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David Anthony Colarusso - Sadly not Havoc Dinosaur
Intermittent musings on the law, science, education, technology, design, and life. Also, I build things: furniture, software, reasoned arguments... To learn more about that, click a persona below for my eponymous website.

An Ill-Defined Bottom Line, Why it’s So Hard to Get Public Education Right

by David Colarusso - April 27th, 2007

I’ll get to my thesis in the second paragraph, but first some background. Two weeks ago I was involved in a rather interesting discussion surrounding American education. It all started with a posting I made in response to YouTube’s Spotlight ’08 posting from former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He wanted to know what we thought was America’s greatest challenge and what we would do to face it. I said “adaptability in a changing world” and suggested improving public schools. To his credit, he posted a reply to my video, using it as a starting point to provide his own thoughts on adaptability. He didn’t, however, have much to say in relation to my suggestion that we improve public schools. You can judge the quality of the exchange for yourself. I’m putting all of the candidates’ Spotlight ’08 postings along with my replies here. This is so I’m not tempted to blog every time I upload a reply. Check back weekly, as I intend to respond to each of the candidates.

What struck me most about the conversation was the impression I got that most people mistakenly think it’s a simple matter. Perhaps the largest misconception about public education is that we know what works. To a large extent we do: involved parents, small classes (personalized attention), knowledgeable and passionate professionals, etc. However, in truth, we as a society can’t even agree on why/if there should be public education. Some of us see it as job training. Others, hold to the ideals of a liberal arts education and the creation of an educated electorate. This ill-defined bottom line is at the heart of why “fixing” education is so difficult. We may in some general sense agree there needs to be a correction, but as for the specifics, we can’t even agree on what’s broken.

This is one of the chief reasons we can’t treat education like a business. We can’t agree on what the bottom line is. Even if we could, there’s the question of how to measure it. Testing? Well, for my views on testing look here.

Let’s imagine, however, that we could agree on a bottom line and that we had a means of measuring it. Even then, we should remember that while the market is great at producing solutions, half of all new businesses fail. Public education, the great equalizer of American society, is too important to be left to pure market forces. We can’t afford to have half our schools fail while we work things out. However, there’s probably an argument to be made for a limited number of experimental schools where we could try things out. What’s the answer? I don’t know, but I know it’s not simple. Your thoughts?

Entry Filed under: Civic Hacking, General Observations, Technology in Education

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt D  |  April 28th, 2007 at 9:09 am

    This isn’t sufficient, but it’s necessary, I believe: Pay teachers more–much more. It’s incredibly disturbing to me that those who contribute the most in terms of social capital get paid so little relative to others who contribute much less. One serious problem is that we don’t have a sufficient number of smart, talented people entering teaching. Most of my high school teachers were mediocre minds, and most of the people from my high school who went into teaching weren’t the very intelligent kids in my class.

    This may draw your fire given your pedigree, but I think that we need to reign in schools of education. These schools have their value. But when education classes take the place of a serious and rigorous program in the area in which one will teach, we wind up with teachers who lack a deep understanding of their own subject matter. This is especially crucial for those in mathematics and science (physics, in particular). It is easy to teach mathematics and physics as if the goal of such a course is to solve problems, and the way to do that is through a cookbook sort of approach: You have to solve a problem of type T. Here’s the algorithm for a problem of type T. Now apply it. Pure syntax; no semantics. No understanding. It’s awfully hard to get one’s students to understand a topic one doesn’t understand deeply, and it’s impossible to do so if one’s understanding is the sort of rote understanding I described above. You wind up with students like the Brazilian students Feynman encountered (which he describes in *Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman*).

    You are right that public education cannot be left to market forces. I grew up outside Chicago, and I saw what market forces do to education: You get the very best high schools in the country 30 miles from the very worst.

    I don’t know what to say about testing. I do know what it’s like to teach in a situation where you feel like the students are so far gone that you can’t help many of them. I think that in that situation, it’s very easy to pass them through, and very hard to deny the students the As and Bs they were receiving before they arrived in your classroom. I’m very suspicious of taking high-stakes testing to be the only means of evaluation, especially when it is administered by the private sector (e.g. the monster that is ETS).

    One more thing about teacher salaries: The current crop of teachers entering the public schools in California are in the first generation of civil servants who never will be able to afford a house, not even on two incomes. (This may not hold in parts of rural California, but it holds where the vast majority of the schools are–places like the Bay Area, the LA Basin, San Diego, and Sacramento.) So forget about the house with the picket fence; indeed, the picket fence probably is out of reach, too. This does not bode well for the US, given the influence that California has on the rest of the country.

  • 2. admin  |  April 28th, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Matt made some great points. I don’t know what “fire” he expected to draw. He should know that many of us in education recognize its shortcomings and are working to correct them. My chief complaint of edschools is the belief by some that teaching is an entirely generalizable skill. It’s akin to the old business school belief that being a CEO is the same for every type of company. The truth, however, is that teaching math is different than teaching history. However, and this is very important, it is not enough simply to know ones subject either. Teaching requires both a deep understanding of ones subject and a talent for communicating that understanding to those without it. I’ve know many brilliant individuals entirely incapable of teaching their material to novices.

    Matt also brought up teacher salaries. This is a big problem. Just to give you an idea, I had to move 47 miles from my school to afford a condo on a teacher’s salary. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that most of my friends from the Harvard EdSchool have left the classroom for more lucrative positions.

    As for testing, I agree with Matt’s critique of plug-and-chug problem solving. This is something I am always working against, and my mistrust of testing based on my belief that it promotes this intelectual laziness. Be assured we always stop to note how clever it is that sunglasses are polarized. Yes, most of the world is a dielectric. However, what about the glare off a manhole cover, isn’t that a conductor? If you didn’t read my post on testing, give it a look.

  • 3. Matt D  |  April 28th, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    I’m not surprised that you had to move to find a place to live. Nor am surprised by your colleagues from your MEd program leaving education. I’m saddened, but not surprised. I’m a teacher, as well (I teach at a state university, but the salary is less than that of a K-12 teacher). So I know first-hand how difficult it is to make ends meet on the amount of money we make. And, you’re exactly right about knowledge of a topic not being sufficient for being able to teach it well. It’s necessary, though.



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