Monday, October 4, 2010

Are We Failing?

From time to time, public education reaches the forefront of public debate; it appears that we are in the middle of one of those times. Usually someone or group makes the case that our public education system is failing, or at least falling behind the best efforts of the rest of the world.

Whether we believe this or not will profoundly influence the way we view change and reform. The honest question to answer is “do you believe that public schools are failing, or not?” If so, we need to radically abandon the past and move on. If not, we need to figure out exactly where change is needed and leave the rest alone.

One of my grad school professors, a man named Frederick Hess made an impression on me with his 1998 book titled “Spinning Wheels.” He argued that outcomes for public education are fuzzy at best. It is easy to measure the effectiveness of my trash pick-up service. If the trash is still on the curb Thursday night, they’ve failed. If it is gone before I get home from work and I can return the can to my garage, it is working. Not so easy with education.

I think (I can’t represent his point of view, and could be wrong) that Hess and others use this fact to call for more accountability by measuring student performance. It is a move in the right direction. We can’t allow publicly funded schools to operate without any sort of checks on quality of instruction. Reformers and pundits in this regard have attempted solve the problem of “fuzzy” outcomes in education. By clearly defining the desired outcome, it becomes possible to measure it. For many years, and perhaps still today to some extent, public education has not had clearly defined desired outcomes.

Try for yourself. Can you clearly state the most important desired outcome of our public education system? Don’t be fuzzy now, what does a life-long learner look like, what do we measure? If you have any ideas, leave a comment below; can you name THE desired outcome of a public school?

1 comment:

  1. To placate the data driven among us schools should work to have kids graduate with what they need. They should work to have a minimum competency and hold kids accountable. The public wants and needs objective measures of school performance and I support that on many levels. Science, Math, English and History blended with the non core areas which enable an individual to function in a civil, tolerant and democratic society. That is the outcome needed.

    In more vague but accurate can't measure passion, interest in a subject or the impact someone has on another's life. You can't always measure how hard a teacher works and whether or not it made any difference "in" a kid. You can't even measure if a kid is likely to succeed in life. Schools should offer an equal chance at success for all, regardless of background, income level or upbringing.
    They should develop and foster in our young people a desire and will to better themselves and their community and enable them to be successful(which could range from being a good mechanic to going to the most competitive college). They should impart knowledge which is essential for cultural literacy and needed to function independently. Schools should reflect the values, needs and will of their surroundings. But since they also reflect society as a whole and as such their mission changes with the times.
    As to what we should measure, it appears that is a decision that has been made far from the school building itself.