Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Why do you go to school?

Why do you go to school?

At age 26, most people have spent half of their lifetimes in school.   That is long-term confinement that doesn't even include post-secondary education. What is the point?  Originally, education was provided at public expense because the idea was that a democracy needed an educated electorate.   That idea has long since gone by the wayside.  Just over 30% of eligible voters vote and the majority of citizens can’t pass the knowledge test about government that new citizens are expected to pass.  So what is the point?
It is certainly high quality, if expensive, babysitting.   But what do the taxpayers expect to get out of the significant investment in the child’s time and the citizen’s money.
There has been a great deal of talk recently about improving standards, although what that means depends a great deal on whom you ask.  Some very forward thinking local superintendents from around the country are asking and answering that question in very different ways.   In Maryland raising standards seems to relate to how many students go on to college.  Few people bother to look at how many of those who start college actually finish with a degree and if they do, can they earn a living with that degree.
In Hamilton County Tennessee, the new superintendent is asking a different question.  He wants to know who is hiring in the area, what kinds of skills are employers looking to hire, and how many of those skills can kids garner while still in high school.   He calls his program “future ready institutes”.   These are schools within schools.  He is working on future readiness and determining what jobs require skill sets that can be achieved in high school or with just short term training and which need an associate or bachelor’s degree. He is matching those skill sets to what is needed in his geographic area so that graduates will be job ready or post-secondary ready when they graduate.  The attentiveness here is that kids are trained not just for jobs that are available but also that pay well.   It is also noteworthy that programs are individualized for kids so that not all college bound students take the same academic coursework.  Whether they take advanced mathematics, foreign language or more science depends on their career goals and talents not on some “expert” deciding what needs to happen to raise standards.
 At the local level in Maryland, the Kirwan Commission report is suggesting that there needs to be a career component in public school education.  The Commission is right about that.  What they are wrong about is pre-determining that these career training programs are only going to be for students who are academically competent.   There are lots of ways people can be competent and they aren’t all in the academic areas.   Someone needs to rethink exactly why it is we go to school today.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Want to spend a few billion?

Want to spend a few billion?

Marylanders are being asked to commit billions of dollars to improving education by a plan recommended by the Kirwan Commission.  It is still not clear where the legislature will get the money or even if they will.   Maryland is already one of the top states in the country when it comes to quality education.  Teachers are among the most highly paid with average salaries well above 50K.  Kirwan would start teachers at sixty thousand.  It has been estimated that the 3 billion dollar cost for Kirwan is just for the first year.  In ten years Kirwan could cost over 31 BILLION dollars.   Oh what fun it would be to spend that money on areas that really could do some good.
One might ask, is there a better way to spend all of that hard earned taxpayer money?   There just might be.   Here are a few thoughts.
First of all instead of throwing good money after poor teachers, why not use those dollars to hire more school social workers.   Or suppose we make schools into community centers.  In distressed neighborhoods, schools could be staffed after school with homework helpers, remedial teachers, athletic coaches, community organizers and even health clinic workers.  Kids could stay in-school and out of trouble.  
Families could go to schools to get advice on community services.  Government could have reps at a school once a week to guide families through all the available options to them.  Health care services could teach and provide reproductive health advice and supplies and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
We could help people not just get jobs but get TO jobs.  Right now mass-transit takes people from the hubcap of the wheel out to the rim.  But if you need to cross from one spoke to another, people need to go back to the hubcap and then out on another spoke.   This situation can make a 20 minute car ride take two hours by mass transit.  If you are in a low wage job and using mass transit your day is now twelve hours long.  Why not use some of those billions to create cross spoke mass transit routes to get people from the city out to the rim of the wheel where there are lots of jobs going begging.
Kids and young adults who are pushing drugs already get how capitalism works.  Why not teach them how to run a legit business that isn’t killing the community.  They are good at what they do, they just need a better product.
Kirwan is offering education for three and four year olds.  That is great.  But the cost of infant care is keeping lots of women out of the work force, including women earning professional salaries.    Some of those billions could go toward lower cost infant care.  Some of the women with infants could be trained to help provide the infant care. 
Maryland is already doing a good job with education.  And, while granted, it would be great to get even better education, there are many areas besides education that would support getting the benefit from the education we do provide.
If there are a few extra billions lying around we could throw that good money after some other problems.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Teaching Has Changed

Teaching has Changed

Teaching has changed in the last ten years and not necessarily for the better.    Back in 2010, there were states that were adding a “pay for performance” policy whereby teachers received an increase in salary if students did well on exams.  Or, a significant consequence if they didn’t.  After several prominent cheating scandals by teachers and upper level administrators those policies have largely fallen out of favor.
Teen suicide rates have increased dramatically in the last 10 years.  Social media usage has led to an increase in cyberbullying and teachers are expected to intervene in those situations.  The opioid epidemic has taken its toll on school communities as it has the rest of the country.
How to respond to the horrific school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida have fostered serious debate.  Active shooter drills have become ubiquitous and there is disagreement over whether these incite or reduce anxiety.  Some states have addressed the issue by allowing teachers to carry guns.  On the other side of the equation, teacher unions have come out against the active shooter drills as fostering anxiety and in some cases chaos.
Regardless of why, there has been a confluence of events which have led to fewer people enrolling in colleges of education creating persistent teacher shortages.  Most recently teacher strikes have happened again, leading some teachers to run for public office and thereby gaining the political control for themselves.  
Of all the changes, the increased testing and teachers being held accountable for test scores rather than the students themselves have created a sense of insecurity among teachers.   One college professor has said, “Once you make a person’s livelihood dependent on the success of someone she’s trying to help succeed, it changes the focus of what we are trying to do.”
In 2009, only 15 states required student-growth data in teacher evaluations.  By 2015, there were 43 states that required student test score data as part of the teacher evaluation.  That situation was partly due to the financial incentive to school systems offered by the Obama administration.  But after 2015, states moved back from that posture.  The financial incentive ended and the Every Student Succeeds Act stripped the power to determine how states grade their teachers from the U.S. Secretary of Education.  At the same time states began to receive backlash from their constituents.  The number of states linking student test scores to teacher evaluation has now dropped back to 34.
Not only has teaching begun to feel more rigid to teachers, but the public opinion of the teaching profession has also taken a hit.  In 2009, 70% of families said they would like their child to become a public school teacher.   By 2018, that percentage has dropped back to 46%.   Families cite inadequate pay and benefits, student behavior, lack of discipline and the feeling that teaching is a thankless job.  To make matters worse, a full 50% of teachers responded to a poll indicating that in the last couple of years they have seriously considered leaving the profession.
School children need quality and committed teachers in the classroom.   Over the last ten years teaching has changed, and not for the better.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Whatever Old is New Again

Whatever is old is new again!

Long ago and far away we had a program for students who were not interested in going to college or whose talents were more in the trade areas than the academic ones.   These students were taught in beautiful modern facilities by people who were experienced and licensed in the trade areas they taught.   They did not have college degrees but did receive a short training program to add the skill of teaching to the trade skill.  This program worked very well for many years providing excellent entry level skills to students ensuring that they would be able to earn a solid middle class living as people licensed in the area .
But along came standards and progress.   In the mid-60’s, it was decided by people who had never worked a trade job in their lives, that the teachers should all have bachelor degrees.   Within in months of these new teachers hitting the vocational areas, tools were put away, text books came out and there were written tests instead of practical ones.
Then in the interest of full democracy, it was decided that everyone like it or not, needed to go to college.  So these programs gradually shriveled up with limited support.
Now we have the Kirwan Commission which is strongly advocating for a career technology program that would parallel the college preparatory program.  My GOODNESS!   It is a wonder no one thought of that before!  Oh wait they have.  But these new programs will have entry level exams.  Supporters say the entry standards are necessary because the career path should not be mistaken for the shop classes of the past designed for students who struggled academically.   So it is wrong to have alternative programs for kids who struggle academically?  Instead these career programs are for “competent” students who want to graduate from high school with marketable skills but haven’t decided if they want to go to college or not.   Can’t we just admit that there are human beings who are not academically talented but whose skills lie elsewhere?
Critics argue that these students will not make as much money as a college graduate over his/her lifetime.   The situation is that only about 39% of people entering a 4-year college graduate in 6 years.   What is the lifetime earning ability of a college drop-out who has limited saleable skills?   Those kids who are plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, video editors, computer technicians and networkers and/or appliance repair people will be earning a good living.  Probably a lot better than the 61% who dropped out of college.  Sometimes the old ways of doing things were working just fine until they were fixed.