Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mediocrity guaranteed

1. Require all schools everywhere to follow the same detailed laws and regulations. Filter all decisions through a large, central bureaucracy. Vest ultimate policy-making power in the hands of people whose elections do not depend to any meaningful degree on their stands (or lack thereof) on education.

2. Allow educational policy to be set locally. Allow wide variations in approach. Vest decision-making power in local boards elected specifically to govern educational issues.

We are living through the first approach. It is inherently risk-averse. What it does best is minimize the worst-case scenario, preventing schools from falling below a certain basement-level standard, as measured by whatever the popular metric is. That comes at the cost, though, of constraining people from doing the sorts of things that might produce unusually good schools: experimenting, drawing on local knowledge and experience, departing from the conventional wisdom, pursuing unique alternative visions. Although our governor claims he wants to create “world class schools,” his wholesale embrace of the first approach pretty much guarantees mediocrity.

I like the second approach. Since communities differ on what they want from their schools, the second approach would, almost by definition, be likely to satisfy more people. It would free local communities to try a wide variety of policies, so its potential upside would be greater than that of the first approach. And because it would be more democratically accountable to the people it affects, it would have at least some built-in check against sub-basement outcomes. But I don’t deny that there’s a tradeoff—that any policy that permits wider variation opens the door to both better and worse outcomes than you’d get under a system of enforced mediocrity. I think the risk is worth taking, but I can understand how someone could disagree.

The people I don’t get are the ones who accept the premise that education policy should be uniform and centralized, but argue that we should just adopt really great uniform, centralized policies. They never stop hoping for shiny red apples to come out of the sausage grinder. Outstanding schools, however you might define them, aren’t likely to come out of a system that’s practically designed to prevent outliers.


Karen W said...

I'm with you on taking a risk on the second approach.

I think centralized power really appeals to those who either don't trust other people (or communities) to make decisions for themselves (i.e. DE employee who told me that people would choose schools that didn't teach math if the DE didn't have the power to require math!!??) or who imagine that they might be in charge.

Margaret C said...

The first option, while sounding risk-averse, is actually riskier. The education of (they would hope)EVERY child depends on that 1 system being right. Great if they bet right,though a system that by nature restricts freedom can`t be all that good, IMO.

In the second option, you have to hope that the majority of people will design something pretty good. Most parents aren't abusive, so I don`t think you could end up with many abusive schools, that would require the majority of parents in 1 community being jerks. And they would obviously communicate, in this day and age NOT getting a letter(email/blog post/tweet) from California to New York is harder than getting one there. So people would here about every system and gravitate towards the best one.

In option one,not only are you hearing less about different ideas(because national/linguistic boundaries mean something)it's almost impossible to pick a new technique and completely impossible to go for a whole new philosophy of education.

Margaret C said...

@ Karen W: Did the DE member consider asking why the might choose math-free schools?

They probably wouldn't, they'd just make math optional and better taught. Also, there are enough careers that don't require anything more that arithmetic and the ability to tell time,(e.g. if you illustrate kid's books, how much algebra do you use?) and you can learn all those skills while cooking. Some kids would benefit from a school that emphasized other things.

Some others would benefit from Calculus, and they would be left out, but someone has to be, with top-down control. Wouldn't a society of tradesmen be more productive/self-sufficient that a society of scholars?

That was way longer than I meant it to be, and now I've posted 2 mega comments. Sorry.

pooter said...

I think that the damages from bad voters against education in certain districts/geographic areas make the second option dangerous and unfair to the children in those predominantly republican/cheap/anti-intellectual areas. Maybe Iowa City would play out well, given the criticism of the local district on this blog I'm not positive of that outcome either, though.

Karen W said...

Margaret C, I don't think there is any evidence that parents or communities would choose schools without math. Although I agree with you that parents and communities might have different ideas of how much math and what kinds should be required of all students.

I think it was meant to impress upon me that other (and they do generally try to make sure you know that it isn't personally directed at you) parents/communities can't be trusted to make the "right" educational choices, which is why the DE needs to make them for us.

Chris said...

Margaret -- Thanks for commenting! Great point; I agree completely. Any investment advisor knows that putting all your eggs in one basket is the riskiest strategy.

Chris said...

Karen -- I agree that schools are not about to stop teaching math, but that they would be likely to teach it differently, and maybe at a different pace, if they were freed from state regulation.

Pooter -- Thanks for commenting! Again, I can at least understand that argument, at least if it's accompanied by a recognition that the centralized approach is likely to limit the up-side as well. I certainly don't think local outcomes would be perfect. But you're assuming that, when you make it a winner-take-all statewide (or nationwide) battle, your views will win. Can you be so sure that the anti-intellectual areas won't outnumber you?

FedUpMom said...

"One size fits all" is a terrible idea when it comes to education. Different families have different values; different kids have different needs. Some teachers (and methods) are great for certain students, but not for others. I only have two kids, but they have completely different educational needs and we've actually got them in different school systems (one private, one public).

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- I agree -- in fact, just wrote something to that effect in tonight's post!