In the first six articles of this series (available in the SMM Education archive), I’ve outlined a number of the problems facing public education, but not by any means all of them. My criteria for including problems were influenced heavily by the reality that I am a high school English teacher (“yesterday I culd not spel Englush teechur and now I are one!”). But most importantly, my concern in writing this brief series is to inform the public about the most common and vexing problems that interfere with what must be the primary and most important mission of every school: providing the best educational opportunity possible.
In this, the final article, I propose simple, direct solutions to those problems. None of these solutions will cost taxpayers a penny. In fact, virtually every one will save at least some money, and some will save, on the state level alone, hundreds of millions—even billions–of dollars per year. If that’s so, if it’s that easy, why haven’t we already done it? Good question, but it’s not that easy because each and every one of these solutions requires substantial political will and often, requires the surrender of political fiefdoms and power. Once educrats and politicians establish bureaucracies that add to their power bases, they are exceedingly reluctant to give them up. In states with teacher’s unions, the process is even harder. However, it is possible even there.
You’ll notice that I will not be talking about firing bad teachers and related issues. I will not simply because I believe the necessity of that goes without saying. I work for a school district where I am, each and every day, strictly accountable for my work, and even if I were not, I would expect to be and would behave accordingly out of personal honor. If I misbehave or am incompetent, I expect to face consequences, and if I do it too often or too egregiously, I expect to be fired. This is reality for every teacher I know, and in every school district in three states where I have ever worked.
I know that this is more difficult in union states, but the truth is that teachers are hired and fired every month each day all around the nation. Incompetent and/or timid principals and administrators cannot fire bad teachers. Competent, capable principals and administrators do it all the time while honoring everyone’s rights and dignity. However, that’s a topic for another article.
Some of the solutions are matters of changes in attitude, of changing the way we think about education. Others are structural changes in the way we go about education. Most of these can be accomplished by any school district or school merely be deciding to do them and requiring the necessary changes. Others will require changing state laws.
(1) Eliminate the Federal Department of Education. This is a massive, wasteful bureaucracy that does not directly educate anyone. Its existence is based on a false—even absurd–premise: the states can’t be trusted to properly educate kids; only the federal government can ensure this. To be completely fair, some believe the Federal DOEd has a role in mandating standards to ensure that American students are competitive in a global economy, however this kinder, gentler take also assumes that the states—and every school district within their borders—have little or no concern for the education of their children (or the ability to implement proper education), or that only the federal government has the right amount of concern and the right ideas.
Mandates like the No Child Left Behind requirement that every child in America read on grade level by 2014 are simply nonsensical. That single mandate is quite impossible, yet it is a part of federal law driving school curriculums and spending. In addition, a study the Obama Administration has apparently tried to suppress about the utter failure of one of the DOEd’s premier programs for more than 50 years–Head Start–was recently released to the embarrassment of the Feds.
Benefits/Requirements/Savings: The most immediate benefit would be the restoration of state’s rights in this area and the transfer of political power back to the state and local governments. Another immediate benefit would be an enormous reduction in the amount of paperwork and data production required under numerous federal laws.
Conservatives and Libertarians would tend to be supportive on this strength alone while Statists would tend to want to keep maximum power at the federal level. However, this is a complex issue. Many Conservatives also support a federal role in education, which would seem to be counterintuitive.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for Congress to act to abolish it and not to try to “reform” or downsize it. While it is one of the smaller federal bureaucracies with only around 5000 (?!) employees, it still has considerable power with many constituencies and lobbying groups heavily invested in its existence.
The savings would be considerable. The 2011 budget of the DOEd was about $107 billion dollars—well over a trillion dollars per decade. Even a portion of that money provided for schools as block grants would be tremendously helpful. Please keep in mind I do not believe that most problems in education can be solved by throwing money at them, however there are genuine needs that money can address, needs that vary greatly from place to place. The trick would be avoiding excessive government red tape and mandates attached to any federal money. This alone would be difficult at best.
(2) Shrink state education bureaucracies. You’ll notice that I am not advocating eliminating them completely. Such bureaucracies do indeed have legitimate purposes such as licensing of teachers and maintaining recertification files, overseeing disbursement of state funds to schools and maintaining state teacher pension programs. However, beyond those tasks, state bureaucracies are like all others: they quickly come to primarily serve their own interests in growing ever larger and in assuming and keeping ever more financial and political power.
Benefits/Requirements/Savings: The benefits would be, in many ways, identical to those of getting rid of the federal Department of Education, but on a smaller scale. The most immediate benefit would be restoration of primary responsibility and political power to the local level. One might expect greatly enhanced citizen involvement when they realize that absent federal and state control, they can have a much more significant impact in education issues that directly affect them.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for state legislatures to make the necessary reforms. As on the federal level, this will not be an easy task.
Here too the savings would be considerable. Using Texas as a model (because for good or ill, as goes Texas, so goes much of the nation), a visit to the Financial Allocation Study For Texas (FAST) will be eye-opening. The spending in Texas alone is mind-boggling.
(3) Eliminate mandatory, high stakes tests. As I explained in detail in article two of this series, the costs, in time and money, of such testing are truly amazing, and to those concerned with limited government and maximizing educational resources, absolutely horrifying. Texas is about to begin a new series of twelve subject matter tests (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—STAAR) that will replace the previous two to four (depending on the grade in which they are administered) tests. These “end of course” tests will greatly increase the amount of class time required to prepare for them and have the very real potential to require each school to spend much, if not all, of each school year doing little more than drilling for the tests. I am always concerned with the loss of minutes of class time. These tests, and the preparation they will require, will take months of class time, far more than the already significant and damaging time the smaller battery of tests take.
Benefits/Requirements/Savings: The benefits would be substantial, particularly in returning time to each and every class tested to actually teach the curriculum. Teachers are more than qualified to test their students, which in many classes is done far more effectively on a daily basis rather than relying on a single testing instrument. If they are not qualified for this task, why were they hired? Mandatory, high stakes tests waste this valuable resource.
Kim’s Ventures in Educational Technology provides a chart of the Texas testing schedule for 2010-2011. Keep in mind that this chart represents the state mandates only for the current four TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests, not the upcoming twelve STAAR tests. The post also provides at least some indication of what Pearson—the company Texas contracts with to provide the tests—receives each year. It’s an truly astounding amount; I’m definitely in the wrong business.
Eliminating these tests will also eliminate one of the greatest dangers to effective teaching and learning; the “magic” curriculum. I explained the effects and dangers of this “innovation in article three of this series.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for state legislatures to make the necessary reforms. A potentially fortunate side effect of the nation’s economic woes may well be unnecessary programs will have to be cancelled regardless of who benefits politically and financially. Few are less necessary than this.
Here too the savings would be considerable. How amazing and horrifying are the numbers? Texas contracts with Pearson (which is not an American company) for its tests. The twelve new STAAR tests—the end of course tests which will replace the current four TAKS tests—will be fully implemented in 2013, but the costs are already astronomical. Paid directly to Person for 2010-2011 was $90,665,041 (just under a tenth of a billion dollars). What will be paid to Pearson for its 2010-2015 testing contract is $468, 392,617 (just under half a billion dollars, which even in Texas is real money). Keep in mind that these figures are merely the cost to state government of buying the tests and related services from Pearson. They do not include state costs of personnel and implementation, nor do they include the enormous costs to each school district in time, personnel and money. The same is true in any state.
(4) Reduce, to the greatest degree possible, the mandated collection of data. As I pointed out in the first article in the series, the amount of data required by federal and state mandates is truly mind-boggling and affects virtually everyone in every school district in America from the Superintendent to each classroom teacher. Virtually all of this data is of no use at all to individual teachers. It not only does not help them do their jobs more effectively, it takes substantial time and energy away from that effort.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for federal and state politicians to make the required changes. Again, our current financial crisis may help to awaken these people to reality, particularly if sufficient citizens make clear that failure to accept and act upon reality will result in their having to work for a living in the actual economy their policies have created.
Here too the savings would be considerable. The FAST report includes a chart listing 60 reports required of Texas school districts, some of which must be published in newspapers. I have no doubt these are not the only reports required; they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. They include such things as Posting of Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statements, Dissemination of Gifted and Talented Program Policies, and Reporting of Cardiovascular Screening Results. Each of these 60 reports requires the assignment of actual people to collect, maintain and report this data. The same report suggests that for 2008-2009, “Other Operating Costs” for Texas school districts represented 15.8% of their total outlay and cost $8.6 billion dollars. Mandatory data collection is certainly not that entire amount, but is surely a significant portion of it.
(5) Eliminate college readiness mandates. As I explained in article five of this series, many states are now following the lead of the federal Department of Education in higher education mandates. As a result, many are requiring specific standards and curriculum additions to prepare every student to attend college. This is, of course, lunacy. Not every student wants or needs to attend college, and most cannot succeed in an educational environment that requires actual college level work. Each required standard, and addition to the curriculum, displaces time for actually teaching students the real curriculum of their schools. In effect, it steals necessary time and knowledge from those who have no intention of attending college, which is most of any student body.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for federal and state politicians to make the required changes. As I’ve already mentioned, our current financial crisis may help to encourage these people to accept and act upon reasonable priorities. The already exploding college bubble will likely also have a sobering effect.
Here too the savings would be considerable. Any mandate eliminated will not only save in personnel costs, but in the cost of the materials necessary to implement these mandates. The costs of lost instructional time are incalculable, but likely the highest and most damaging costs of all.
(6) Stop grading schools; return to grading students. As I explained in article six of this series, federal and state “accountability” mandates change the focus of schools from the responsibilities, performance and academic growth of individual students to careerism, posturing and competition among adults and school buildings.
What is required to achieve this is the political will for federal and state politicians to make the required changes.
Here too the savings would be considerable. Part of these costs includes the compilation and presentation of data, but they affect everyone and everything done in every American school. Principals who no longer have to worry about the grades of their school can once again focus on the actual learning of their students and supporting and helping their teachers in providing that learning opportunity.
(7) Focus on the primary mission of every school: providing the best educational opportunity the abilities of its personnel and the resources provided by the public will allow. Schools don’t exist to download facts and figures into student’s brains, but to build bigger, better, more flexible and capable brains. Failing to understand this mission, failing to prevent unnecessary interruptions, lessens the opportunity of each student to maximize their personal development.
What is required to achieve this is the will of individual building principals to dedicate themselves to this principal and mission. What is also indispensable is the backing of superintendents and school boards in the face of the inevitable complaints due to the upsetting of the status quo.
The savings in this are as much intellectual as financial. We are talking about the most precious commodity any teacher has: class time. The next solution is closely related to this one.
(8) Stop interruptions of classes. The sheer number of demands on the class time of virtually every school by internal and external interests is utterly amazing and shocking to those who aren’t directly involved in education. As I outlined in article four of this series, even the most seemingly innocuous time mandates have severe unintended consequences. If a school is required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and an additional observance—such as a state pledge or a moment of silence–which takes about three minutes of class time, the class in which that observance is done will lose 12 days of class time per year, two weeks and two days of class time for that seemingly inoffensive time mandate alone.
What is required to achieve this, as with number 7, is the will of individual building principals to dedicate them selves to preserving every minute of class time. What is also indispensable is the backing of superintendents and school boards in the face of the inevitable complaints due to the upsetting of the status quo. Christian strong men who wish to break baseball bats for Jesus can rent a theater and do it without taking class time. Abstinence promotion groups or sex education and drug education advocates can do the same. Isn’t that a parent’s job in the first place? The hundreds of other external and internal interests asking for, even demanding, instructional time must be forced to see if their message is strong and valuable enough to thrive without a captive student audience. Perhaps schools can do with only one or two, instead of seven or eight, pep rallies per year, and school clubs will have to find other ways to raise funds.
The savings in this are more intellectual than financial. However, if a school accepts its primary mission, how can repeated and costly—in terms of class time—interruptions be justified? How can they even be considered? If any one program is granted access to the entire student body, how can others be denied?
(9) Eliminate grade averaging. As I pointed out in article six of this series, allowing students to average term grades, essentially allowing them to fail entire portions of a school year, utterly ignores the real purpose of education, which is not to achieve a given letter grade or to store a given body of knowledge in the brain for later recall, but to build bigger, better brains. Students should be expected to do every assignment and as a result, to be continually learning (and passing).
What is required to achieve this is as much a change of attitude and philosophy as a change in policy. Many schools, in an honest attempt to help struggling students, make it hard for students to fail. This is also a very foreseeable consequence of grading schools rather than students. If failing students harm the grades of schools, schools will ensure there are no failing students—even though there will always be failing students. In such cases, it is the students, who are not held to reasonable and rigorous levels of achievement, that suffer. Lake Woebegone, where every child is above average, does not exist. It cannot exist. The accountability movement pretends that everywhere is lake Woebegone, and again, students suffer for their inability to live in a nonexistent utopia.
The savings in this are more intellectual than financial. Again, the acceptance of the primary mission of schools is a mandatory step, and the result will be more capable students.
(10) Eliminate the fallacy of self-esteem. Solidly entrenched in many schools, the idea that if students think highly of themselves they will somehow be capable of great academic achievement is not only wrong, but uniquely harmful. It is a throwback to the 60’s idea of “doing your own thing,” or the similar idea that teachers shouldn’t actually teach, but merely allow the inner brilliance and genius of each child to be expressed in their own way and time.
What is required to achieve this is as much a change of attitude and philosophy as a change in policy. Until principals—and teachers—understand that it is self-respect-which must be constantly earned and is judged by external criteria—is what matters, then self-esteem—which is utterly unrelated to external reality—might still seem seductive. Indeed, we want students to be comfortable, confident and secure in the schools. They achieve this not by unsupportable narcissism, but by actual achievement and by living up to the expectations of those who are charged with forming and judging their intellectual and character development: their parents, relatives, ministers and their teachers.
The savings in this are more intellectual than financial, but will yield enormous financial benefits for students as they leave high school and attend college or enter the world of work. People who are confident in their abilities because they have years of genuine accomplishment and the positive affirmation and regard of those worthy of respect will do far better in college and in the real world than those who think themselves uniquely special because they have been encouraged to baselessly think themselves uniquely special.
Imagine the effect of all—or even some—of these solutions on your local schools. Not only would enormous sums of money be saved—money that would be available not only for required school funding but for other public necessities—but true accountability, as measured by real student accomplishment, would be achieved.
When we consider our national—and for most—state financial crises, the kinds of things upon which we now spend billions are clearly quite insane. If the choice is firing huge numbers of teachers and greatly increasing class sizes or doing away with mandatory, high stakes testing—and that is our current choice–it’s no choice at all. Our politicians and educrats will just have to do without the data and power to which they have become accustomed.
Many currently demand greater responsibility on the part of students and parents, however, when students know they have a variety of options other than actually doing their work and learning, and when parents have every reason to believe that they have no voice in the face of overwhelming federal and state mandates, why should they produce that responsibility? We are, in many ways, decrying the very lack of responsibility our policies and methods encourage.
When students know they must perform, continually and at a high level, and when they know their teachers and parents believe their classes are important because they’re not being constantly interrupted for virtually any reason, they’ll be far more likely to achieve what is obviously and unambiguously required of them.
When parents see that their opinions and interest are truly valued, and that they actually have a role in their local schools, they will be far more likely to take an active interest and be involved.
All of these ideas can be implemented today and at no cost. If they seem familiar, particularly to those who, like me, went to school back in the 1400’s, that’s merely because they represent timeless, American values. Generations of Americans grew up successfully without mandatory, high stakes tests, without No Child Left Behind, and every other new “innovation” foisted on our students. Even so, they built the most prosperous and free nation in history. As we struggle to re-establish other traditional concepts, such as the idea that we can’t spend more than we make, that when our enemies swear to eternally struggle to destroy us we’d be wise to take them at their word, that no company is too big to fail, and that personal responsibility is mandatory to a functioning democracy, perhaps these too are ideas whose time has come once more.