Monday, May 23, 2011

Beware of Politicians Bearing Tidings of "Big Changes in Education"

According to North Carolina Senate Leader, Phil Berger, "We've got big changes coming the public schools in North Carolina this year." Some of the earlier changes mentioned were: zero money for textbooks, instructional supply money cut by half again, and no professional development money. Our politicians want to hold us accountable for teaching kids but don't want to fund the tools we need to do the job. There's definitely something amiss in that logic, but I'm not sure logic and politics even belong together any more any way.

What were some of these other "Big Changes" spoken about by Senator Berger?
  • Cut teacher assistants in all but kindergarten classrooms.
  • Shrinking class sizes in grades 1-3 toward a "goal" (please notice the quotes here) of 1 to 15.
  • Paying teachers based on performance instead of seniority.
  • Extending students' school year by five days by turning 5 workdays into student days.
I hate to bear bad tidings but there is nothing "big" in either one of those proposals and nothing to suggest a great deal of change. First of all, there are some North Carolina politicians who have been trying to sabotage public education since I was a "teacherling" in the late 80's. Let's just stop pretending any more. There are individuals of a certain political bent in our state and in this country who want public education privatized, and they're going to do it. In all my thinking, I can't imagine an intelligent person who thinks getting rid of teacher assistants in those crucial first grades is an effective move. The only reason I can come up with is they figure getting rid of teacher assistants will sabotage achievement in these grades and then they can say "Look, I told you public schools are a waste of time."

Now the idea of shrinking class size in this proposal looks really attractive, after all, most of us who are experienced educators believe that smaller class sizes do matter, but maybe not in ways that can be measured by bubble sheets. But on this proposal look at that one word, "goal." Goals in soccer and football are good things. Goals in politics are bad things. Why? Because politicians use them as excuses. In this case, three of four years down the road when we point to them that they said they were going to reduce class size, they can say, "Oh but that was only a GOAL."  Political goals can be moved about when it is politically expedient. So, the word "goal" in this case is useless rhetoric.

I knew our politicians were going to get around to pushing performance pay. This fad has been blazing across the country since it was first suggested by Secretary Arne Duncan. The problem with this provision is that a)it's been tried, and b) it wont' work. I admit, we need to revise the pay system, but just switching to performance pay because you don't have another alternative is not wise. Besides, researchers Daniel Pink and Dan Ariely have had a lot to say about the idea of performance pay, and they say it doesn't work. What's really funny, it doesn't work well in business either according to Pink and Ariely.

Finally, the idea of extending the school year by five days isn't earth shattering either. Does anyone really think adding five more days to the school year is going to make any difference in what students learn? Besides, with our state's mad devotion to testing, schools will probably just end up using those extra days for more testing. The problem with learning isn't that we need more of what we're doing in the classroom by adding more time to do it. The problem is we need to fundamentally change what we're doing in the classroom not continue doing more of the same.

Honestly, I agree public schools need to reform. We need to do what we're doing better, but politicians using education as political football only creates useless policy. There are no big changes suggested in any of the political propaganda suggested by our North Carolina legislators. Except maybe that our K-12 budget is going to be severely cut. You can safely say, this legislature has taken one more step in its efforts to make the job of educating students in North Carolina more difficult.

What does everyone else think? Do we really think cutting out teacher assistants is going to make a difference in the classroom? Is simply having legislation that says we have a "goal" of reducing class size enough to make it happen? Is adding 5 days to the school year, at the expense of doing away with worth days going to have any effect on learning? Is paying teachers for performance going to work in a state who can't even pay teachers for test bonuses and by seniority? What do you think?

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