Thursday, December 31, 2009

Real Education Reform

There's a lot of talk about education reform these days. Many on the left are accused of making excuses for teachers, opposing reform and doing nothing but complain about poor teacher salaries.

I'm on the left and I think teachers are underpaid, but would like to see reform. Just not in the form of union busting and straw charter schools. The bottom line is what we're all talking about are crappy student populations where the state is trying to make up for every conceivable social ill that comes to bear on each individual student.

There will be crap administrators. There will be crap teachers. But there will be great ones. No one complains about the high-scoring suburban schools, even though their structure is mostly no different than ghetto schools. In fact, I'll bet if you took the entire staff of a suburban school and swapped it with a ghetto school, your results wouldn't be that different.

We need to get out of the blame-the-schools model and focus on instituting neighborhood intervention, starting with pregnancy and continuing with early childhood home-visits, highly qualified pre-school, health services, parent support classes and incentives. Kids are entering the system 2-3 years behind, and then getting cobbled-together classroom interventions - basically requiring the teacher to single-handedly make up for a tidal wave of social capital-destruction happening outside school.

We set teachers up to fail. The amazing ones manage to achieve great things, and we then base our expectations off of them. We stick to our expensive, bloated and ineffective model - but when the vast number of teachers - as in any profession - are simply not in the 95%, we blame all teachers. Especially the ones who happen to teach in the most difficult environments, and getting the worst test scores. This is insane.

What we need will be expensive. But it will be effective. It won't require extraordinary sacrifice by teachers (whose sacrifice now is only "ordinary"). It will be scaleable nationally. It will be targeted and take into account demographic need. Suburbs won't be compared with ghettos. Parents will get the support they need. Difficult classrooms will be smaller. Poor schools will be smaller. Teachers and administrators in such schools will receive extra support. Social services personal will be on hand to intervene early and quickly.

While this may be expensive in the short term, it will pay out many times over in long-term dividends - not only in decreased late-childhood intervention, but also in social costs such as criminal justice and health services which end up costing much more. Not to mention the lack of a productive member of the workforce. Of course, those are only the practical benefits. The moral imperative is even stronger.

Which is what the real burden in all of this is: moral clarity. We need to acknowledge that poverty is being perpetuated by our current system. We need to take responsibility for those least among us and come to their aid in a real and urgent way. When a teen mother gives birth and brings her child in to school 5 years later, we cannot expect the teacher to be the only capable person in that child's life, one of 30 others, for a handful of hours a day. We can't wait that long. We can't do that little.

Before we expect more from the situation, we need to begin to expect more from ourselves.

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