Thursday, January 30, 2014

Education In America

Algebra Cloister 2004
No Windows LAUSD Middle School 

All over America in the 1950s, local TV News opened their weather reports with a cheery jingle and down-home lyric:  

     "Everybody talks about it ... 
      no one does a thing about it... The Weather!" 

Education in America is just like those weather reports used to be. Academics and politicians and newspaper columnists and many, many other experts ("everybody") have definitive opinions about how to solve our problem. 

The problem is not a "self-esteem" problem. The problem is not the "tiger mom" problem. The problem is not a wait for "superman" as in the documentary about education superstar Michelle Rhee who was a really terrific charismatic teacher and administrator. And there are hundreds of thousands of great teachers out there in America who work their tails off every day. Why do we not have a better result?  

Surprised Algebra Kids Walking Campus
Cutting Class 2004

The core problem is way too many politicians in the classroom in two different ways. Think back to your elementary school or middle school. There was a Principal and there was a secretary. Two person administration. Now a typical urban school like the ones where I taught for several years in LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) may have five times as many people in the "office." Why is this? 

It's not necessary unless the "Admin" people up in Sacramento need constant reports about the school's "progress" in teaching the "Standards" written by the Admin people and unknown experts up in Sacramento.  

Therein is the second great problem. The standards are necessary for covering subject matter, but they are dogma.  And dogma can easily be abused. So it always felt like I was in some rigid religious classroom demanding a recital of every word from some holy text. In the horror of present-day Texas and Louisiana public education, politicians have tried to insert religious dogma into science classes. Similar travesties are occurring all over America in these days of desperate politicians. In completely controlling standards statewide, those state politicians are more confident that they'll survive the next election cycle by cow-tailing to some religious cult or secret racist fold. 

The LAUSD also has it's local board, but that board is rigidly controlled by Sacramento and the state people. But the three hundred pound gorilla is the federal government. The state government kicks in some of the budget, but the major amount comes from Washington.  And Washington always has their say in how the money is to be spent.  Remember "No child left behind" of the W. Bush administration. 

The entire bureaucracy is a chaotic can of worms. I think we can get rid of the entire structure including the rigid edicts declaring exact subject matter in the "standards." Over the past decade, this has happened a little through the semi-private charter schools that are partly financed by committees of billionaire do-gooder types. Charter schools do shield teachers a bit from the vagaries of the downtown admins and the Sacramento admins and the politicians everywhere. The decisive difference in Charters is that they are not required to keep kids that are "failing." Also the Charters do respect both the students and the teachers significantly more than the regular LAUSD schools. 

In most county systems like LAUSD teachers are considered hourly workers. The "Admins" view teachers like assembly line drones in a Van Nuys Chevrolet factory of the 1950s. The best workers have their time cards exactly in order. There's very little respect for the assembly-line teacher. But there's certainly no real freedom in Charter schools or regular schools. 

So I propose we keep the certification process for teachers.  It seems to be pretty good. Also there are many schools set up for special needs students. These seem to be working pretty good also, so we can keep those in place. 

Now we can move into unexplored territory. I propose we have a state-wide elected committee choose a really top-notch text for all subjects. Then we give the text to the teachers and leave them alone for an entire year. No standards. No achievement testing every five weeks. Banish the politicians from the classroom. Banish too much intrusion by the local or the school Admins. Let the teachers be free to teach. 

For the paranoid and to protect the kids, let's put HD cameras in every the classroom and record it every day. Allow the teacher access to the video files, to see how they are doing. Put the video securely and privately on the web to open the system up. A classroom is not a confessional booth. Let all the curious Moms and Dads watch the kids in class. Then at the end of the year we can give the kids a test and take a look at the video files. Let's see how they all do. 

California once had the best public system in the world. 
I believe that California system was so good because of the freedom granted teachers to teach and not to assemble. 

Distill it down, toss the tests, give some freedom to the teachers and we can see clearly two competing methods for evaluating our education system and thereby entire society: Quantitative or Qualitative. It's the MBA vs. the MFA if you will. I'll buy art over output. 

Get the politicians out of the classroom now! 

Algebra Cloister 2004
Wall of Fame

Algebra Kids in Class 2004