Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Badmouthing Parents Will Not Improve Education — But Here's What Works

In a comment on my 4/7/08 post, I mentioned a study I had reviewed that revealed that familial decline was found to be responsible for only a small portion of lackluster student performance. By comparing school districts with similar demographics, the study found that the greatest factor in overall student performance — greater than all other factors combined — came down to school district policy.

I asserted that the declining family argument was essentially a red herring that was useful only for deflecting attention from the real culprits of poor educational outcomes. Despite the fact that the “average child today is growing up in a more learning-friendly family environment than ever before” (see here), parents are continually harangued by the education establishment as being the bad guys that are just too busy or too selfish to do what the schools want them to do.

Jeremy Manning asked me to provide a link for the study. It has been a couple of years since I reviewed the study. Although I am certain of the study’s conclusions, I have been embarrassingly unable to find a link to the study. During my search for the missing link (ha-ha), however, I have found a number of intriguing articles and studies aimed at educational performance.

This Hoover Institution article, for example, asserts that while design is essential, many schools based on the best designs still struggle with achieving consistent results from year to year. The authors explore three successful charter systems that have demonstrated consistently superior results. All of these systems serve lower income areas that have high rates of family dysfunction, and yet they are exceptionally successful.

The three systems discussed are successful due to their “central thesis that quality execution—deciding what matters most and sweating the details—underlies strong results for students.” The traits these school systems share include:
  • –“[Aligning] money, people, and leadership time to their most important activities.”
  • –“[Building] systems that translate general concepts into specific, repeatable actions that ensure quality execution throughout the organization.”
  • –“[Moving] quickly to make changes when things aren’t working as planned.”
The article also makes the point that most of the resources in these successful systems are concentrated in the schools and in the classrooms, where teacher and student impact is greatest. Many common extracurricular activities are foregone in order to focus on the most important factors. Although support structures exist above the school level, relatively few resources are applied to these other levels.

Contrast this with my local public elementary, junior high, and high school. The annualized per-pupil cost of facilities, maintenance, utilities, faculty, support staff, materials, busing, etc. expended at the school level constitutes only a fraction of the $7,500 weighted per-pupil average. The vast majority of that money is expended in structures above the school level (district, state, federal). While these structures create power enclaves, their connection to student outcomes is quite unclear.

The problem with the common elements of success listed above is that current power structures are arrayed against these types of reforms. You’re not going to find a single person in the education industrial complex that thinks she/he is opposed to such reforms. But go ahead and try to implement them and you will find yourself fighting against inertia as well as the educational power structure. If history has taught us anything, it’s that challenging power is a dangerous proposition.

No one whose power is threatened by these kinds of reforms will give an inch. Indeed, they will fight tooth and nail with many convincing arguments (and backroom deals) to defeat such measures or run them off the track into programs that require yet more management structures above the school level. They will even enlist teachers whose wages are kept down by the monopoly as unwitting foot soldiers to protect the powers that be — all in the name of helping the children. In the meantime, educational quality will continue to suffer.

You can’t really point to a single individual and say that he/she is the problem. Rather, it is the system that is the problem. Many good and wonderful people work in that system, but they are powerless to change it. While No Child Left Behind had many lofty goals, it effectively added yet more power structures above the school level. The effort to remake schools in the image of the collective imagination of federal politicians and bureaucrats may rearrange some of the numbers and grow new power enclaves, but it cannot ultimately achieve the kinds of improvements that are needed.

How long will parents sit still while their children are underserved at high cost? In my 12/1/07 post, I discussed the possibility of some of my children attending Venture Academy, a new expeditionary learning charter school that is opening this fall. We are now committed to this experience and are hopeful that the results will be good. Since directly challenging the education industrial complex isn’t going anywhere, it is likely that efforts such as this are the pathway to fostering eventual systemic change.

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