US education: Traditionalists & Reformers

Source: WSJ, Aug 2011

The debate over education broadly divides into two groups. On one side are what might be called “traditionalists,” consisting largely of unions purporting to represent the interests of teachers. The members of this group argue that poverty is the great impediment to educational success and that we must lift people out of poverty if we are really to better educate our kids—and in the meantime we can’t expect schools to perform miracles. The traditionalists propose that we pay teachers more, hire more of them and spend more dollars on public education overall.

On the other side are what might be called “reformers” (some traditionalists refer to them as “deformers”). This group is made up largely of policy analysts skeptical of the status quo and young idealists, many of whom came to education through Teach for America, the nonprofit program that places talented college graduates in high-poverty, urban schools.

The reformers acknowledge that poverty is an impediment to educational success but argue that teaching itself can still have a big effect. They point to specific classroom achievements, as well as to various studies, to show that different schools and different teachers get very different results with essentially the same kids.

The reformist agenda includes two key components. First, teachers and principals must be held accountable for their impact on student achievement—rewarded with pay and promotion or punished, at the extreme end, with the loss of a job. Second, the current public monopoly in K-12 education needs to be disrupted, by offering more choices. These include privately operated, publicly funded charter schools—schools that are not bound by the usual public-school rules and regulations—and publicly funded vouchers that can be used to pay for private schools.

Mr. Moe sees reason for hope. He believes that new technologies have the capacity to stimulate reform as well as alter the dynamics between labor, management and public policy.

 According to Mr. Moe, education technology will customize learning, so that individual students’ needs can be better addressed, as well as offer new instructional approaches through interactive software and distance learning.

For things to really change, though, parents must become more engaged and enraged. When they are no longer willing to accept bad schools and teachers—and when the poor start insisting on choice just like the middle class and affluent do—the political dynamics will shift accordingly. The unions can’t beat the parents.

Meanwhile, the reformers need to enlist the support of a new generation of educators, as Mr. Brill argues, by persuading them that teaching is less a trade-union job than a true profession, deserving better compensation and greater status but also delivering a higher level of classroom competence.

Last, the public must be persuaded to favor an aggressive reform agenda and support politicians who will make it happen. That’s the hard work of democracy, never more needed than now.

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