Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Nation At Risk Turns 25

Former Governor and Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Roy Romber discussed the matter and his groups new report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still At Risk. Romer talks about the executive summary which talks about time, teaching and standards recommendations that have not been adopted.

With the 25 Anniversary of A Nation At Risk, there is going to be a lot of handwrining, worry and a whole lot of spin about the state of American education today. Some of the concern is justified. For example, I do think our school year is too short to accomplish all that our policymakers and curriculum experts think appropriate. I do think we need to radically alter the methods and professionalization of teachers. I do think that we are short changing the students on both ends of the bell curve, although for students on the lower end of the curve that is less so.

But I don't really share in the mass fears of a fundamental breakdown of American education. There are a number of reasons for my faith, but most of it boils down to two important points.

First, the American public is not satisfied with the status quo. When that becomes the norm, then change is bound to occur. There is not doubt that such a change is occuring. Witness the explosive growth of charter schools. Once relegated to the worst of the inner city school districts, charters are now sprouting up in the suburbs. When that becomes much more common place, the silent indictment of the traditional public school will become a massive death knell of education policy as we have known it.

Another key indicator is the growth of homeschooling. Once the providence of the intensely religious, it is now common place. Without question, the ability for homeschoolers to communicate, collaborate and share via the Internet has made homeschooling practical and possible for average Americans who are not satisfied with the quality of schooling their children receive. That homeschoolers routinely and significantly outscore their public school peers indicates clearly that you don't have to be a Columbia Teachers College graduate to help educate your kids.

So as the public begins to move away from simply accepting the public school system you will see policies shift, slowly at first, but more and more rapidly. Keep an eye on Louisiana where Repbulican Governor Bobby Jindal has a chance to really push through significant education reform in his state that could be a model for changes elsewhere.

The second major reason for my faith is that there are many educational entrepeneurs who are challenging the status quo for all sorts of ideas. It is not just charter school advocates, but groups like Teach for America, who are really making people sit up and consider that you don't have to be an ed-school graduate to be a good teacher and you don't have to be a lifelong educator to be an effective school leader. As more and more of these educational entrepeneurs like Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee, and others of their ilk begin to draw in people from outside education to help them manage educational problems there will be more change and much of it for the better.

I don't expect change overnight, reform doesn't work that way. But I am confident that we as a nation will make it better. The change will not come from teh top though. No matter how much our leaders like to think they can solve problems, it is the parents, the students and the people outside the traditional educational heirarchy that will make the biggest difference over time. They see educational problems differently, either in the concrete and personal matter of parents or the problem solver who sees an opportunity to make a difference and does so.

While policy makers and pundit wonder "what it all means" somebody out there right now, maybe even reading this post (but probably not the writer) has an idea that will change things for the better. It is a statistical fact and my belief. This nation is simply too ingenius for it not to be true.

1 comment:

Bill Ferriter said...

Interesting post, Matt....and one that I largely agree with. There is much need for change in education and I hope that we'll see external pressures force change to happen.

I have two concerns, though:

1. I think some of the external pressures and criticisms that are placed on public schools are unfair. Consider the comparisons that people make between charter school performance and public schools.

Without the traditional barriers that come with the myriad of requirements placed on public schools, charter schools are free to educate in a way that is developmentally appropriate and motivational for their students.

Those same opportunities don't currently exist for public schools---which are strangled by requirements and external control.

Our response to that dichotomy has been to point fingers at "the failure" of the system. I'd argue that a more responsible action would be to identify what is working in charter schools and extend those opportunities to public schools as well.

That's something that doesn't seem to have happened---and it makes me question whether suppport of charter schools isn't just a way to take more jabs at public schools.

2. I also worry about which children are taking advantage of opportunities like public schools and charter schools. I'll openly admit that I haven't done enough research to speak with knowledge, but it seems to me that students of poverty are less likely to take advantage of charter/home school opportunities than students of wealth.

That concerns me for two reasons. Most importantly, it only exacerbates the gap between rich and poor in our country----a gap that I think needs to be addressed in a meaningful way before we can live up to our "justice for all" claims in the Pledge.

But it also creates unfair comparisions again with public schools. I see charter schools with selective admissions policies compared to public schools all the time in the press where I'm from.

Recently, a charter high school was celebrated for having 95% of their kids on grade level in the newspaper while a public high school was criticized for having less than 60% of their students on grade level.

What the reporter failed to mention was that the charter high school requires that all students be on grade level in math in order to gain admission.

Now, I'm not opposed to selective admissions policies or charter schools that work creatively to offer options and generate solutions that the public schools don't currently offer. In fact, I welcome that innovation and see it as an engine for driving change in all schools.

But I wonder whether or not some critics are using unfair comparisions as cudgels against the public schools.

Does this make any sense? Am I standing on solid ground from a logical standpoint?

Bill Ferriter