Sunday, March 3, 2013

Education at the Crossroads

I am a lifelong student and grew up in a family that discussed the nature of education as a routine dinner conversation. I went to public schools in the 60s and 70s and then an Ivy League school.  My career, mostly in high tech, took a fun turn a decade ago when I found myself needing to start a company (nobody would hire me, long story) and since then, I've run a pretty successful online tech company.  Since then, I've had a front road seat at the greatest historical show in town: the realtime debate and power struggle about what direction American education should take.

This blog is me trying to digest and analyze what I see.

Today, I read about this book: Children of the Core. I think I'll order it and see what this teacher has to say. From the blurb, it looks like a diatribe against the Common Core and the increased regimentation of education.  It sounds like it connects the increasing stress that teachers feel with the Common Core which is partially fair, partially unfair. Obviously, a switch in standards and educational goals means that education and educators, who mostly don't change, have to change.  Much bleating and complaining.  Not necessarily significant or not.

Here's my thoughts on what trends I see. To be clear, these are notes, not a finished essay.

Much as I tend to dislike all things Bush, I feel that the NCLB legislation was an important but imperfect step forward. It moved the quality of education to front and center in the American experience and out of the stagnant backwater that it had become. By imposing significant achievement tests into the system, it ended the decades of "happy talk" where everyone talked about progress and found stats to say it was happening when the reality was the opposite.  In terms of the worst things that it did, the simple pass/fail metric created the dysfunction that teachers tend to sort their students out early in the year into three categories: the kids who will pass, the kids who will fail, and the kids who might pass.  Then, they focus on the kids who might pass.  This isn't what all teachers do but many do. It's the most negative of all the "teach to the test" behaviors that I've seen. I've even seen vendors who sell systems that help teachers do this sort which gets sold at the school and district levels.

Changes in governance. Many of the largest school systems in the country have had a change in governance in which the amateurish schools boards get replaced by direct governance by the elected officials. I for one am mostly in favor of this.  I've seen how well-meaning and ineffective school boards can be.

Changes in teachers. A huge number of the current teaching force are in the later stages of their careers.  Many are very union-oriented and uncomfortable with any sense that they should be measured and paid by their performance. Their mentality has not changed with the times.  I feel bad for them but so it goes. A very big change is the introduction of the Teach for America teams into the ranks of some schools and now, through-out the educational ecosystem. They have a can-do must-do attitude about educating the next generation. They don't have all the answers but they do ask all the right questions.

Curriculum. This is still a stagnant confused area. I think the Common Core is a big step forward with it's emphasis on informational texts, higher order thinking skills, away from mechanics, and on writing clearly.  But, it ignored a number of curriculum questions that I think need attention:
- high school math curriculum.  Teaching quadratic equations and calculus seems to me a big waste of time. It's up there with Latin in terms of teaching hard things for the sake of teaching hard irrelevant things. Why not replace it with more useful topics like computer programming, algorithm design, logic, statistics, financial analysis, and data analysis?
- Reading and phonics. It totally side-stepped this set of issues leaving us (which is fine) in a primarily phonics-oriented educational system. It also side-stepped the fact that the biggest reform that is needed is to maintain the progress in kids learning to read.  And how learning to read is related to (necessary for and reinforced by) the rest of the curriculum.

Interest-led education... and skills....
skills needed for employment...
cost and irrelevance of college...numbers game gone weird.....

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