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  • March 2009
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Why Obama’s Education plan is destined to fail.

President Obama gave a wonderful speech yesterday, which included an overview of his plans for education. He has some ideas that actually have some merit (such as merit based pay for teachers, school/teacher accountability,  and penalizing/taking over failing schools). The problem is, his ideas are all based on “improving” the existing infrastructure, when the existing infrastructure itself is the problem. There’s an old adage that goes “f it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The inverse of this adage is “if it’s broke beyond repair, you CAN’T fix it. U.S. Education is “broke beyond repair”.

Of course, this statement is predicated on my view of what education is. I believe that the purpose of education is to teach students what they need to succeed in life. A simple statement, but one that has some very complicated implications, and is (unfortunately) completely at odds with U.S. education.  Our “schools” have moved on from providing education to providing social counseling, mental health counseling, anger management, day care, and pretty much every other social program you can think of. In other words, they have attempted to replace a lot of the functions that parents are responsible for. It is simply impossible for ANY organization to accomplish all of those goals if it is pretending to be a school.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the need for some sort of organization to provide social services. I just don’t think it is the school. The first thing we need to do to make schools work is let them be schools. this is actually fairly simple to accomplish. All we need to do is define a minimal set of skills for each grade (or maybe cluster a few grades together to reduce testing). At the end of each school year, every single student takes an exam. If they pass, they continue on to the next year of school. If they don’t, they stay back until they CAN pass the exam. But wait! that isn’t fair to the poor student that can’t pass the exam! Well, actually, it is. If the student can’t pass the exam, there is clearly some failure, either on the students part, or the teacher/schools part. If the fault is with the student, this is a “learning experience”, and hopefully the kid will get the idea and get serious about learning. If not, well, one of the things our schools fail to teach is that decisions kids make have consequences….. If the problem is with the school or teacher, it will be self correcting. Once parents realize that their kids are going to be held back if they don’t perform, they’ll start paying attention to what is going on in the classes. Imagine how a principle/school board will react when parents start refusing to allow their kid to be in the class with the teacher that somehow can’t seem to teach their students the curriculum. Somehow, I suspect that that particular teacher will be out looking for work PDQ.

Of course, there ARE students that are simply incapable of learning the material. ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, pick your reason. Unfortunately, the reality is that attempting to accommodate these students in the “normal” classroom is a large part of the problem with our current schools. By forcing teachers, staff and resources into “corrective” programs, we simply reduce the ability to provide services to the students that CAN succeed. There are many options for these students, but the primary responsibility lies with their parents. The student can be enrolled in a special school that is targeted to meet the special needs of the student. I know that this is politically incorrect, but the simple fact is that no matter how education is approached, the “one size fits all” approach is guaranteed to do nothing except reduce education meet the abilities of the lowest performing student. “Tracking” – the idea of having different tracks for students that perform at different levels is extremely effective at allowing students to work to their ability.

So how do you segregate the students (yep that IS the right word. The concept of homogeneous student body is fiction)? How do you make sure that non-performing schools and teachers are punted out of the system? How do you pay for it all? Where does parental responsibility and involvement fit in? These are the questions that policy wonks have been kicking around for decades. Here’s my solution (Knew I’d have one, didn’t you?).

First, parental responsibility and involvement is key. A critical step is to make it possible for parents to have direct input into their children’s education. Some parents want their kids to have great sports programs, some want their kids to have great academics, some parents simply don’t care. How to provide a solution that fits them all is simple: accept the fact taht a single solution won’t work. Every head in a school (or out of it for that matter) carries a particular financial load – the “cost of education” for a given year. Instead of forcing the taxpayers to pay for whatever school happens to be in their town, allow the parents to choose what school their kid goes to, and make sure that those tax dollars (federal, state, local, whatever) go with the kid. Let the parents vote with their pocketbooks. Schools that don’t meet the parents needs (don’t forget about those skill tests at the end of each year) will disappear pretty quickly when they suddenly can’t afford to pay their staff. Of Course, in a model like this, parents with money will have the option of sending their kids to schools where tuition is higher than the base rate, but if we’re at all realistic, we already know that parents with money (at least those that care about education) make sure their kids get a better education than the current schools offer.

Wow, by simply requiring the parents to be responsible for their kids education, and making sure that they have the power to control what school their education tax dollars support, we’ve suddenly addressed ALL of the issues.

Kids will self-segregate into schools that provide what the kids parents think is important, simply because the parents will choose the schools that best fit their priorities. If the kid can’t perform, the parents have the option of putting the screws to the kid, letting the kid move at its own pace, or moving to another school that may be a better fit. Schools that can’t keep students enrolled will fail. Of course, the ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, etc. population are left in a tough place. This is where parental responsibility kinda sucks. They’re YOUR kids. YOU figure out what’ best for them, and (just like the rich folks that make sure their kid gets to go to the expensive school), YOU are responsible for paying any additional costs for their education. The “normal” kids will be able to ride along on the”;normal” cost of education. The “special” and “advanced”; kids will have to pony up the extra bucks for their “out of the normal” needs, or will have to muddle along in the “normal” school. Kinda sucks, but that reality.


4 Responses

  1. I’ve been saying it VERY QUIETLY because it’s NOT a popular position, especially in my profession (or in my household), but I think that “tracking” is not necessarily the evil it’s made out to be (don’t even bring this up with Mr. Chili, though; he suspects that Punkin’ Pie has been bumped to a lower-level math class as a precursor to tracking her scholastic career and is HOPPING mad about it. Frankly, I think it was the right choice, but I’m keeping my mouth shut – that’s a fight I don’t want to have).

    SO much of what you say here feels dead-on right to me, though I do take a bit of issue leaving the “special” kids to fend for themselves. While I agree that mainstreaming doesn’t work – for whose benefit are we bringing these kids into the classroom, exactly? – I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of leaving already stressed and burdened parents to find placements for their special needs kids (any more than I’m okay with having the financially struggling family with the genius kid have to dump that child in whatever school they can afford). Most parents end up with “special” kids – either on the high or low end of that spectrum – entirely by accident; it’s not as if they have much choice in the matter. Part of the social contract we have as Americans in a democratic society includes an agreement to at least TRY to see to the welfare of all our citizens. Establishing a means of support for the outliers on the average scale feels like the right thing to do.

  2. I have to disagree – the financial responsibility for kids goes with the decision for having them. By allowing for “tuition vouchers”, a basic level of service is ensured, and I feel that this meets the states (or societies, or whatever you choose to call it) obligation. Anything beyond that – either “gifted” or “special” remains the responsibility of the parent.

    Having kids is (unfortunately) not a risk-free decision. If we let (or in many cases, force) parents accept the responsibility for their decisions, we are reinforcing the idea that family is the core social unit – not government. By doing this, we also remove government from the decision making process – if the parents choose to enroll thier gifted or special kid in “normal” school, the parents (and the kid) will have to deal with the kid either being bored or over-challenged. This is extremely good preparation for the real world (at least for the kid – for the parent, it may force the bursting of an illusion – which would probably be to the long term benefit of the kid anyway)…

    By allowing the tuition voucher to follow the kid, schools that will meet the needs of special and gifted kids WILL show up – where there’s a buck to be made, someone will show up to take it. IN the cases where there is NOT a buck to be made, well, once again, this is a self correcting situation. Maybe, some (or a lot) of the special kids that are eating so much of school budgets really don’t belong in school, but in assisted living or day care. Unfortunately, by setting the schools goal to creating students that are capable of self-sustaining gainful employment, we are forced to admit that there are portions of the population that will never be able to do so. In my opinion, they don’t belong in school – they are wasting resources that have potential to be used on kids that WILL meet the end goal.

  3. You have some very unpopular views there – so many parents have their special needs kids participate in regular classrooms in order to foster whatever skills that child can learn. I don’t disagree with you about tracking – I DO think that should be part of the way things are done, egos and strident parents aside. I have a gifted kid and would dearly love to have that child adequately challenged in a gifted classroom like they have in other tracked countries. Does that mean I would like the special needs kids to be moved elsewhere so that the gifted kids get more attention? Yessiree.

    In order for this country’s kids to compete on a global scale, the school system has to change. We’re doing too much paliative teaching, placating mediocrity and while I am not completely versed in Obama’s plan, I do sense that he knows this and strives to address it.

  4. I know it is unpopular, particularly because many special needs kids CAN benefit from being in a regular classroom. The problem is, the COST of having that special needs kid in a “normal classroom is too high. The cost includes the simple to measure things like actual dollars spent to have a special aid for the kid, but also includes a lot of intangibles like the extra time the regular teacher has to spend on the special kid, the changes in the learning and social environments, and the slowing down of curriculum to not leave the special kid behind. Also, having an underperformer makes it much more difficult to encourage the other kids to perform at their best, and having a kid that has a special assistant, tutor, or outside help also makes it much easier for the “normal” kid to get lazy – they are being shown that if you don’t perform, you get extra help….

    Unpopular, yes, but the benefit to a small number of special needs kids pales compared to the damage done to the vast majority of other kids…

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