Currently, the public debate on education reform has concentrated on two things: teachers and school choice. These debates, however, highlight the perennially narrow focus that misdiagnose deep-seated problems of American education.
Teacher reform, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has focused on accountability, evaluations, and quality:
1) Part of the Race to the Top initiative, the federal competitive grant to advance education reform, is to recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers. One of the ways states can be eligible for this grant is to allow teacher evaluations and pay (more commonly known as merit pay) to be based in part on student performance on standardized tests.
2) Through his foundation, Bill Gates has invested $335 million in education, with much of it financing research to develop a better evaluation system for classroom instruction.
3) A controversial statistical method called value-added modeling that calculates how much teachers help their students learn based on changes in test scores every year is already used in hundreds of school districts.
4) Duncan has also initiated a national teacher campaign to recruit top college graduates and raise the status of teachers, stating in the New York Times article, “We have to systematically create the environment and the incentives where people want to come into the profession. Three countries that outperform us — Singapore, South Korea, and Finland — don’t let anyone teach who doesn’t come from the top third of their graduating class. And in South Korea, they refer to their teachers as ‘nation builders.'” Unsurprisingly, the U.S. tends to draw teachers from the bottom third of graduates.
Meanwhile, school choice and its poster boy, charter schools, have also received much public attention, having been stoked by Bill Gates’ substantial endorsement and the documentary film Waiting for Superman. Advocates point to the strength of deregulation, charter schools’ ability to innovate, and their impact on student achievement. Its uneven regulation, though, has drawn equally strong criticism. Education historian and scholar Diane Ravitch’s impassioned speech to the Representative Assembly of the National Education Assembly in July 2010 exemplifies the kinds of public outcries about school choice and the state of education today. If what is reported in academic journals, education blogs, and the news media is any indication, the topic of teachers and school choice are the educational zeitgeists of contemporary reform.
No doubt that ongoing improvements to public schools, the quality of teachers, and the education system are vital to reform; however, focusing on them to the exclusion of other larger problems is equally troubling. Right now, they are the only discussions happening in regard to education reform, and where the majority of policy changes have been centered on. What’s wrong with this current debate on teachers and schools, you ask? Doesn’t it make sense to focus on these crucial factors? How else can the nation improve student achievement if not improve schools and teachers?
Simple. Reformers, pundits, and politicians have centered so much on schooling and the education system that they have forgotten the other more crucial aspect of student success: the family and the home environment. This myopic focus on school-based factors (teachers, charter schools, curriculum, funding, etc.) is made more evident when considering that American students spend an average of only 10% to 20% of their waking hours in school from birth to age 18. Presumably, this means they spend astoundingly more time with family, where habits of the mind and attitudes are formed for life at an early age. Now imagine the staggering cumulative experiences during that 80% of time in a poverty stricken environment. Can the relatively miniscule amount of time in school ever compensate for the 80% of time learned outside it? Ravitch herself lamented the current administration’s failure to realize that poverty, not bad teachers, is the best predictor of low academic performance, echoing results of existing comprehensive studies. Yet policy reforms continue to address what goes on in the school without confronting the “elephant in the room” outside it.
There has never been a concerted national discussion to improve the student background, i.e., the family, the home environment and the larger culture, other than local community-based efforts. The renowned 1966 Coleman Report found that student background and socioeconomic status were overwhelmingly more important in determining student outcome than any school-based factors, and is well understood by the educated populace. Clearly, the problem is more than just about education — it’s societal. Which makes it even more onerous.
THAT is where our discussion should be focused — how to address a larger, more ominous, and nebulous institution – the family (and by extension, the culture). There are no easy solutions, however, but it is the right place to start. My ongoing series on the importance of creating that culture of education is the single most important framework to understanding how to approach education reform.