperfect assessment instruments present in the United States; and this is what the conventional proposals of well meaning amateurs, who have made endless money from selling pseudo-thinking machines, and who believe sincerely in the power of those machines and have seen them work well in other fields and whose own self-validation has come largely in connection with those machines, amount to.

Tony Wagner of Harvard appropriately suggests, on page 268 of The Global Achievement Gap, "Instituting better assessments is the one most important change we could make tomorrow that would have the greatest impact." Howard Wainer, formerly chief statistician of the Educational Testing Service who now teaches statistics for the Wharton School, has just published, via the Princeton University Press, Uneducated Guesses, which reveals how little our exetosecrats understand about the instruments that have provided them with important boosts in their young careers and which they now promote, to the impoverishment of us all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On Test Scores and Teacher Appraisal

I believe in performance pay, and have had bonuses based on teacher performance built into One World's planning ever since our first charter petition. In fact, following the lead of European Schooling Helsinki, one of the model schools with whom we have established contact, a teacher's appraisal is proposed to multiply that teacher's base salary by 0%-48%. So it may be surprising that I object to the notion that anything approaching 50% of a teacher's appraisal be based on that teacher's students' scores on annual state tests like the California Standards Tests; but I believe that any such proposal obviously betokens a greatly oversimplified view of teachers' work and an excessive emphasis on grossly inferior tests, the over-reliance on which being already responsible for this dark period in our educational history.

Two related questions are raised in this regard: how are teachers to have their performance appraised, and who should do it?

In an early draft of a performance pay formula for our school, I included a value-added model in our proposal, and the value added to students' actual vs. predicted performances on external assessments was slated to be worth 20% of a teacher's appraisal, which would have determined that teacher's bonus; but I now think that 20% was too high. The model I currently support, after having engaged in international correspondence with some of the world's best qualified experts on these matters, utilizes five criteria to define professional performance: "knowledge and understanding of curricula; planning, teaching, and class management; assessment, recording, reporting, and accountability for student achievement; pastoral and co-curricular support for and involvement with students; and other professional responsibilities, including approach towards professional development as well as interaction and cooperation skills." "Accountability for student achievement" does refer to that teacher's students' scores on external exams; but that is only one of four items listed in that assessment criterion, which, if the criteria were equally weighted, would combined make up 20% of the total (but I no longer support any such addition, because it is an instancing of the fallacy of composition, which assumes that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts, which is invalid). 

In short, I do not believe that any mathematical formula can perfectly appraise a teacher's performance; and even if I did believe in such a formula, to base at least half of x's appraisal on the performance of y, not x, is unjust; and because a group of vengeful students could potentially sabotage a teacher's career by intentionally spoiling their exams, which carry no consequences for them (this is the worst of the many flaws in America's test-based accountability system; and the intentional spoiling of tests was a reality at Locke High School when I first started there ten years ago), such proposals, which have recently been enacted into law in several states, make for very unsound public policy.

And this brings us to the second question raised above, that of who should be carrying out teacher appraisals. For in fact I have above quoted from contract language for our school--and while I believe it to be consistent with our vision and aims, I do not pretend to claim that it is (or isn't) appropriate for other schools, especially for very different ones, such as primary schools. My point is that no teacher appraisal formula is likely to work well for every school in any state; and if our educational leaders really want to serve (not lead, or rule, which can run counter to the principles of democratic education, and does so in this instance) their schools and their students well, they would do best to take their hands off any such decisions, and instead devolve that power further down to a level closer or equal to that of the individual school, and should forgo trying to save humanity by dictating teacher evaluation formulas from their inner sanctums in the hopes of finally finding the magical secrets needed to save all those profane souls not similarly blessed but instead consigned to schools under their power.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Of Democratic Education as a Result of Federalism Rather Than of Political Advocacy

In democratic education, as much power as possible devolves to the student, which means as little as possible is reserved by those higher up. At the extreme, this would be the situation of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, surely not the ideal we seek; but pursued to its optimal, not its extreme, extent, this should result in proper empowerment for everyone from the President of the United States all the way down to first grade special needs students. 

But this is by no means the exclusive conception of democratic education. A numerous breed at the present time, the progeny of Wendy Kopp's senior thesis at Princeton, are indoctrinated at a suitably malleable age to undergo 5-6 weeks of gruelling summer training, then march off into tough neighborhoods for two years of teaching service for America. Some of these talented, idealistic young people continue teaching; many of the others (too many, I think) go on to law school or some similarly higher status profession, but pledge to "remain involved" in education in some manner, hoping to continue working to change America's very unequal educational system. These latter more or less by definition lack the experience and knowledge to valuably contribute to our education debates, but they remain passionate and fired up, and inexperience doesn't stop them.

A surprisingly large number of these reform-minded young people are able to insert themselves into positions of considerable influence and power, and many of them are now engaged in education advocacy, usually for policy positions consistent with the doctrines underlying Wendy Kopp's original vision. These TFAers are generally talented, enthusiastic, hard-working, and naive, and, because of their relative lack of experience and relevant knowledge, are passionately advocating for ill-founded positions that may be doing more harm than good, as I will proceed to demonstrate in upcoming posts.

I will begin by attacking the proposal that at least 50 percent of a teacher's annual performance evaluation should be based on that teacher's students' performances on required state testing.     

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Excellent Teaching

Rafe Esquith might be the best teacher in Los Angeles. In any case, he is very likely the only one to have been awarded an honorary membership in the British Empire! So it's important for Angelenos, and for those who seek to honour teachers, that his fate not end up like that of Jaime Escalante.

Escalante, you may recall, was the amazing math teacher at Garfield High School in east Los Angeles who got so many students to pass AP Calculus that the College Board couldn't believe it and forced them all to resit the test, which they did under external scrutiny and performed even better than they had the first time. His success was detailed in a biography by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post that led to Stand and Deliver, a major Hollywood feature. But colleagues grew jealous, and new administrators put pressure on Escalante to conform to their demands, so the non-conformist Escalante left Los Angeles, and Garfield's math program sank back into mediocrity.

Now an energetic new superintendent in Los Angeles is seeking and finding support for a series of well intended reforms, including concerning teacher appraisal. In the name of equity, most such appraisal systems introduce a single set of measures, sometimes quite complex, to appraise all teachers, even throughout a huge and complex system like that of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But there are pitfalls to be avoided.

One might "measure" (the meaning of this word has been metaphorically extended, let's remember) teaching by outputs such as results on external examinations, for example. But this can lead to ridiculous results. My son Ryan, for example, might be given a math test and achieve an advanced rating, and his teacher, whose class he just entered last Thursday, might be given some kind of award. But what the principal or those higher up might not know is that my wife, a math teacher, taught him the whole of sixth grade math during the summer, and is now starting him on algebra (Ryan's still ten), because we would never allow the California (or any other American) math curriculum to control our children's mathematical education. Would you say that his sixth grade teacher at school deserves the credit for his mathematical success? And if I were a teacher being appraised in this manner, my first move would be to connect my students' parents with a good tutoring service; this would likely be a much more profitable use of my time than changing anything I was already doing in class, assuming I was already doing the best I knew.

Okay, so let's not measure teachers by their students' results (which at one level feels unjust anyway: we don't normally judge x on the basis of y's actions). Let's go into the classrooms and judge our teachers by their own, rather than their students', actions. After all, certain behaviors by teachers have been linked with better student performances (usually on tests--and when those tests are quite narrow in subject matter and question type, the advisability of this procedure is greatly diminished), so we might score them highly for demonstrating such behaviors during their teaching.

But hold on, what about Esquith and Escalante, two Es of excellence, both brilliant teachers with long records of outstanding results produced, as nearly as we can tell, through their own rather than someone else's efforts--won't we be in danger of punishing unorthodox, brilliant teaching? Both of these men have been known to be scornful of the standard pedagogical dicta that were attempted forced on them by L.A. Unified administrators; are we sure that we're not about to fall into the same trap here? Can the newly empowered administrators be so confident that they have found the perfect formula to assess all teaching in all grade levels and subjects, even as different as fifth grade classroom teaching and Advanced Placement Calculus, with fairness and accuracy? If they have found such a magic formula, let them produce the evidence they have it; and if they do, why haven't they been applying this special virtue to better students' lives in all venues where they've been before? Perhaps the discovery is new, and has had only limited trials; fair enough, but then let's dial down the confidence factor, and be more humble and honest about the risks involved. And if they don't, we're all at risk.

Of course, doing nothing in such a desperate district as L.A. Unified would be even riskier for hundreds of thousands of students; but I wouldn't want to see a brilliant teacher like Rafe Esquith, or others like him, depart like Jaime Escalante.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Of Educational Budgets and Teachers

Today I have made important progress on the operating budget for One World Secondary School, an important feat given the pressures on all educational spending today, and a difficult one given that budgetary information is comparatively hard to come by (a famous school in Berlin has yet to respond to my enquiry, unlike its counterparts in Geneva and Singapore).

The first striking fact one encounters when comparing the budgets of different kinds of schools is how much they vary in their spending on teachers. Independent schools, which are as a class the most effective in preparing students for success in higher education, regularly spend 80-85 percent of their operating budgets on personnel, with the vast majority of this on teachers, as compared with traditional public schools, which usually spend less than 50 percent on teachers. Some prominent charter organizations spend even less on teachers as a group (they may be more generous with individual salaries) than the public schools do, and they are often disappointed with their results when they arrive in August. Professor William G. Ouchi, in The Secret of TSL*, shows that reducing each teacher's total student load (thus the abbreviation "TSL") is the most effective way for schools to spend their money if they want their students' achievement tests to be judged proficient according to their state standards.

In planning for One World Secondary, I've found that if you take the average U.S. per-student spending, which just exceeds $10,000 per year, and, like an independent school, you spend 80-85 percent of your budget on personnel, and most of that on compensating teachers, and then you use the salary scale in Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which is a significant raise over current American teacher compensation practices, you can bring your student/teacher ratio down very near to 10:1, just as an independent school does; and if you arrange for a contact ratio (which is the proportion of total time during the school day a teacher spends in front of students) of 60 percent, which is the rough international average, instead of the 83 percent of the typical American teacher's contract, you get an average class size of 16, and a total student load in the 80s, which mean much more teacher attention for each individual student, and a much better opportunity to learn to write, which is the most neglected of the three Rs today.

That's how to spend school monies effectively, and that's how we'll do it at One World. Other organizations have had their chance to do better, and we'll all have to live with the mediocre results, until innovation is allowed to flourish.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Small Charter Schools May Have a Future in California After All

Because AB 440 died a deserved death in the California Senate this week, after another member of the Troika, SB 645, couldn't pass the appropriations committee, freedom will live on for another year in the California charter school community. This doesn't fix our funding debacle, and without continuous significant philanthropical support, world-class schools cannot survive here; but the sunny California dream has not yet set.

Perhaps the best direction now for One World Secondary School, which is still my dream for my son who has just started sixth grade and for all like-minded parents, is to start small, either here in Irvine or, if enough parents show interest, up north in Silicon Valley, a location I was pursuing until the three-headed hydra of AB 360, AB 440, and SB 645 threatened to chase us out of California, and focus on single-sex middle schools to which all students would be welcome, with admissions tests only for students replacing those who would choose to leave. Having been heavily influenced by a paper published late last year by the Sutton Trust, an organization dedicated to educational equity, I still believe this is best policy, since the Sutton Trust paper shows that if a country wants to maximize educational achievement for all, student selection in upper secondary school trumps policies that keep all students together in comprehensive schools through the end of secondary school. This is a very important point, and I need more time to get the message out and change people's minds about what our teenagers in the lower third or so of academic ability need in order to have a decent future. But we live to fight another day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Of Class and Demand for Educational Services

This morning I have joined an online debate about how to best serve poor African-American students in Newark, and next week I will be having coffee with a friend whose mission is to bring high quality teachers to every community in California, including poor and Hispanic ones. Meanwhile, some old friends are trying to connect me with some new for-profit schools for the ultra-wealthy, usually European-Americans, in New York City. And yesterday I was contacted by a middle class European-American parent at a school I led in Silicon Valley, and spent last night reading about aspirational middle class Koreans pouring into cram schools like those I used to teach at in east Asia.

These people all want the best educational services for their children that we can supply, and I have experience teaching all of them and can help them. Tomorrow a new school year starts, and notwithstanding my current temporary work for the U.S. Department of Education, I don't have employment that will provide my family with health insurance or fix our heater before winter comes (we went all last winter without heat). My family is suffering as we descend in social class, like so many other Americans. The question, then, is what to do.

One World Secondary School has two mottoes, "Let's bring the world together" and "Taking the best of the world and sharing it with everyone." A basic problem is that, in our divided world, people don't want to be together; and more specifically, the wealthy don't want to be together with the poor, in part because they are afraid that their own children will be left behind, in this world of ever-increasing global competition, if they are made to wait in traditional public school classrooms while the teachers attend to the needs of the students who have already fallen behind, who were born behind, and are the more obviously needy. Meanwhile, middle class Americans just want some attention: "What about us?" they ask in reference to their own children, possibly cognizant of the competition from those aspirational Asians on the other side of the Pacific, who feel they've been left behind for too many centuries while we selfishly use up all the world's resources as if they were inexhaustible, for the use of God's elect.

The best solution is still to found this school, perhaps as a charter school here in my own home city, which I might be accused of having ignored while busily engaged with the problems of and solutions for the rest of the world. If we start small, and show success, perhaps others will gather and follow. After all, when one has so few followers, any claims to being a leader are apt to go unheard, like that tree falling in the forest.        

Monday, September 5, 2011

Alternatives to Local Districit Inequities

This post picks up where my last left off.

The World Bank, through its SABER project, appears likely to be setting the standard in this decade for analyzing and promoting effective, just educational financing. An alternative it has explored, a version of which has been promoted by professors Linda Darling-Hammond and William G. Ouchi for many years, is per-student financing. Under this proposal, the money follows the student, so as students in jurisdictions which promote choice for families enrol in different schools, some schools remain fully financed, while others fall on hard times and either reform or die, their buildings to be filled by new schools with new personnel and new ideas to better serve the families in the local area.

Under this proposal, then, a municipality or county would be responsible for building schools and for negotiating and supervising contracts with professional educational management organizations who would operate schools in those buildings for the good of the public, whose children's attendance in sufficient numbers would in general determine the long-term viability of those schools.

This method of school validation is both more market-oriented and more democratic than the rule-driven, formulaic, innovation-killing, bureaucratic solutions currently being promoted by defenders of California's status quo, who would have schools' fates determined by school boards heavily influenced by the scores on the third-rate tests that charter school parents may in fact be trying to flee, but who would no longer be able to do so, so convinced are charter-school insiders of the validity of those tests, perhaps since the seeming successful performance on those tests by the schools from which these charter leaders come is much of the source of their own self-validation.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Local School Districts are Bastions of Injustice

Although many begin as conquests by gangs of armed men, jurisdictions are well founded when they are voluntary associations of people agreeing on a social contract, with consistent legislation evolving thereafter. The citizens of isolated towns may agree to start schools, with no obvious injustice committed; but as these towns grow, and their developed borders come in contact with each other, inequalities may become obvious, with the more developed towns having a natural instinct to preserve their advantages by excluding their neighbors. Similar tensions can arise around all kinds of borders, with poorer peoples being tempted to invade and seize what they don't have other access to, and richer peoples establishing armies and other enforcement officers to defend what they have; and poorer peoples may give up any attempted armed invasion in the face of superior force, and instead attempt isolated acts of covert economic immigration, and then try to change the laws and the culture of the countries in which they've newly arrived; and this may prove more effective than any armed attempt might have proved, especially insofar as they are arriving in jurisdictions with many liberal hearted, sympathetic citizens.

Insofar as established resources are the material manifestation of past labours, the possession of resources such as well endowed schools cannot be regarded as unjust; but insofar as they are the result of having fortuitously inhabited lands with superior natural resources, and especially when it is one's ancestors who have done so, and have forcibly dispossessed more primitive peoples who were there first, such superior inheritances are unjust. When some children inherit much more than others, with the well off ones having exerted no labour that might have earned such superior resources, injustice has definitely arrived, through the inheritance of unearned wealth. Thus humanity requires periodic redistributions of wealth, or social tensions can become unbearable. 

Justice requires fighting the instinct to preserve unjust, unearned material advantages for one's children.

Local school districts are unjust because they depend upon enforced invisible walls that preserve unequal, advantageous resources for undeserving, fortunate local children and exclude those with a valid claim to an equal opportunity in life.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Opportunity Gap

Yesterday I shared some of my more skeptical reflections on the achievement gap. I argued (1) it's not clear that the gap can be entirely closed, at least in the foreseeable future, (2) it can probably only be closed by unjust means, and (3) it's not clear why closing it would be a good thing, if that implies that every culture is expected to become nearly identical (unless the most ardent achievement gap closers want to argue that culture is irrelevant to school success, which claim I think so ludicrous as not to be worth countering).

Today I want to return to the theme of justice, and will argue, less controversially, that justice requires we close the opportunity gap, not the achievement gap, in the United States. As a basic source for my argument I want to acknowledge Moral Minds by Marc D. Hauser, a psychologist until recently at Harvard. On page 88, Hauser reports the findings of experiments conducted among several groups gathered in different venues from different cultures around the world who strive together to establish ideal, perfectly just societies. The model which emerges triumphant worldwide combines equal distribution of resources (in education, the most important are time and money), the establishment of a social safety net for those unable to rise to a minimal standard of living (in education, this would combine the minimal level of attainment and achievement expected via basic education) on their own, and the availability of rewards for those contributing well beyond the average to society as a whole. We may regard this model (rather than, for example, the social contract proposed by Professor John Rawls in A Theory of Justice) as the theory of justice most universally supported by the human species, as opposed to the norms that appear operative in other species, such as gorillas, ants, or wolves.

Applying this model to our current situation in education, we already allow rewards, in the manner of honours, scholarships, and college opportunities, to our best contributors, so this isn't much of an issue. But the United States is one of only three countries in the OECD that actually spends less on the education of the poor rather than as much or more, which is the custom elsewhere, and this opportunity gap is unjust.

The foundation of injustice in American education is the local school district.