In a truly wonderful article in Sunday’s New York Times, David Kirp of the University of California at Berkeley lays waste the underpinnings of the current “education reform” movement. Kirp not only shows what doesn’t work, he gives numerous examples of what does work to help students.
Kirp explains in plain language why teaching can never be replaced by a machine. Although the article just appeared, I have already heard about angry grumbling from reformers, because their ultimate goal (which they prefer to hide) is to replace teachers with low-cost machines. Imagine a “classroom” with 100 students sitting in front of a monitor, overseen by a low-wage aide. Think of the savings. Think of the advantages that a machine has over a human being: they can be easily programmed; they don’t get a salary or a pension; they don’t complain when they are abused; and when a better, cheaper model comes along, the old one can be tossed into the garbage.
David Kirp dashes cold water on the reformy dream. Today’s reformers devoutly believe that schools can be transformed by market mechanisms, either by competition or technology. Kirp, author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” says that the tools for the improvement are not out of reach and do not depend on either the market or technology. His common-sense formulation of what is needed is within our reach, does not require mass firings or mass school closings, privatization, or a multi-billion dollar investment in technology.
But Kirp writes:
“It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”
Reformers have made test scores “the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.” The teacher whose students get high scores get a bonus, while those whose students get low scores get fired, just like business, where low-performers are laid-off. And, just like business, where low-profit stores are closed, and new ones are opened “in more promising territory, failing schools are closed and so-called turnaround model schools, with new teachers and administrators, take their place.”
Kirp says bluntly:
“This approach might sound plausible in a think tank, but in practice it has been a flop. Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.”
Kirp throws cold water on the reformers’ favorite remedy: “Charter schools,” he writes, “have been promoted as improving education by creating competition. But charter students do about the same, over all, as their public school counterparts, and the worst charters, like the online K-12 schools that have proliferated in several states, don’t deserve to be called schools. Vouchers are also supposed to increase competition by giving parents direct say over the schools their children attend, but the students haven’t benefited.”
As we have frequently noted, Milwaukee should be the poster child for both voucher schools and charter schools, which have operated there for nearly 25 years. Yet Milwaukee is one of the nation’s lowest performing cities in the nation on the federal NAEP tests. Milwaukee has had plenty of competition but no success.
What’s the alternative? It is obvious: “talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum.”
Kirp points to the management ideas of W. Edwards Deming, who believed in the importance of creating successful systems in which workers were chosen carefully, supported, encouraged, and enabled to succeed by the organization’s culture. The best organizations flourish by supporting their employees, not by threatening them.
Kirp identifies a number of models in education that have succeeded by “strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools.” He refers to preschools, to a reading and math program called Success for All model, to another called Diplomas Now, which “love-bombs middle school students who are prime candidates for dropping out. They receive one-on-one mentoring, while those who have deeper problems are matched with professionals.”
Kirp cites “An extensive study of Chicago’s public schools, Organizing Schools for Improvement, identified 100 elementary schools that had substantially improved and 100 that had not. The presence or absence of social trust among students, teachers, parents and school leaders was a key explanation.”
Similarly, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, “has had a substantial impact on millions of adolescents. The explanation isn’t what adolescents and their “big sibling” mentors do together, whether it’s mountaineering or museum-going. What counts, the research shows, is the forging of a relationship based on mutual respect and caring.
Despite the success of programs cited by Kirp, which are built on personal relationships, “public schools have been spending billions of dollars on technology which they envision as the wave of the future. Despite the hyped claims, the results have been disappointing.”
Kirp concludes that “technology can be put to good use by talented teachers,” but it is the teachers who “must take the lead. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.”
David L. Kirp is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”