Monday, January 24, 2011

school choice, school accountability, and the public purposes of education

I work at a private university, I am board chair at a charter school, and my kids go to public school.  Why? Because I believe that multiple types of schools make it more likely that students will learn.  But I also believe that multiple types of schools are most likely to move our communities towards the public goals that most people express for education--civic engagement, global competitiveness, personal responsibility, etc.

In the educational system that exists in most places in the US, the state controls most of the educational infrastructure, but the ends of education are generally private in that they focus on preparation for careers and on allowing students to study what they wish.  There is a required curriculum to be sure, but no common outcomes (besides, at the K-12 level, passing a couple of standardized tests).

So I'd like to make a common sense proposal.  In a time of limited resources, limited capacity, and huge need for more, improved education, let's stop fighting about which type of school is best.  And let's end the false debate between school choice and public accountability.  The needs are too large for a doctrinaire "solution" to education's problems.

Instead, let's do two things: 

(1) Make student access to education easier by radically expanding where students and their families can spend education dollars.  Or, in other words, states ought to quickly and massively expand voucher programs, both at the K-12 and higher ed levels.

(2) In order for those funds to be spent at a school, let's require that the school prove that its students are moving towards the public goals of education--that they understand the history of the nation and the community, that they serve, that they create, and that they know how to do math and science.  No evidence, then no access to public funds.

What are the likely results of such moves?  In the short term, some chaos as students and resources shift within the system.  In the longer term, three things; first, more students in the schools where they want to be, second, more variety in school type, and third, though the state would own less of the education infrastructure, greater attainment of the educational goals that are in the state's best interest.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civility, tragedy, and silence

Two days before the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, one of our MBA students, Julie Ann Jorgenson, was killed in an auto accident.

Representative Giffords' shooting has elicited endless comment and discussion, most of it asking whether immoderate rhetoric leads to immoderate action.  The debate itself has become an emblem of the question, with all sides claiming the right to be aggrieved and highlighting the flaws in their opponents positions. The President is compelled to speak.  All sides agree that the question is something we ought to talk about.

Julie's death was a tragedy--unexpected and unfair.  Her funeral was two days ago.  There were tributes to Julie, but little talk about the questions raised by her death--is life fair? who is to blame? what can be done to ensure it never happens again?  Instead, the funeral was a tribute to her faith, and a time to express sadness and loss in song, and in prayer, and in silence.

In the Book of Job, within a few verses Job, a "perfect man", had every earthly thing taken from him--his wealth, and his children, and his health.  His wife urged him to curse God and die. Then he scraped his boils with a potsherd and sat in the ashes.

Three friends heard of his suffering and traveled to be with him.  "And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great."

Once the seven days passed Job's friends interrogated him and Job responded with courage before them and before God.  But  those friends sat with Job in the ashes for a week, saying nothing in the presence of his grief.

Silence is an under-rated civic virtue.  It is one that pays tribute to tragedy, that acknowledges the inexplicable, that reminds that words are insufficient for most of the most important things in life--love, joy, pain, awe, suffering, sadness, transcendence, and death.

I know that there is some sort of civic duty that compels journalists and politicians and pundits and public servants to speak about public tragedies, to offer an opinion on everything under the sun.  But there is an equal human duty to fall silent before the suffering of others and rather than explaining, sit in the ashes and bear witness to grief.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Data sets, kids, and liberty to learn

The desire to "solve" the problems of education often elicits what could be called the "dream of the perfect data set."  The dream goes something like this: if we could somehow gather and organize all of the data we currently have we would see the solution to our educational problems.

You don't always hear the dream expressed as baldly as it is in this video, though.  In it, Jeff Edmondson, the President of Strive (an organization whose motto is "Every Child, Every Step of the Way, Cradle to Career") suggests that if we could somehow aggregate all of the data we have on kids we could set up systems that help them to full educational attainment, health, and success.

Edmondson's vision is noteworthy for two reasons:

1. it assumes that data speak clearly, and that aggregating data makes it more likely, not less, that we will understand the solutions to problems.

2. it assumes that it is OK for a person or people to look at all of the data and make decisions for the child--assigning the child a doctor, or a mentor at the moment the child needs it.

Both of these assumptions are troubling, the first because it imagines that at the individual and aggregate level, data are unambiguous, or that you can reason straight from data to a solution; the second because it proposes some sort of enormously powerful and wise organization who can implement the suggestions of data in the lives of kids.

Any parent would blanch at these suggestions, because they are false, because they propose that children in need should be open to systematic surveillance, and because they imagine that children and their families fail to make decisions about their lives based on good reasoning.

Edmondson argues near the end of his talk that it is possible to support "every child every step of the way."  Even if that were true, would it be wise?  Would children be better of because of it?  Would they be smarter?  Wiser? Healthier?  I doubt it.  I want children and their parents to make good choices as often as possible, and systems of schooling should encourage that.  But once they insist they know the right decisions, then they step beyond an educative role to something much scarier, and perhaps much less effective as well.