More on Education Reform

I wanted to expound a bit on my previous post. This post is similar thematically to my post on Waiting For Superman. My general view is that we should have low expectations for the effects of the current trajectory of education reform. I highlighted a few points in the post, but here are the main reasons for my skepticism:

The statistics I cite point to the failures of the education system. But are they really failures of the system? I imagine they are not. Public schools, such as the one I attended, are successful in some places and unsuccessful in others. The structure/model of the systems are very similar, but the educational outcomes are drastically different. What’s causing the difference in outcomes? Tyler Cowen argues in his new e-book “The Great Stagnation” that we have picked most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of educating the population. This is probably true for the majority of the population, but not for minority groups. If it were true, we would likely see increasing equality across ethnic backgrounds, which we do not. So, that’s the central problem in my opinion, rather than dropout rates of high school or college. I’m in the camp that our current model, which focuses on all students getting the same liberal arts education in high school and college is ineffective. Its justification is likely based on concerns of equality, which is good, but equality does not necessarily entail sameness. We can say that lawyers and doctors are equal in the respects we care about, even though their jobs are much different. I would be in favor of adopting a tiered system, similar to Germany’s, which allows parents, students, and teachers more freedom in deciding which type of education is best for them. I believe that the high dropout rates are largely a result of a one-size-fits-all education system.

The influence of teachers and schools plays a relatively small role in a student’s academic achievement. The way students will succeed is through hard work and taking responsibility for their success. We are going the opposite direction by increasing the responsibility of teachers and schools, while placing less emphasis on personal responsibility. This meme certainly permeates the culture of parenting in the U.S. In the event of failure, parents blame a bad teacher or school rather than the student’s lack of hard work or poor study habits. It is a positive feedback loop of low expectations, and it is hurting children. Students would be better off if we cared about education outcomes culturally, rather than only politically.

The current school choice/charter/fire bad teachers/close bad schools movement overestimates how much good will come from it. Let me say that I don’t think it will hurt except for perpetuating the cycle of increased teacher/school responsibility and less parent/student responsibility. But, there’s simply not good reason to believe it will solve any problems. The evidence on charter schools shows that less than a fifth do better than public schools and about a third do worse. The rest do about the same. This is unsurprising to me: Except for the fact that parents choose charter schools, the differences between them and public schools are insignificant. If you begin from that premise, the results from every study are about what you’d expect: some do better, some do worse, some do the same. But the important part, i.e., students, parents, and teachers, stays the same. The parents and students come from the same communities; the teachers are trained the same as traditional public school teachers. Add on the fact that factors unrelated to the school system play the largest part in students’ achievement, and it’d really be shocking to see these schools lead to significant change.

In terms of all the measures that are being touted such as merit-pay, value-added performance evaluations, removing caps on charter schools, etc., my view is they are fine, but again, we shouldn’t expect any major changes. The problem with these policies is that they assume that teachers are the reason students are not “succeeding.” But, in my view, teachers play a smaller role, and if anything, have been the control group over our country’s educational history. The exception is that the feminist movement correlated with many talented female citizens to move out of education and into more lucrative fields such as business. A small boost in teacher effectiveness would help some, but not enough to significantly reduce the harms we are seeing. Secondly, the easiest way to increase teacher effectiveness is to first remove seniority and all the restrictions required to enter the teaching field (e.g., certification) and make teaching a more attractive profession for talented individuals to enter, e.g., by increasing teacher salaries. It would also benefit if teacher contracts were negotiable like the private sector rather than antiquated pay-scale increases.

So, what about solutions? If you accept, as I do, that cultural/environmental factors and low expectations are largely what explains underperformance, then the best solution is to remove students from their environment and place them in an environment that fosters high expectations. In “Waiting For Superman”, one example was the SEED boarding school in Washington, D.C. KIPP schools is another great example. The difference is that these schools are the dominant factor in socializing students and have a greater degree of power than most public schools. But, the SEED school, for example, spends roughly $36,000 per student, which is three times as much as an average public school. If we are willing to commit to these schools as a solution to solving the achievement gap, I will be the first person to vocalize my support, but my intuition is that America is not ready to make that kind of financial commitment for one, but also not ready to change the role of schools to play a larger role in socializing children. Until we are, we are likely to see the sorts of insignificant but politically popular measures like merit pay, charters, etc.

If we want to change the dropout rates, we need to restructure the system (as I alluded to earlier). I buy into the argument that too much of the population attends four-year universities, which is why the college dropout rate is so high here. We need to create different kinds of postsecondary schools that allow young adults to prepare to be autonomous citizens without placing pressures on them that they may not have the intellectual capacity for. We should do the same thing at the secondary level: expose students to a variety of introductory subjects and allow them to decide what interests they want to pursue, based on their talents. If we allow individuals to pursue what they are interested in or passionate about, the dropout rate will be much lower. That does not mean that I don’t favor liberal arts education. I do. But, I think the benefits of an LA education outweigh the costs at a certain point, probably around 10th or 11th grade when students have largely been exposed to the different areas of academics (with a few exceptions, e.g., philosophy!).

I’m not opposed the trajectory of reform, but we shouldn’t exaggerate their effectiveness.

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