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School Accountability

Alright, I’m on a roll on the whole school thing. Cope.

Today, I think I’ll rant about the crappy state of our public schools. I know that this is an incredibly easy target, and almost everyone has some sort of gripe about public schools.

Today, the gripe is accountability. Public schools get handed wads of cash – federal, state, and local – and are expected to use it to educate our kids. The problem is, no one seems to know what “educate” means. To some folks, it means their kid goes to school most days, and at the end of the year gets promoted to the next grade. This goes on until the kid finishes high school, at which point (s)he is awarded a piece of paper that acknowledges that said kid managed to actually be at school most of the time for the past 12 years. Other folks actually expect schools to do something other than provide a babysitter, but they can’t seem to agree on what the schools should be providing. One point that the two groups seem to have in common is that – no matter what – MY kid is certainly smart enough to go on to the next grade. If he hasn’t learned the skills that he’s supposed to have to go n the next grade, it is obviously the schools/teachers fault. Because my kid is a genius. (Side note: for all you rad fems out there: I will use “he” for mixed sex, or non-determined sex groups – the non-gendered, plural use if you don’t like it, take it up with the folks that invented Latin.)

Here lies the root of the problem. No matter what the schools do, they are destined to fail. Because a significant portion of the population just plain old doesn’t care what their kids are taught in school (as long as its not sex ed, evolution, or some other subject that a vocal minority has managed to blow into the press), there really aren’t any expectations. The minority of parents that *do* care about what is taught can rarely see beyond their own kids. If my kid is finishing first grade and still can’t read, the school has obviously failed to teach him in the way that he needs to learn. Or maybe he’s just not sufficiently “developed” to learn to read yet. Doesn’t matter. All his friends are going into the second grade, and it would cause Irreparable Harm to have the little snot repeat first grade.

So now we’re in the second grade. We’ve got a mix of kids with skill sets all over the map. Some are accomplished readers, some have mastered addition, subtraction, maybe even multiplication. Some still don’t know their ABC’s and count to ten without help. How is a teacher supposed to teach a class with no common skill set? The answer is simple: the teacher is expected to teach to each individual child’s skills. This means that a second grade teacher with 20 or so kids is expected to provide one-on-one instruction for each kid. If the teacher is lucky, he’ll be able to do some clumping and group together kids that are at about the same skill levels, but if hte teacher is not lucky, he’s just plain old screwed. Ever wonder why kids spend most of their time in elementary school doing art projects? Its so that the teacher can turn the class loose ona  pile of paper, glue. paint etc., and while the kids are self-entertaining, the teacher can work with one or two students and actually try to teach them something.

So what is the answer? its really pretty simple. Instead of assuming that a kid at age X belongs in grade Y, simply base promotion from grade to grade on a skills matrix. To go from 1st to second grade, the kid has to be able to count to 20, add single digits, know the alphabet and the sounds the letters make, etc. If the kid has mastered enough of the skills, he goes on to the next grade. If not, he repeats until he *has* learned enough of the skills.

But wait! what about those kids with special needs? its not fair to hold them back, because they simply may not be capable of learning those skills. In todays classroom, these kids are promoted regardless of skills, and (if they can get labeled as “special” or title 1, or whatever the current buzzword is) they get a special tutor to work with them. One on one education. Kind of like a private tutor, but on the taxpayer’s nickle. Of course, if a kid is excelling, most schools will leave him to plod along with the rest of the kids his age. If he’s really lucky, now and then he’ll get a teacher that manages to squeeze a couple of challenging projects in for him to keep him from being too bored, but for the most part, he’s going to get the same pablum as the rest of the class.  Of course, if he gets bored enough to start acting out, he’ll get labeled as a problem kid, and will get shunted off to special ed – with all the kids that couldn’t keep up with the normal class. Se we end up with the “normal” class – those kids that are capable and content to simply plod along and so just enough to get by, and the “special” class where we put all the impaired learners and the smarter kids that are bored. Of course, the special ed classes are aimed at teaching the slow kids anything at all, so the smart kids are left with even less than they had in the “normal” class.

I’ve left one thing – probably the most important thing – out of the equation so far. The parents. Any parent that really expects their kid to actually learn something had better be ready to provide on hell of a lot of education at home. Either themselves or through tutors, private education, private programs or whatever. If you can’t afford it, it pretty much sucks to be you (or at least your kids). Of course, many parents that can afford private tutors, enrichment programs and such simply yank their kids out of public schools and find a private school that meets their needs. In any case, if parents aren’t actively involved in their kids education, they have essentially abdicated the responsibility for education to the schools. Everyone knows that the government really does know what is best for you, and is the most efficient and best organization for getting anything done, right?

So, we have schools that have been given free reign to teach nothing – the only measure of success is if kids can pass some pathetic standardized tests every few years. Of course, they only measure the schools ability to make sure the kids can pass the test. And if the kids don’t pass the test, either the testing standards are lowered, or the school is warned that they have to make sure something changes. Of course, if nothing changes, there are no repercussions.

A radical new idea has been floating around for a bit. Its been touted under a number of labels, but what it boils down to is that each kid represents a certain number of education dollars. Instead of automatically giving all of those dollars to the public schools, let the parent decide what school they want their kid to go to, and give that school the money. Kind of like “Free Market”. The schools that meet the parents expectations and needs will have plenty of students (and cash), and the schools that don’t will go bankrupt and go away. There are a couple of arguments against this concept that I’ve heard that actually hold water. The most common is that parents might want their kids to go to a school that is run by a religious group, and the separation of church and state means that those schools can’t get government money because they are religious organizations. I admit that this is a tough nut, but if we rephrase the argument a bit, it suddenly makes sense. Here we go: A parent pays taxes to the government so that kids can be educated. The government is expected to spend that money in a way that actually educates the kids. In other words, the government is being trusted to spend the parents tax dollars (at least the education portion) to support education. Instead of having the parent pay the money to the government so the government can pay for the kids education, simply let the parent keep the money (either through a tax reduction, or through a a tax credit for each kid in school) and spend it as the parent sees fit. Imagine this: you fill out your tax forms, and there is a section that simply requires you to prove the name and tax ID of the school your kid attends. For each kid you have that is in school, you get a tax credit of X. Suddenly, the parent actually gets to choose the school their kid goes to, and the whole church and state thing goes away. For all you folks that are getting your hackles up about the poor folks that don’t earn enough to actually pay taxes, they would get the credit as tax return. The school that the kid goes to makes no difference – each kid is worth X education dollars regardless of what school they go to.

The other argument that I’ve heard (a lot) is that this type of program would kill the public schools. There’s no way that a public school can compete with private schools.  Of course, that’s the problem – the public schools are ensured an ongoing revenue stream without any accountability or deliverables. If the dollars that the public schools use were suddenly available to be spent at schools that actualy perform, the public schools would either learn to perform, or go away. Is that a problem? Of course, some folks say that if the public schools go away, there won’t be enough schools for the kids to go to. Remember that whole “Free Market” thing? If there is money available to pay tuition, there will be schools to collect it.

Would competition result in some cheap crappy schools? Probably, actually, almost certainly. But it would be the parents choice as to what school their kids go to. If I decide that I want my kids to go to a school that will simply promote them every year regardless of their performance, I’ll be able to send my kid to a school like that. If I want my kid to go to a school that actually requires he learns some skills, I would actually have to choice to do so. In other words, *my* money would go to support the education programs that I feel are good. What a concept. Letting someone actually decide how to spend their own money instead of letting the government do it for them. Of course, that would mean that a parent would have to take responsibility for raising (or at least educating) their kid, but parental responsibility is a rant or another day.

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2 Responses

  1. You’ve touched on a whole lot of issues here, not the least of which is summed up in your last sentence;

    “Of course, that would mean that a parent would have to take responsibility for raising (or at least educating) their kid, but parental responsibility is a rant or another day.”

    While I appreciate the thought and observations that went into this rant, I can’t really say that I’m at all optimistic that anything will change anytime soon. Your point about the parents is absolutely correct – there aren’t enough of them (us – I count myself as one of them) out there who DO care enough to ensure that our kids are getting a meaningful, worthwhile education. Responsible, careful parents haven’t reached a critical mass. As a result, those of us who DO care, who DO sit with our kids to work through the stuff that gets shoved under their noses, who DO include enrichment activities for our kids, get looked at as “over eager” or, somewhat less charitably, as generic pains in the ass. We get patted on the head and assured that everything is being done – that our children ARE, in fact, receiving a quality education.

    What’s worse is that there’s no way in a lukewarm hell that the government will EVER consent to anything even resembling your tax plan. Are you kidding?! That’s money coming IN! Once money comes IN, it can NEVER go BACK! The entire free world wold collapse.

    …and Johnny STILL wouldn’t know how to read…..

  2. Regardign the affordability of tutors, there are a number of companies offering unlimited tutoring for under $100 per month. I’ve come across a number of online tutoring websites (e.g. tutor.com, homeworkhelp.com, tutoreasy.com, http://www.schooltrainer.com, etc.). Has anyone prepared a comparison of the various companies (pricing, quality, etc.)?

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