The State of Education

Several weeks ago I went to an open house at Lancaster School in Salem.  This is Haley’s school and where Taylor went before her.  I’ve always thought it was a pretty good school.  There are great teachers, the building is well maintained, they run creative programs, and the administration is solid.  At the least, you can see that they try new things and genuinely show an interest in improving the lives of students.

Two years ago, Salem organized and funded a ballot measure to expand four of the city schools.  A very creative addition and remodeling of Lancaster followed.  It was nice to see the people organize around actually putting money into something that counts.   The construction is just about complete and now Lancaster is a modern facility.

At the open house I learned that Lancaster is now categorized as a school in need of improvement as directed by the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind.  This got me to thinking about two competing and contradictory forces in education today.  But first, an anecdote. 

In high school we had these things called Usage Tests.  I think we did them twice a year.  They would cover things like “their” vs “there”, “buckets full” vs “bucket fulls”, “affect” vs “effect”, etc.  Yes, the teachers taught the test, but I would argue that this was a good thing.  I see the writing of colleagues at work today and I am astonished at the inability of many to form basic sentences.  I work in technology and I have an email (yes I saved it) from a peer with the word “cache” spelled as “cash” at least 10 times.  A group of us forwards his emails as jokes; he has become the joke.  In many ways, if he had just been taught some simple lessons that appear on a usage test, his writing would be much better.

I know people hate the idea of testing.  As a data guy, I don’t understand the problem on two fronts.

1) How do you impove something if you can’t measure it?  How do you establish a baseline and measure progress or regression?  There will be obvious issues with the individual tests; we can work through those.  But surely the notion of testing and using the scientific method (a scholastic theory) on the evaluation of schools themselves can’t be all that inflamatory.

2) Inevitably the process of taking a test and the act of studying for that test, makes you learn at least something that is evaluated by that test.  Our old Usage Tests are a great example of this.  Let’s say that you can make a list of 25 things that are absolutely core to any secondary education, why not test them and then…wait for it…teach those things that will be tested?!?

So here is what I find contradictory.  We constantly hear about the gap between the upper class rich and the lower class poor.  This income/wealth/education gap has been growing over the years.  Nearly everyone agrees that the surest way out of poverty is a good education.  So well-intentioned NCLB comes along and says something like…

Let’s make sure that those at the lower end get out of their downward plight in life and get a minimum education.  And when we see they are falling behind, we are going to have programs specifically to remedy the situation.  We are so serious about this effort and so committed to making sure that NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND in this endeavor, that we are going to sacrifice special programs for the upper tier students to make sure that we devote resources for those at the lower end. [quoting myself]

This really is a noble goal.  I don’t care who you are, the sentiment behind this logic is compelling, which is why George W Bush and Ted Kennedy shook hands over its passage.  From a performance perspective, the idea is even sound, we can increase overall test scores and the average capability of the US student population by eliminating the down-side drag on test scores by the lower tier students.  Brilliant.

But there is a cost to this, hence the competing perspective.  Over the past years we also see that the US is no longer leading the world in the top-tier of students coming out of secondary education.  Is this really surprising?  Imagine you are the teacher of a class of 25 students.  You are teaching multi-digit subtraction and 4 students don’t understand the concept of ‘borrowing’.  What do you do?  When I was a kid, we moved on and those kids had to fend for themselves.  We started learning multiplication.  But in today’s world, the teacher has to make sure that NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND in that classroom.  The top-tier students get bored, while the teacher is forced to continuously review a simple concept.  Most importantly, the class is a week behind in moving on to multiplication.

So what is the net efffect?  On the plus side, the gap in that classroom between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is eliminated.  At some point in the future as these kids mature, it can be inferred that income equality will ensue.  Every kid gets an equal footing, an equal chance and is prepared for an equal job.

But there must be a downside.  Along with equality, you lose exceptionalism.  You lose the ability to cultivate the high performing students because resources are finite.  The choice to benefit all means that we end up with blandness, commonality, and a lack of creativity.  A few months ago I heard an NPR story where China, which as part of its communist doctrine gave all students the identical education and forced them to memorize facts, was trying to be more like the US and promote critical thinking and creativity.  How is that for irony?  We are pushing to be like them and they want to be like us?  Who is heading up and who is trending down?  It really scares me.

I really don’t know the solution.  But I also don’t know why this isn’t painfully obvious to each of the chicken-little factions (the disparity-gap criers vs the we-lost-our-leadership-position complainers).  Why can’t they each make the simple observation that I just detailed?  Is this stuff really so hard to figure out?

Clearly, the world is not black and white, and when we try to promote ideals in absolutes, everyone loses.  The Republicans and Tea Party with the ‘no new taxes’ mantra vs the Democrats and ‘no new cuts’  axiom are in a lose-lose stalemate.  It’s stupid.  Imagine saying no to a 10:1 ratio of cuts to revenue, and then turning around and insisting that every dime of new spending needs just a 1:1 spend to cut ratio (pay-go)?  Me?  I’m playing the odds.

Bottom line, NCLB is a noble pursuit of an absolutist goal.  At some point there has to be some grey.  It may be painful but we have to let some drift behind, at least just a little bit.  We need to make a better effort than when I was a kid, but we also have to realize there is a law of diminshing returns, and it is a proven doctrine.  We do it with Superfund sites.  We do it everyday with the choices we make.  Liberals want us to do it with national defense (ie we can’t fight EVERY war).  At some point, someone will be smart enough to level with people and set expectations of what we realistically can do.  Maybe that person will even be bold enough to say, “We have to sprinkle fertilizer on some of these young minds because for whatever reason, God made them special, and they grow faster than anything we’ve ever seen.  Rather than stifling their growth to save our ego, let’s celebrate their grandeur.”   It would be ok if we drew a line that pointed us in that direction and then negotiated some minor points, just like we did with NCLB v1.

Its not an line on the sand, we could go reversed and change it.  But its the firstest place to start.

And maybe that sentence wouldn’t sound so stupid.

About Josh Rutstein

I am an aspiring entrepreneur and hopeful political candidate. Father of 2 very special girls, husband to an amazing woman, and passionate American. I snowboard whenever possible and follow a 20x mentality for exercise. I also play golf and ultimate frisbee and am a die hard New England Patriots fan and season ticket holder. Everyday I wake up wanting to make this country a better place, someday I hope to actually succeed.
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1 Response to The State of Education

  1. MJ Rutatein says:

    Josh, You have addressed one of the major problems in our public educational system. NCLB started with good intentions but it has caused a downward spiral in the overall education of our children! I think parents are to blame also. When a school groups children according to abilities, the parents fight to get their child in a higher group. Over the years, many schools don’t want the hassle so students of various abilities are are mixed together. Gifted students are held back and in many cases their creative minds do not have an outlet. Is it possible that children would benefit from the educational system we grew up in?

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