Archive for November, 2010

Bill Gates–The Great Satan of Education Reform

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Business and education are different. And that is putting it mildly. One of the big disconnects is how salaries are calculated and raises are assigned. In education people basically get raises based on two things: longevity and education. In industry experience counts for setting salaries and raises are determined based on some sorts of measurable metrics of accomplishment. In education just getting a degree is grounds for a raise. In business/Industry a new degree doesn’t count for any automatic increase. The assumption is that the education you have acquired will improve your ability and performance and so will be rewarded based on improved performance.

Bill Gates is suggesting (see Gates Urges School Budget Overhauls) that the education model be more like the industry model. He is calling for an end to automatic step increases and separate higher pay levels for advanced degrees. Rather he is pushing for pay for performance. Needless to say teacher unions are not happy about this.

The issue is more complicated than Bill Gates seems to think it is. It’s also more important to deal with than I think the teacher unions think it is. First off pay for performance is not as easy or working out as well at Gates thinks it is. W Edwards Deming, the father of modern quality control in much of the world, was a serious critic of the practice. His view was that there was too much subjectivity and actually much less variance between most employees to justify the differences in raises. While he believed in exceptional performers who were worthy of higher raises he was basically more of a supported of education style raises. Experience and training generally did result in better performance and Deming believed in training as a key to better productivity and performance. In education the evaluation of performance is also a lot harder than in a lot of jobs. The base it all on test scored ideal is seriously flawed for starters. People who don’t understand education really don’t seem to get that. They are looking for easy to gather metrics and have grabbed on to some that are a lot less reliable than they think they are.

On the teacher side I think many ignore the truth that there is a difference, as one superintendent of schools put it to me, between 20 years of experience and one year of experience 20 times. Years if experience is the same sort of simple solution that pay for test results is. That is it seems logical and objective but it ignores basic realities of how people operate. Some people get into a rut and never improve – or worse degrade over time. Many people do get better over time but even so not all at the same rate. And then there is the issue of training. There are teachers who actively look for and take training as a way to improve their practice. There are also teachers who attend training so that they can retain certification/licensure but have no intentions of letting that training change the way they do things. And yet the second group is rewarded in the same way the first group is. That seems somehow wrong to many people.

Ultimately we do need to reform schools I believe. But it is not going to happen unless educators are an active part of the discussion rather than the targets of reformers. Both sides need to understand the other, listen to the other, and be willing to explain why an idea is good or not good rather than just saying “no.” Bill Gates is not against good education. Teachers are not against improving the way education is delivered. But you’d never know that from the rhetoric. Dialogue is what we need but I don’t see anyone really working at making that happen. Rather we see each side (or multiple sides in some cases) just trying to marshal the public, who are generally way in over their heads in education discussions, against the other. This seems to be to be doomed to failure with our students and ultimately the country as the loser.

Being a Grown Up

Monday, November 15th, 2010

When one is a kid one sort of wants things they shouldn’t have. Like a lot of ice cream. Since you can’t drive and don’t have control of money you can’t get them unless your parent(s) get them. for you. Your parents are adults and have/take responsibility so you get ice cream sometimes but seldom as much as you want.

Eventually you become an adult and have money and can drive. You can make your own decisions. But somehow you don’t have ice cream (for example) every day and twice on Sunday. Why? When and why do you somehow become the responsible “good” decision maker? One of life’s mysteries.

Note that as I write this I am eating vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup and Maraschino cherries. I don’t do this often but in a way its nice to know I have the option. That’s part of being an adult to. Right?

Education Professionals and Non Professionals Running Schools

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

So my thing to wonder about today is the various attitudes about non-education professionals in education. Specifically it seems that a lot of education professionals attack people like Bill Gates and other would be school reformers from industry and politics for their efforts. They say these are not professional educators and so should stay out of things. OK I can see that line of argument but here is the rub. Most of those same people are strong supporters of local school boards whose memberships are totally made up of, wait for it, non education professionals.

And in fact my experience is that most school board members do less homework and study about education that the big name non-education professional “reformers.” Anyone else see the contradiction here?

Now I have spent time on a school board, six years on the board of a private Catholic K-8 school, time on a public school budget committee (an elected position BTW), and 9 years as a classroom teacher. I’m not sure that makes me an education professional but I do think it makes me more aware of the issues than the average person. And based on those experiences I have concerns about the way we fill school boards for public schools. Some concern about private school boards as well but actually less because the process of selecting board members is very different. But that is a topic for another post.

What I want in someone who makes policy suggestions/decisions for schools is someone who knows what they are talking about. Ideally they read a lot, talk to a lot of people who are education professionals, and have some experience in the classroom – not as a student. This does not fit most school board members but except for the classroom experience does fit a lot of the business and political people who are interested in the issues. So why do people who oppose them support local non-professional school boards? I have a theory.

School boards get almost all of their information from the professional running the school/district. The control of information is the control of the agenda and for the most part of the decisions. The result is that the professionals largely control the board’s decisions. You can see why the critics of school reforms would like this. Educated free-thinkers are generally not welcome on school boards. By controlling information to other interested groups (the PTA can be a very powerful force especially in small town elections) superintendents can often help make sure that board members who disagree with them have a short tenure in office.

Am I being cynical? I don’t think so. I think that many educators who oppose outside reformers and yet support non-professionals on school boards do so only because they know that opposing any sort of outside control is doomed to failure. having ignorant school boards is the next best thing, in their eyes, than no school board at all.

Am I wrong? I’d love to hear (read) a better explanation.