Parents key to education reform
April 13, 2009
It might come as a surprise, but I agree with Arne Duncan. While talking about the requirements for a quality education during a recent visit to Colorado, President Obama’s Secretary of Education was blunt.
“We can’t be scared of the truth,” he opined, discussing the merits of Colorado House Bill 1065’s requirement for “teacher tracking.” So let’s not be.
Secretary Duncan’s Colorado visit was part of yet another in a long series of “educational reform” road shows. Every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has had one. All have promised improvements in test scores, graduation rates and other measures of educational success, mostly through the encouragement of “innovative programs.” All have failed to accomplish their goals for the simple reason that they ignore two thirds of the problem.
Take the current effort, exemplified by Colorado’s HB1065. It concentrates on teachers, tracking the effect they have on their students’ “academic growth” with special attention to what the bill refers to as the “educator gap” ” the phenomenon of minority students being served by less-prepared or inexperienced teachers. The theory behind the bill, and behind tracking in general, is that student performance is determined primarily by educator quality. This is a popular conceit, because it excuses much, and safely places blame on those who have little recourse when fingered. It is also an exercise in willful disregard of common sense.
For an educator to teach successfully, a student must be prepared but, more importantly, willing, to learn. Without this will, no amount of clever presentation, no number of visual aids, no degree of insight, no innovative program, or training or remediation will suffice. The student will not master the material. Period.
From where does the will to learn, the interest in education, come? As with most of our basic personal characteristics, it comes first from parents and relatives. Parents, teachers and students form an educational triumvirate; quality learning depends on all members performing their separate roles in a mutually reinforcing manner.
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Without consistent input from all these, a good education becomes only one among a number of competing goals, with predictable results. And when parents, friends and relatives work at cross-purposes to the educational system ” supporting little Johnny or Jane in thuggish or disruptive classroom antics, for example ” all too often the result is confirmation for the perpetrator, castigation for the teacher and a message that antisocial behavior is perfectly acceptable. These chickens will inevitably come home to roost in ways we find repugnant, and when they do, we invariably seek to fix not the problem, but the blame. To truly “reform” the US educational system, we must first break this habit.
We must also mean business when we speak of “innovation.” Yes, more classroom hours, over more weeks, dealing with more material, are probably necessary. So is curricular reform, with the elimination of “socialization” classes, “Conflict resolution” and “diversity” are subjects for the playground and the athletic field, not the classroom. And above all, we must experiment with different forms of school ” an area where Secretary Duncan has shown a decided weak spot.
Last month, Congress effectively killed the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provided $7,500 competitive scholarships to disadvantaged students in the Washington, DC school system ” arguably, one of the epicenters of educational failure in this country. The Department of Education studied the program and came to the conclusion that it had resulted in an “unquestionable and pervasive” improvement among the student participants. But the Department neither publicized the study, nor argued against the cancellation of scholarships targeted at students one would think there was the greatest interest in helping.
One wonders why there was such reticence. Perhaps because the Opportunity Scholarships could be used at any school, public or private ” and the overwhelming choice was private? So much for following best practices wherever they may lead.
I’m fairly certain that the DOE’s approach had to do less with the fear of inconveniencing rich, well-connected children with the presence of, shall we say, less well-heeled fellow students than with the underlying truth everyone knows, but is afraid to speak. Private schools do better because their students are motivated and disciplined, and because parental involvement is a must.
This formula is repeatable and scalable, and does not rely on eternal program innovation, constant re-certification, expert analysis, high rates of compensation and the seal of approval from unions and bureaucrats. It places emphasis on all three elements of the educational triumvirate, not just one. So in the view of Secretary Duncan’s Department, its successes must never see the light of day.
Meanwhile for all you teachers out there, fear not: the beatings will continue until morale improves.