Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A little Educational Propaganda...

Here's an opt-ed from the LA Times by Diane Ravitch that is amazingly dishonest. Ostensibily the article argues that Bill Gates now wields more influence over American schools than does the Secretary of Education. True enough, and for those of us who worked for Bill, a good thing, since Bill will likely apply some of the straight-forward economic thinking he advanced at Microsoft in the education space.

Ravitch is aware of this, and biases her op-ed accordingly. She warns Bill of the mistake of following his own intuition as a guide to reforming schools. She uses the example of the Gates Foundation's support of small schools as an example, and cites the failure of small school efforts at Manual High School in Denver.

Manual High School, however, is not an example of failure of the small school movement. If anything, the closure of Manual is an example of the danger of student vouchers and school choice, since it was declining enrollments due to students choosing other schools that led to the closure of Manual.

Why would Ravitch deliberately distort the story? So she can get to her object lesson, and guide the deployment of Gates' wealth in a way she feels is appropriate:

In light of its experiences, the Gates Foundation seems chastened and apparently has recognized that curriculum (what students are taught) and instruction (the quality of teachers) may be no less important than school size. (emphasis added)

This is exactly wrong. What I have seen in schools at the ground level is that the greatest single failure in American education in the last twenty years has been to focus on curriculum and instruction as the primary focus for reform. This has led to interminable wrangling over educational effectiveness, assessment and instruction, and has built a formidable and entirely irrelevant educational establishment in America's teacher training programs. There are more universities cranking out EDs and PhDs in education than there are good teachers in schools. It amounts to a jobs program for "researchers" who want to argue over whether fractions should precede decimals in a middle school math program as opposed to a training ground for teachers who actually teach middle school math.

The danger to the professorate of which Ravitch is a part is that Bill will cut past all the nonsense being pushed out of schools of education on focus on results in American schools. And he should. Because the prescription for reform is actually pretty simple, and Bill will get it quickly, because he usually cuts to the chase.

Look, education, like economics and most anything else, is all about time on task. The more time students spend working on any discipline--regardless of the curricular structure--the more they will learn. Not all curricula will work all the time for all students, but the differences between curricula pale before the simple need of getting kids to work more often on the things they need to work on. Accordingly:

1. The school day should be longer. Students barely spend four hours a day on task, when you factor in all the class changes and non-academic programs they have in schools. The day should simply be longer--a proposition almost all working parents would support.

2. The school year needs to be longer. There should be no summer breaks. Instead of a 180 day year, students should be enrolled in school at least 220-230 days/year, which would put them on par with students in other industrialized economies.

3. Classes should be smaller. Ideally classes should be no more than six students to a teacher, especially in elementary school.

4. Classes should be uninterrupted and focused. Time on task should be on task. But students also need to have uninterrupted opportunities to explore, conceptualize and discover things in their classes--as well as time to bear down and concentrate. No more announcements from the office in the middle of class.

5. Classes need to be relevant. Bill is right--the American high school is obsolete. By high school students should begin to work in areas that are geninuely interesting to them, and track in directions that are relevant and appropriate to their lives. Students drop out of high school because they do not find it relevant, and they are making an obvious and correct assessment of the situation.

The prescriptions above are simple, direct, and will work. They are also expensive, which is why they are rarely deployed. They would require more teachers and more schools. The wealth of the Gates foundation could at least fund experiments along these lines. It's worth trying. But first and foremost Bill needs to follow his own no-nonesense thinking about educational reform, and ignore the advice of "experts" who are willing to distort facts to protect their comfortable positions.

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