Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Money Issue -- PeWKoB

People In Power Trying to Make a Difference

What’s one of the scariest things in education?  When people in power try to make a difference.

Whether it’s Bill Gates, George Bush, Barack Obama, Michelle Rhee, or any of a hundred other upper-class people who have places of power in the educational establishment, we who work as educators must continually battle the stressful complications that occur when these people try to use their influential positions to effect change.

Why is this scary?  When Joe the plumber gets a crazy idea and spouts off about it to his coworkers at the bar after work, he goes home afterward and watches the game, and the idea watches it with him, never to be heard from again.  However, when these influential people get crazy ideas, they think theirs are good too, but they have the money and influence to make the rest of us listen and adjust our lives and careers because of it.

The biggest question that rarely gets asked of these People Who Know Better (PeWKoB) is simply this: how do we know your ideas are any better than those of the average Joe?

Just because a person has money, power, and influence, and perhaps even a passionate desire to improve the lives of children in the education system, that doesn’t mean their ideas for how to fix it are going to be good ones.

“Research” Supports It
Yet, when Bill Gates snapped his fingers around 2001, and gave billions of dollars to high schools across the country to “transform” them, entire school districts realigned their processes to accommodate the “research-based” reforms.  You’ll note, the more you study education policy, that every idea coming down from the establishment and the PeWKoB is always backed by “research.” On the contrary, ideas from people who actually work in schools, such as teachers and principals, get discounted and dismissed as “anecdotal,” or as one person’s experience not representative of the whole.

What better research is there than classroom experience and observation?  A teacher develops a curriculum one year, modifies it the next, fine-tunes it the year after that, and each time observes how the students do.  Is this not research?  Actually, it’s the best kind.  It’s called “action research,” because it includes a direct action with observable data–whether statistical or case study–both of which are completely valid forms of data.

But these people come down with research saying, for example, that “small schools perform better than large, traditional high schools.”  Or, “school structures need to be more flexible and personal.”  Regardless of whether they are actually true, these ideas take on a life of their own once seized on by the PeWKoB, at which point they flex, expand, grunt, and claw their way to a new plateau of authoritative policy.

So, when Bill Gates and his foundation told large traditional high schools they needed to transform, because “research” says small, specialized schools do better, everyone jumped at the prospect and began searching out ways to implement the plan.  Why?  Because we all saw the research, and were convinced by its authenticity and poignant insight?  No. Sadly, as often is the case, it was always about the money.  In order to transform, schools would need money.  You have to work through a lot of things to take a big school and restructure it into four smaller ones.  And Gates offered the money to do this, so people said, “Sure, bring it on. How bad can it be? If it doesn’t work, at least it won’t cost us anything.”

Except time.

And stress.

And a leftover pile of complicated structures that didn’t in the end make a bit of difference in most cases.

Indeed, as the years went by, and the schools that did actually transform their structures using Gates money were monitored, the purveyors of the cash found themselves deeply disappointed. Gates’ own organization now openly admits that these small school reforms were not as effective as anticipated.  (Kind of makes you wonder about that “research”).

This wouldn’t matter if the idea had stayed in the bar.

But unfortunately, the offer of money carries with it the assumption of effectiveness.  People believe that if money comes with a program, it must be a good program.  It must be based on solid “research-based” ideas, and must provide significant improvements to the education industry.  Otherwise, why would they be giving away the money?

The answer is simply that they can, and they do probably care a little, so they think it’s worth it.  But their ideas aren’t any better than yours or mine.  In many cases, they’re worse, because these people often are completely out of touch with the reality of typical public schools.

Money Still Talks, But Doesn’t Work
So now that we all know the problem wasn’t that high schools were too big or “impersonal,” because small schools didn’t improve student achievement, maybe now we should finally tackle what the teachers identify as the real problems.  Right?  Oh no.  Those teachers can’t possibly know.  They only see the system from one classroom.  We see it from a larger vantage point.  So say the PeWKoB.

Thus, we have Gates Version 2.0.  Having failed at small schools, the Gates Foundation is now pouring billions of dollars into improving teacher quality.  See, small schools didn’t work, because the teachers suck.  So we need to improve teachers.  It’s urgent.  Let’s fund grants, studies, and “innovative” ideas such as merit pay.

But no one stops to ask the obvious questions: If the Gates group and all those who jumped on the small schools bandwagon were wrong about that, what makes us so sure they are right this time about the problem being teacher quality?  And how do we know their ideas–assuming this really is the problem–will effectively solve it?  If they have been shown to be misguided in their first foray into funding educational change, how can we be sure they’re right the second time?

Oh, we know because, look at all the money their giving us to help make it work.  It will cost money to come up with new evaluation systems, pay increases for teachers who work at schools with easy-to-teach students (oops, I mean high quality teachers), systems to make sure the new programs are working, etc.

When you stand back and look at it from a broad vantage point, doesn’t this sound familiar?  Follow the sequence: Lots of money poured into small schools–no discernable effect.  Restart.  Lots of money poured into teacher quality.  Any discernable effects?  Most teachers already say merit pay won’t make a bit of difference.  But what do we know?

Funny you should ask.  A Washington Post article talks about a Nashville study finding that “offering teachers incentives of up to $15,000 to improve student test scores produced no discernible difference in academic performance.”  The study compared student test scores in math classes over a three-year period. 

Teachers were offered various amounts of bonus money depending on how well their students did.  No significant differences were found in student scores, regardless of bonus money.  According to the reprint in the Seattle Times, “The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction.” See link for full article:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/21/AR2010092103413.html

I guess we do know, because this is what we’ve been saying all along.  We’re working our butts off, so get off our backs.  Merit pay ain’t gonna work, Bill, because we ain’t the problem, yo.

RTOP
But Bill Gates is far from the only member of the PeWKoB club.  The latest national craze is the “Race to the Top” (RTOP) feeding frenzy.  This is just a bigger carrot from the same farm as the Gates proposals.  It offers billions of dollars to states that are willing to reform their educational structures according to a specific list of demands sent down by the Obama administration.  States that don’t qualify–an interesting term that implies the object of interest is worth possessing–get described as being not “serious” enough about “reform.”  Failure to secure the grant just shows how far we have to go, they lament.

And yet, when you look at it, this “failure” is no failure at all.  It is a falsified failure.  A misnomer.  What it really means is that those states simply don’t buy into the assumption that all the reforms demanded by the RTOP PeWKoB will actually improve education.  We’re just not convinced their ideas are the best.  And this makes us not “serious” about education?  Just because they’re dishing out the dough doesn’t demand that we must demolish long-standing practices and methods. Darn it.

Sometimes a revolution makes things worse.  Just look at Zimbabwe.

The influence of money in education is on par with that in politics and the military.  These grants are just one example.  When you also consider curriculum and textbook adoption, professional development, the latest gimmicks for which the PeWKoB get paid millions by school districts to train their teachers, the hiring of “expert”district and state education employees and staff, and of course, standardized testing, you begin to realize where all that money goes.

What Can We Do?
They say the per pupil cost to educate a child in this country ranges from five to nine thousand dollars, depending on the location and size of the school district.  Where does all that money go?  Think about it.  A school of 1500 students with a conservative estimate of five thousand dollars per student comes out to $7,500,000.  Or, in more relatable terms, a class of thirty students and one teacher comes out to $150,000 per teacher.  I don’t know too many teachers making that much, and remember, this is a very conservative number.  Where does the rest go?  How much do all these standardized tests cost?  How about all the consultants to study and re-study everything?  What about the shoddy accounting practices our district has been audited for twice this decade?  How about the bloated salaries of all the coaches and experts who have never worked in a classroom, yet get paid more than teachers to tell us how to do our jobs better, and also force us to use curriculum that is soundly rejected as deeply flawed by every teacher in the district?

What can be done about the influence of money?  Well, when you figure that one out, let us know, because money seems to get into everything, and the results usually aren’t good.  Why would education be any different.

But I know one thing we can do.  Be a skeptic.  Be very skeptical about any idea put forth by someone with power, influence, or wealth, who wants to influence educational policy.  These people are not experts.  They are no more knowledgeable than the guy down the bar.  They have no great insight into the problems of the school systems.  In fact, in all probability, they probably have less, because most of these people went to ritzy, exclusive private schools, and have been sheltered from many of society’s problems.

I’m not one to slander people who have grown up with more privilege.  They didn’t choose their parents any more than the ones born to drug-addicted parents.  But one must recognize that wealth and influence do not carry with them insight into the problems of education.

I also salute anyone who would rather invest their wealth into the betterment of the world than enrich their stock portfolio and finance new yachts and mansions.  We need more people to be generous and altruistic.  So I’m not trying to denigrate the people who try to fund changes to education.  But this is not the problem.

The far greater problem is the enormous microphone given to them because too many people are swayed by their profligate checkbooks.

So be a skeptic.  Ask questions.  Is this really a good idea?  What do teachers say?  Why do they say it?  How would this idea affect schools?  What would change?  What wouldn’t change?  How is this addressing the core problems schools face, such as broken families, low parental involvement, apathy, poverty, and lack of preparation for high school?

If the people proposing ideas can’t answer simple questions like these, then their idea is likely not going to work, and will result in gobs of wasted money, time, energy, and good intentions.

Along the way, teachers will likely have sat in a bunch more meetings, been trained up to the max, and become a little more disillusioned.  District people will have found another reason for having jobs for a few more years.  State people will be able to tell the public something is being done.  And someone (or some people) will have made a nice chunk of change along the way, or at least enjoyed a few catered lunches.

But will anything actually improve?  It didn’t work with the small schools initiative.  It isn’t going to work with merit pay.  RTOP is going to fail just like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did.

There are answers.  There are good ideas.  I put one of mine on the side of this blog (see The Answer–My Proposal).  But be a skeptic when those ideas come from the PeWTTKoB, the People who Think They Know Better, and who have the money to try their ideas out on the rest of us.

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