September 25, 2013

Off-target calls for reform impede real change

In a recent commentary in the New York Times, Assistant Professor Jal Mehta of the Harvard Graduate School of Education summarizes years of education research by quoting Charles M. Payne of the University of Chicago: “So much reform, so little change.”

“The debate over school reform has become a false polarization,” Mehta says, between people at the extremes on topics such as testing and teacher evaluations, charter schools, and privatizing public education. Worse than useless, he argues, these debates are harmful because they prevent us from addressing the most important issues, such as poverty, century-old practices, and other “structural impediments to student achievement.”

It’s not the labels that matter, but the performance. Mehta notes, for example, that some charter schools have shown impressive results, but so have reforms in many traditional public schools. His observations match our own here in Santa Barbara County. Successful schools of all kinds have things in common, such as a clear mission, talented teachers, time for teachers to work together, and “feedback cycles” that lead to continuous improvement.

Perhaps the most basic obstacle in American education is that we operate in an industrial model, with all the decision-making at the top. As Mehta points out, this factory model remains appropriate for simple work that can be standardized, but not for disciplines like teaching that require skill, discretion, and creativity.

Other nations aren’t handicapped by such thinking. As Mehta points out, in the nations that lead the international rankings — including Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, and governments pay for much of their training, which is more rigorous than in America.

In those top nations, teachers also teach less and collaborate more. Mehta notes that high school teachers provide an average of 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. This helps the best teachers lead and train the others.

Most of America’s top students aspire to careers in professions such as medicine, law, and engineering, where professional standards are enforced not just by initial training but by building a body of knowledge that is tested, with a full license granted only after years of experience. It’s no coincidence that these professions also pay top salaries.

Our great American experiment in democracy could not have succeeded without the audacious creation of publicly funded schools, where all students are educated and all have the same chance at success regardless of their backgrounds or family circumstances. Americans seem to agree that educating our children continues to be of vital national importance, so what is stopping us from embracing a more professional model for teaching?

Given the critical importance of education to our civic well being, our economy and even our national security, is it so unthinkable that teachers should get the same level of training — and the same level of respect and compensation — as doctors, engineers or pilots? Of course these kinds of fundamental changes will be difficult. They will require courageous thinking, strong political will and stamina, and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with law and medicine. They will also be expensive, but doing nothing will cost us more.

Real change in America is possible, but only if we stop tinkering at the margins.