For provocative educational questions, complex answers are needed – Marin Independent Journal


Faced with multiple complex educational issues, our policy makers and school boards too often respond in a simplistic way.

For example, “we need to get rid of charter schools” is an overly simplistic emotional position. We must recognize the complexity of the issues and avoid the reductive fallacy, narrowing our perspective and thinking in fallacious ways. With this in mind, I want to explore some provocative educational questions. The goal is to help you think through these challenges.

Prestigious reputations: The best college or university is the one that best matches the learning style and personality of the student and is known for its excellent teaching. Focusing admission mainly on prestigious universities does not take this into account.

Research data indicates that the pressure to get into prestigious schools creates major problems for students. Watch the PBS and Independent Lens film about Lowell High School in San Francisco, Try Harder, for a great look at the challenge. Additionally, exit data from Ivy League schools shows a disturbing rate of students who are directionless and emotionally challenged.

American History: The interference of state and local policymakers in the teaching of American history often substitutes politics for truth. The overriding principle should be that professionals with broad knowledge and skills should be responsible for making decisions about their subject without political interference.

Select the best qualified teachers with in-depth knowledge of American history and high teaching skills. So leave them alone. Parents should have a say in evaluating teachers, but not in determining the curriculum. Interference by legislators should not be tolerated.

Charter schools: The emotionally charged arguments for and against charter schools are largely a simplistic waste of time. There are no generic charter schools.

Providing more choice to students in comprehensive public schools is an option worth exploring. A better assessment of the quality of charter schools and regular schools would be a big improvement. The search for better answers to the funding challenges that charter schools can create is well worth the effort.

In addition, resolving the dilemmas posed by the “no tenure” position of most charter schools and the opposition to this position of teachers’ unions should be jointly addressed by education policy makers, unions and leaders of charter schools.

Teacher quality: Closely related to how teachers are chosen and how well they are supported, we rightly expect a lot from teachers. We unjustifiably provide minimal respect and compensation.

In Finland, teacher training demands high performance and is a priority. The teachers are chosen from a very well trained pool. The profession ranks only behind doctors in social status. Teaching conditions, such as small class sizes and excellent facilities, are far superior in the United States. Yes, it’s a smaller country, but the key variable is the value of the profession, a priority of values. It is not correlated to height.

Duration and merit pay: Arguments for and against the tenure of teachers are often examples of the reductive fallacy. The overriding issue is the quality of teachers.

Teachers who prove their excellence need protection from the politics of administrators and parents. I emphasize that only excellent teachers should be tenured. Then, after tenure, teachers should be periodically evaluated by their peers and the principal, also using student feedback.

Those who are deemed excellent should be rewarded with merit pay. Those assessed as deficient should complete mandatory training that addresses the deficiencies.

This possible solution to the tenure dilemma has been lost in the emotional battles between unions that oppose merit pay, policy makers and, sometimes, parents.

Test: Most standardized tests waste teachers’ and students’ time. The most valuable assessment provides ongoing feedback to teachers, as well as students, and helps improve performance.

Comparative summary assessments using standardized tests are of very limited value, given the low reliability and validity of the tests and their inability to respond to students’ linguistic and cultural differences. At worst, testing wastes time for students and teachers that could be better spent on learning. Also, school grades based on test scores are not valid.

I welcome dialogue if you disagree. But please base your disagreement on what you learned from an exploration of the complexity of the issue. Then we can have an informed and civilized dialogue.


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