Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Education and Capital

"In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else."
— Lee Iacocca

Imagine if medical students went to medical school and their professors, instead of teaching about organs and chemicals, told them that there is no “right way” to perform medicine. Instead, each student would be taught a form of individualized, un-peer-reviewed research and told that they would be responsible for discovering what methods of treating their patients worked in their own practices. Would we call that a more “individualized, patient-centered” type of practice? Or what if, in law school, students were just told that for every scenario, they would have to keep individualized data on what worked for them and what didn't in their own courtrooms. Would we call that a “data-driven” law practice?

It is easy to see how inane these ideas are, especially now that the practices of law and medicine have advanced to the level that they have. And yet this is how education is run, or more specifically, how educator programs in colleges and universities around the US are run. So the question is, what would make education a well informed, high performing industry?

People talk all the time about how much the government spends on education in dollars, but whether you think that its a shame that we don't spend more or a shame that we haven't accomplished more with what we do spend, dollars spent has almost nothing to do with how much is really being invested. Government spending isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when we start talking about how much money is swirling around the medical field- private practices, hospitals, medical schools, medical journals, research and development, insurance, and lobbyists. The same is true of law when you stop to consider how much interest is invested in hammering out the most obscure possibilities, interpretations, and details of the meaning of a comma for every single written piece of policy ever created.

I’m not saying that money is the solution; I’m saying that because of the monetray-centered nature of the US, money is an indicator of how much psychic energy Americans have invested in something. And if we follow the money, our interest is spent on the medical field, law, advertising, psychology, lobbying, the music and movie industry, the stock market, the military, fashion, and reality TV.

So, while the US may spend more dollars on education, those dollars do not equate to human intellectual capital- unless you consider the number of dollars spent on education in proportion to those spent on all the other stuff to be a reflection of the percentage of human capital we have invested in education in the US. It is the human intellectual capital that reflects the concerns and priorities of a nation.

We can spend more than any other country on education, but until education is one of the top investments, it won’t be one of our top priorities. And until we understand education as well as we understand our other top-performing markets, we will continue not to live up to our true potential.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lessons From Ron Clark

Hearing that Mathew Perry played in him in the movie about his life didn’t exactly make my hair stand on end with excitement, but as it turns out, Mr. Clark himself did. Sean Hayes (AKA “Jack” from Will and Grace) or maybe Hugh Jackman would have been better picks to convey the energy that emanates from Mr. Clark. He attacked the stage like a one-man Broadway show. He was jumping into the laps of audience members, onto the backs of chairs, and trouncing up and down the aisles, giving us all a taste of what he brings to his classroom- and why it works. But Clark wasn’t all caddy shtick. There was intellectual resolve behind his actions. While his antics cried, “look at me!” his words spoke the truth about administrations, about teaching, and about students. Unlike so many education meetings where the person in front is chanting mantras like, “high-level thinking” and “student engagement” while boring their audience to yawns, Clark embodied and exemplified every word he spoke. He demonstrated how it could be done, and he evaporated the excuses of nay-sayers with living proof. It was enlightening and exciting enough to wonder- how long will it take for the powers that be to begin convoluting this kind of truth? In actuality, it began before Clark even took the stage.

The day began with the principal of one of the schools taking the stage and announcing to the body of teachers and administrators that Hawaii had been named a finalist in the running for federal "Race to the Top" funds. Hawaii is 47th in the nation in education. The school I work in graduates students that couldn't write a complete sentence if you asked them. The governor, the DOE, and the teachers union collaboratively removed 17 instructional days from the school year after already owning the record for the lowest average instructional time in the nation. I understand that Mr. Duncan and the national DOE probably thought that it would be cruel eliminate a state as educationally impoverished as Hawaii from the running, but the national DOE did exactly what Hawaii schools are already doing- and what Mr. Clark vehemently warned against- they lowered the standard. And Hawaii’s education system responded the same way as our failing students do when we lower our standards to pass them- they thought they were entitled to it. “We should be finalists,” the principal spoke to wide applause. Within the audience, the teachers that understood this to be a huge setback to real improvement, looked around in shock at what had just been pronounced.

Organizers bungled the introduction video for Mr. Clark, admitting that they had not tested it. They ignored Mr. Clark when he asked them to leave it alone so he could continue. His mic popped and reverberated as he spoke, and workers behind him continued to try and make the video work well into his lecture. For more than an hour, maintenance personnel dimmed the lights, turned them back up, switched to stage lighting, redirected the stage lighting, turned the lights back on, dimmed them again, and round and round to the point that even Clark himself was making jokes about the place looking like a disco. Clark was, at many points of the lecture, a voice in the dark, and even personally asked on two occasions for those in charge to turn all the lights on and leave them alone. His pleas were again ignored. It all seemed too indicative of the poor leadership overseeing too many of our schools.

Mr. Clark spoke about how his school added 2 days to the school year just so they could explain and demonstrate the rules to students in an in-depth, meaningful way, without interfering with instructional time. Hawaii's DOE just cut school weeks down to 4 days a week for the entire year. Clark talked about how he invited parents to his classroom at night to do adult education that would allow them to tutor their students. Our school locks the gates promptly at 5:30, and no one is allowed in.

Mr. Clark talked about inventing a song that would teach his 6th graders the purpose of a dangling participle. Seniors in my school could not tell me what a verb is. Mr. Clark spoke about keeping high standards and aspiring to bring every student to the top. At our English meeting, new teachers were discouraged from giving seniors any more than a 3 page research paper (double spaced) because it would, “be too much for our students.”

After listening for two hours to some of the most substantively beneficial suggestions and tips for making schools excel, the most we were asked to do was to turn and share with our neighbor what we thought was the best part of the speech. There was no discussion in our school to find out what we could change, or how we could adhere to Mr. Clark's expert advice. There was no discussion among departments about how we could be adopt any of his practices. Not a single thing changed. We heard a good speech- that was all. 

I was dumbfounded and disheartened. How can an education system teach if it is incapable of learning?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Oh Captain, My Capitan.

A few months ago at a teacher's workshop, I ducked into a session meeting with one of Governor Lingle's representative. The topic of the workshop was supposed to be how to improve education in Hawaii. During the meeting, there were some startling statistics revealed, but no new plans to repair, renovate, or replace the existing structure. Instead, the representative doled out statistic after statistic that she felt confirmed that the existing problems in education were the not the fault of the governor, nor her responsibility to fix it.

These statistics include: in 1974 the DOE had 172,000 students, 8,800 teachers, 4,400 non-teaching DOE staff, a yearly budget of $850 million when adjusted for inflation and was 47th in the nation in education. Today, Hawaii has 172,000 students, 11,400 teachers, 10,000 non-teaching DOE staff, a $2 billion budget and is still 47th in the nation in education.

One revealing aspect of the DOE numbers was this: As a teacher, I'm expected to constantly prepare for the next phase in a perpetual cycle of standardized testing (4 different kinds per year- some conducted monthly, some over a period of weeks). I'm supposed to keep detailed discipline and special education accommodation documentation, make parent contacts, and do countless "professional development" exercises that often equate to nothing more than busy work. Those responsibilities are on top of preparing to teach 4 different subjects, grading work for 117 students, teaching 6 out of 6 periods with no prep period, tutoring 4 hours per week, and leading a group of 12 students through an individualized Personal Transition Plan to prepare them for college. I do all of this under a different bell schedule nearly every day, and with multiple interruptions to each one of my classes. All of this forces me into a position where there is no way I can possibly complete or juggle all of it, and I've sunk into a sort of acceptance that I will not be doing 100% of what are considered my responsibilities as a teacher each day, each week, each month, or each year. That is an unacceptable environment for a DOE to create. And yet, despite shuffling down the most significant portion every additional responsibility to the teachers and ignoring the daunting, impossible workload they create, the DOE continues to burgeon in size and claim to "support" teachers.

Another revealing aspect of these numbers is that none of the additional monies seem to be making it into the teachers pockets- something that would improve the quality of teachers Hawaii attracts. When adjusted for cost of living, Hawaii is in the bottom five of the nation in teacher pay
( A friend of mine, a first-year teacher with a wife and child, was recently informed that he qualifies for food stamps. This, in a state where isolation and lack of community connections already make it difficult to keep good teachers.

All of these facts should be considered in light of the huge responsibility load added to the DOE as a result of individualized special education requirements that the disability right movement won, and the added cost of lawyer fees incurred by a rotating door of court cases spurned on by our modern litigation culture.

In another session with a representative from the DOE, I asked what the DOE plans to do about fixing the low state standards for classroom instruction time. His response was basically the same as the Governor's representative- it's not the DOE's fault and nobody in the DOE has any plans to do anything about it. The DOE has shown that they care sustainably more about the of their own bureaucratic function than about coming up with fixes for the education system.

I am, admittedly, about a liberal as they come, but even I can see the damage the teachers union is doing. Collective bargaining has its benefits when a workforce is being abused and exploited by their employer. But if anything, it is the reputation of the teaching profession that is being abused and exploited by unions that continue to protect the lowest common denominator of teacher, rather than raising expectations for teachers. The fundamental spirit of the relationship between the union and administration is one of suspicion and distrust.

There are many problems with education right now, but the most systemic issue preventing a fix seems to be the decentralization of power. Now is a time for someone to become the face of responsibility for the system. As a democratic state, everyone wants their voice heard, but when our system is failing- failing our children, failing Hawaii's future, and failing the future of our nation- we need to take drastic action and get someone competent, someone fair, someone with a vision to step in and take the lead. Hawaii needs a competent, responsible educational leader who can and will take the reigns.