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Daniel Powell

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Why isn't REAL reform taking place in our education systems? Education is broken, but do any of the current reforms really change anything?

Of the 34 developed countries in the OECD, the United States ranks in the bottom one-third in math and science scores and graduation rate. Our nation isn’t catching up, either, it’s falling further behind. At least 11 countries are making academic gains at double and even triple the rate of American students. Despite nearly 30 years of reform efforts, little has changed. None of the proposed reforms by President Obama (listed on the White House page for education reform) fundamentally change the educational system.

“…overall, the United States has the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, teaching in the same schools, with the school day organized the same way, with much the same set of tracked courses, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support.” –Jal Mehta, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In making this comment, Mehta urges us to look at educational reforms that will upend the current system. Education reform is needed, we all agree. If we’re going to change education in America, then we need to be serious about making real changes that fundamentally reshape our educational institutions. I challenge educators in America to join the conversation, and to propose profound changes to the system that will disrupt the status quo and challenge traditional education.


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    Jul 18 2013: Modern governments are not equipped to deal appropriately with education. Largely because they do not care and also because there is no money to be made from it. It's an investment of a different kind that most politicians just cannot understand.

    Too many career bureaucrats are brought up to worship the business model and there is no personal gain for them to be had by reforming education.

    The only reason governments have not already pimped education out completely to the private sector is that it remains a real contender for vote-garnering. This is why politicians make all those promises at election time that never come true.
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      Jul 18 2013: Scott,

      I completely agree! Our political system is corrupt and blocking reform! Lawrence Lessig and his Rootstrikers.org movement are what I believe to be a key ingredient to solving this, and many other troubling problems facing the country today. Let's assume that we can fix the political problem through eliminating corporate giving... Just for the purpose of this conversation. What, then, could we do to improve education in America?

      Here is a link to a paper summarizing two of the key concepts that I believe are central to the topic:


      In this, Jal Mehta contends that there are five possible approaches to reform. In my opinion, his ideas on "transforming the system" and "expanding the system", in combination with some general restructuring could provide the changes we need to improve education.
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      Jul 18 2013: When I say "general restructuring", these are the issues I'm speaking of: Politics, nationally regulated curriculum based on standardized testing, teachers’ unions and lack of sound funding methods all stand in the way of effective reform. Political process on the state and federal level makes it difficult to effectively improve legislation that regulates and finds our schools in a timely manner. The process is too slow, and often bogged down even further by competing partisan agendas. There is significant data showing that teaching to a standardized test creates a shallower teaching environment, since many teachers change their methods to teach facts instead of intuitive ways of thinking. Teachers’ unions may be the largest contributor to the stagnation of educational improvement, mostly by making it difficult to weed out bad teachers and simultaneously making it difficult to recruit top talent into the field. They grant tenure to mediocre educators, deny administrators the much needed ability to properly evaluate teachers in the classroom, complicate and delay the hiring process, block useful reforms regarding teacher evaluation and incentives, keep experienced teachers out of the worst schools, lower pay for good teachers while increasing pay for ineffective ones and generally raise costs and increase red tape. In addition, teachers unions’ contribution to political campaigns to strategically block reform legislation plays a key role. Fluctuating state budgets, state budget mismanagement and a lack of federal funding create budget shortfalls in schools across the nation. This is especially detrimental to the inner city and rural schools that need the most help. We have a lot of work to do.
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        Jul 18 2013: In New Zealand, we have had a pretty proud history when it comes to education.

        I used to be a primary school teacher and can safely say, we have an excellent curriculum document.

        Unfortunately, our current government is hell-bent on returning to out-moded forms of assessment (basically all the old ways that most other countries are fighting to remove) largely so they have some simplistic stats to feed the public that support whatever their real agenda is. Invalid, irrelevant and weak assessment systems completely undermine a curriculum, no matter how good it is.

        My belief is that the education sector should be removed from the political sphere altogether especially as most ministers have zero experience in the field and really just push pens.

        If a percentage of tax dollars went straight to education (bypassing the government altogether) and there was an independent body focused solely on education, then we might see some real progress. (I have no doubt that most politicians would balk at this concept and try to quickly rush through laws allowing them to get their hands on the dollars if this ever went ahead)

        That way, communities could be more involved in decision making, it would prevent education from becoming a political football and would also put barriers up to prevent the private sector from turning our schools into a kind of captive market audience.

        My 2 cents - I know it's simplistic but I think it's pretty obvious that the answers are not coming from government.
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          Jul 18 2013: Scott,

          Again, I absolutely agree! A good example of this is Finland, whose government relinquishes most of the educational control to the local districts, including curriculum. They also have very limited standardized testing, which plays into your other point nicely. It's not a wonder why the Finnish system of education is now considered the worldwide 'gold standard'.
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        Jul 18 2013: I have to ask what you mean by saying teachers unions raise pay for bad teachers and lower pay for good ones.
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        Jul 19 2013: In most places, at least until recently, pay has not been connected at all to performance. What has been very widely true is that teachers who have taught longer get paid a lot more than new teachers.

        If newer teachers are typically more effective than those with more experience, pay and quality would be negatively correlated. If teachers with more experience are typically better, the pay structure would not favor the least effective teachers.

        I think whatever correlation arises comes from a structure in which pay is driven entirely by seniority. It isn't that unions aim to steer pay either toward or away from better teachers.

        Because pay is not typically connected to performance, one should expect to find both good and poor teachers at every pay grade.
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          Jul 19 2013: This is a very intriguing concept to me. I wonder if there is any evidence to support this?
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        Jul 19 2013: Please tell me what you are looking for evidence to support. That pay structures have not typically been connected to teacher effectiveness but rather to seniority?

        I am good at digging up research, but I need to know what you are seeking.

        Meanwhile, the pay structures for public schools are absolutely public information. Anyone who wants to know what drives pay in a school district should be able to find this information by going to the website for the District and then within the Human Resources department, the salary schedule should be available for public review.

        Another place to look at what has driven pay historically is the literature on "merit pay." This idea was first investigated, as I recall, in the 1970s.
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          Jul 20 2013: Fritzie,

          I apologize for the confusion here. I was under the impression that you were telling me that the pay scale never differed. After re-reading your comment, you were actually telling me that it only differed by seniority and not performance. So, in response, I would like to say that we SHOULD differ pay based on performance (even though we shouldn't base it solely on the results of standardized tests, but reviews by a competent team of administrators). Teachers' unions strictly oppose these measures, and block any legislation attempting a merit based pay system of any type.
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        Jul 20 2013: You are right that teachers unions dislike merit pay systems.

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