Three Stops and Starts for #Education #Reform

The education reform conversation seems heated at times, and mired very much in partisan politics. Considering all of the various arguments and counterarguments, I’m finding three major issues that come up on a regular basis. From my perspective I think there are three things we need to stop doing in the reform conversation/actions and shift to some different actions.

  1. Stop blaming teachers. By some counts, less than 30% of student learning is because of what the teacher does. Furthermore, in this high-stakes testing environment teachers have less and less control over what they teach in the classroom and instead implement the policies as set forth by their principals, superintendents, and policy-makers. If you’re going to hold teachers accountable, then hold them accountable for that which they are responsible to do. Instead of putting all responsibility for student learning on the teacher, we should (a) evaluate teachers on student growth and (b) evaluate how well teachers implement the policies handed to them by their administration. On the same token, we should (c) hold the administration accountable for the effectiveness of policy. In fact, we should hold administration accountable before looking to the teachers. If we are willing to give the administration credit when the scores are favorable, then we should also give them blame when the scores are unfavorable.
  2. Stop making it about school choice. The narrative goes something like this: the teachers unions are protecting lazy teachers and prevent students from learning (even though 8797% of teachers are rated as effective). Therefore if we create a different system where we can get rid of unions and then allow parents to make choices it will improve the system because the best schools will succeed and the worst schools will fail (sort of an educational Darwinism). This assumes that the “consumer” (the parents) (a) have the wherewithal to evaluate good education models, (b) have the resources to reach all of those choices, and the (c) choices the “consumer” makes is based on the quality of the model. I think all of those assumptions are false. School choice, however, has roots in the civil rights movement of the post-civil war era. Instead, school choice should be a means for parents to exercise options for students who don’t fit within the normative mold that public education necessitates.
  3. Stop making it about charter schools. As one example (and from the Texas Department of Education website), “According to the Texas Education Code, the purposes of charter schools are to (1) improve student learning; (2) increase the choice of learning opportunities within the public school system; (3) create professional opportunities that will attract new teachers to the public school system; (4) establish a new form of accountability for public schools; and (5) encourage different and innovative learning methods. Out of five reasons, only one of those is really about school choice (and even that choice is within the context of a public school system). The rest of the reasons are about innovation. Charter schools were designed to use public funds to assess innovation and best practices, and then see how to scale those practices for a larger school system. Instead, we should use charter schools for their intended purposes: innovation.

I think that America is on the precipice, and if we were to apply some of the “know-how” that we have been known to produce, we could create one of the best educational systems in the world.

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Reinventing Theologcial Education

When in a conversation with a good friend (who also happens to be an attorney) I commented that I felt that seminaries (theological higher education) are more similar to law schools and medical schools than other kinds of schools. He replied that the original four professions in higher education were clergy, lawyers, doctors, and teachers. While I don’t have a citation for that (there’s more data for the four occupations in ancient China) that “feels” right. The medieval university came into existence in order to train (Roman Catholic) priests, and law and philosophy were secondary pursuits. Later, during the enlightenment, we see the rise of the liberal arts university as we know and experience it in North America. First and foremost, it was professional training.[*]

Certainly, the history of the Historically Black College/University gives credence to this. Many of the HBCU’s opened to give degrees in Divinity (clergy) and Education (teachers), and soon afterwards opened law schools (lawyers) and medical schools (doctors). Also, the history of the seminary is that as the enlightenment brought about the rise of the university, the study of theology (and the training of clergy, because the academic study of theology was linked to the practice and profession of the priesthood) increasingly segregated and separated from the university. The counter-reformation gives birth to the official creation of the seminary as the vessel for training priests, but the enlightenment planted the seeds.

The larger point here is that seminaries really are more like professional schools, in that they train people for a profession rather than liberal arts schools that teach general knowledge. When you examine the curriculum of the average seminary degree, you find that it resembles what you might see in the study of the liberal arts, however. Consider the “average” Master of Divinity degree, usually 90 hour broken down as follows:

  • 18 hours of Greek, Hebrew, and Interpretation (tools for study)
  • 18 hours of Bible, including surveys of the Old and New Testaments (subject matter)
  • 18 hours of Theology, both Historical and Systematic (subject matter)
  • 24 hours of Ministry Practice (professional study)
  • 12 hours of electives (specialization)

Somewhere in those 90 hours, there’s usually a 3-hour internship wherein the student gains academic credit for “practicing” the profession. Sadly, as a “professional” degree, only 25% of it is dedicated to professional study.

Contrast this with the “average” law school (law schools have a generally common core but wildly vary after the first year and especially in the third year), which breaks down as:

  • 30 hours of core concepts like contracts, torts, property, criminal law, and civil procedure. Usually includes an integrative class and/or a writing class (tools and professional study)
  • 30 hours of specialization courses involving in-depth study of areas of particular interest (knowledge and professional study)
  • Clinical courses involving actual work in projects of interest (professional study).

Note that the study of the practice of the profession is integrated throughout the curriculum. What might it mean for our churches if the schools that trained our pastors actually trained them well for the profession they are entering? What might it mean if the emphasis was not the knowledge, but the character and formation of the individual? Here’s a call for those of use in theological education to consider the best way to serve God through training.

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[*] I understand the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and the legitimate resistance to create a special class of believers who have the education to do ministry. That discussion, while relevant, is a bit out of the scope of this particular blog.

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Why I’ve Chosen to #banbossy

I have a confession (and apology) to make.

When I first saw the ban bossy add and campaign, I scoffed and rolled my eyes. In truth, I believe my exact words were, “That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve watched in a very long time.” I really didn’t get it. By my understanding, bossy was a word used to describe a person who not only has an opinion on something (usually a task), but is also inclined to (a) tell you about it, (b) give you directives regarding it, (c) and/or supervise you while you do it. My son is bossy. My wife is bossy. My (older) brother, at times was bossy. I’ve known many bossy people. Bossy was not a bad word. It’s a neutral observation of behavior.

My first negative experience with the word bossy came when I gave a talk to some high school students regarding career choices. I said, in describing a particular personality type, “Your friends probably call you bossy.” One of the ladies in the class said that was a bad word; I insisted it was not. I asserted that it was okay to be bossy because it was just their way and that they should embrace that quality. “Somebody’s got to be in charge, it might as well be you.” She graciously dropped the issue.

I finally had the chance to speak to one of my good friends about this issue. This particular friend thinks well about these sorts of issues, both through academic study and through personal experience as a black woman. She pointed out to me that bossy is typically a word assigned to women who do what men do, and are encouraged to do on a regular basis (similar to another 5-letter word that begins with ‘b’). In other words, a woman is “bossy”, while a man doing the same thing is being a decisive leader. I’d never thought of it as such (I, personally, thought of anyone exhibiting these behaviors as bossy). As she mentioned, however, I am not the norm. Iconoclast was the word she used.

Her husband suggested that maybe women and kids are capable of being bossy, but as we thought about it we realized that might actually make it worse since now women are in the same category as children. I had to conclude then, that no matter what my personal views on the word, the best practice might be for me to remove the word from my vocabulary.

The originator of this campaign got blasted pretty bad for coming up with it. Admittedly, I still don’t think it’s a bad word. But what I think doesn’t matter in this particular case. So I owe an apology to that high school young woman who was offended at my use of bossy. Instead of justifying my actions (and possibly bullying you into acquiescing) I should have demonstrated some humility and stopped. From the bottom of my heart, I ask for your forgiveness.

As proof of my repentance, I plan to ban bossy.

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How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 3

Let me establish something right off the top.

I don’t know State Representative Andrew Brenner of Ohio. I’ve never met the man. I don’t even live in his state. I have nothing against him, personally. He seems like a nice guy, as much as an internet personality is reflective of a real person. Our “relationship” consists of two articles he wrote on education and a twitter feed. He was kind enough to follow me, I reciprocated. I’m just an education nerd finishing up a dual master’s degree here in Texas who is discovering a passion for education reform and education policy.

So when I say that Rep. Brenner “got it wrong” it really boils down to my disagreement with his viewpoint on education and education reform, and recognizing that his views represent other views. I’ve given two reasons why I disagree with him in my first and second posts. Here’s the third, and it’s a philosophical one (but don’t check out on me now, I can keep this easy).

A simple question: in a democracy that requires all students to go to school until a certain age, are those students entitled to a free public education, or a free private education?

Advocates of the school privatization model for education reform are basically arguing that students (and their parents) should “shop” for the best education for their money just like any other product or service. Once they find what they like, they should pay into that particular program and assume that the program will produce an outcome suitable for the student to become a productive and informed citizen. They often point to higher education as an example of how this model can work successfully. Market forces will allow the best educational programs to succeed and the worst to fail.

Here’s the problem with higher education as your standard: higher education assumes (sometimes wrongly) a certain baseline knowledge in its students. Higher education is based on the premise (again, currently wrongly) that the students are already trained as a productive citizen capable of contributing to the common good and public interest. Higher education is supplementary to the education a citizen receives, it is not required. I think that, in education, it against the best interests of the public to allow the weight and influence of corporate dollars to operate as the sole voice and engine for deciding what kids learn, and I think if you privatize education, that’s exactly what will happen.

This brings us back to the fundamental question: do we honestly believe that we can privately decide what will produce the best citizen, or is that a public conversation?

I think that’s a public conversation, guided by federal standards, enforced by the state, and implemented by counties (or cities). I don’t want Dell, Microsoft, or Citi solely setting the agenda for what my child should or should not know. I’m not against school choice. I’m not against competition. I am against oligarchy and plutocracy in a democracy. That thinking runs counter to the whole democratic experiment. I’m concerned that the school choice model will push us further in that direction. School privatization doesn’t solve the real problem(s) in public education and introduces another aggravating factor.

Thank you, Rep. Brenner, for sharing your ideas in a public forum. Thank you for your service in a public office. I fervently hope that as you continue to interact in the public square regarding that you would incorporate ideas from outside of your typical political viewpoint.

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How Andrew Brenner Got it Wrong, part 2

In the last blog, I wrote a response to Ohio State Representative Andrew Brenner’s article calling for school reform and equating public education in the United States with socialism. Either his wife, the intern who runs his wife’s twitter account, or Brenner (it’s still a little unclear to me) accused me of misunderstanding the article. That same person also accused me of bad journalism because I responded to the article (because evidently the standard of blogging is that you’re supposed to let the other person know that you disagree with their clear, unambiguous statements before you disagree with them on a blog post).

Before I could ask for clarification of whatever it was that I misunderstood, Brenner wrote a clarifying article. I want to applaud him for backing off of some of the more inflammatory rhetoric that he employed in his previous article (probably to stimulate the conversation) and employ a more reasoned argument for his policy. I anticipate this new article won’t get as much airtime, but it’s the one that deserves the interaction on the mainstream news cycle.

I still respectfully disagree with Brenner for a couple of reasons; I will deal with the first in this post.

Brenner states, “In one of the school districts I represent, my local school district of Olentangy, we spend approximately $9,400 per student.” He also points out, “While the cost per student in our urban schools is roughly twice the per student spending in the schools I represent, they are failing and failing miserably. I don’t think a school district like Youngstown, which spends roughly $20,000 per student and received 2 Ds and 3 Fs on its state report card, should continue to operate in the manner they are now.” Similarly, Brenner notes, “We are spending approximately one-third the cost in most of our rural schools as opposed to our urban, and they too have poverty and drugs. Yet, these rural schools are out performing our urban and many of our suburban schools.”

If I take these three statements at face value and as the truth, then I have to ask: since rural schools are out-performing urban and suburban schools, then how can we duplicate what the rural schools are doing?

Caveat: I don’t live in Ohio, so I can’t speak to the specific practices of Ohio schools. I strongly suspect, though, that Ohio rural schools succeed and out-perform due to community engagement, not because of school choice. Rural schools can do more with less because the schools happen in communities that have a strong history and habit of pulling together to deal with the ills of the community. In his previous article, Brenner pointed out that early “one-room schoolhouses” often took place in houses of worship—Christian churches.

This wasn’t a coincidence. Basic education (reading, writing) occurred in the home, by the parents. After that children went to some kind of school for either vocational training or liberal arts education (generally understood to prepare for citizenship). Christian churches that were the institution most concerned with the public good in this case and so they opened their facilities and resources to allow for the education of the middle and lower classes. If you were wealthy, you hired a tutor or sent your children to (very exclusive) private schools.

It was the efforts and concerns of the community, and one of the institutions in that community that drove the creation of the public school as we know it.

I don’t think the free market is a “magic bullet” to the problem of school reform. It’s not that I disagree with school choice. It’s that I disagree with school choice as the chief means for school reform. I do not think that education is a product. The product (the outcome) is the educated student. Education is what you do to create the product. It is a system of experiences designed to shape the values, drives, and interests of the individual. Using a product-based model will not provide the solution.

Thank you, Rep. Brenner, for taking on the monumental task of education reform in the United States of America. Thank you for attempting a multidisciplinary approach to reform. My hope is that you will broaden your perspective beyond the ideas of Friedman and economics to bring real, positive, change to education.

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