A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of Public Education

I was sitting with a few other teachers a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the difficulties of finding common ground in the conversation about how to best educate the children of our country. A big part of the problem, we agreed, is the vilification of anyone who has a different idea than yours.

“Corporate reformers” are despised by teacher unions and Diane Ravitch. Michelle Rhee hates teacher’s unions. Charter schools are criticized for siphoning public dollars into a kind of quasi private system that cherry picks better behaved public school students. Teach For America is perceived as undermining the whole system by bringing in inexperienced teachers who will flee their classrooms after two years in search of high paying positions as lawyers and consultants. Politicians point to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as their contribution to making education better, while most serious observers agree that these initiatives are unlikely to address any of the causal issues of educational inequity.

I’m not sure public schools are really as bad as some critics say. Neither, however, are they as good as they could be. So how do we find common ground?

A primary problem with public education in America is that it has become so organizationally complex. The essential contract between student and teacher is no longer at the core of our system. In trying to rid our schools of “bad” teachers we’ve become zealots for accountability. But in our preoccupation with standardized testing, we may not be holding teachers accountable to the right metrics. Standardized tests may not be the best predictors of long term success. We seem to have lost sight of one of the most the most important things we know about teaching: that “people learn from people they love.” (Quoting from David Brooks’ TED Talk.)

If the best predictor of a student’s success in school (and life?) is the child’s relationship with his or her teacher, why don’t we prioritize school budgets to maximize that relationship? The perceived economy of scale that comes with the creation of large, comprehensive schools is offset by the redistribution of resources to central administration. This, of course, is necessary if the whole system is predicated on the idea that teachers cannot provide a quality education without the accountability of standardized testing and significant administrative oversight. Small schools are not a panacea, either, at least not within a system that still features a massive administrative structure.

“Cut out the middleman” is a mantra for economy and efficiency in business. Middlemen add complexity and complexity has significant cost. Public education is a stronghold for middlemen. In California, the average school district spends about 60% of its budget on direct classroom costs. Oakland Unified has typically spent less — in 2009-2010 it spent 54% on direct classroom costs. 46% of the budget for education in Oakland is going to middlemen. Can’t we do better?

There must be a simple alternative to the complexity of administratively top-heavy public school systems. If we want to prioritize the student outcomes and accomplish meaningful education reform, we need to start by streamlining the school district’s central administration. We need to rid our districts of the cruft of multiple layers of bureaucracy, and create a system that maximizes the relationship between teachers, students, and their families.

What I proposed to the teachers I was chatting with a couple of weeks ago was a this: When a student is 6 years old, he or she is paired with a teacher who will guide her/him for the next 12 years. Each teacher will have a cohort of 12 students. The teacher’s salary and the class’s expenses are drawn from $10,000 or so allocated per student per year. In Oakland that would leave about $1,000 per student per year for central administration. A teacher’s salary and benefits would be around 60% of the cohort’s budget. The rest would be used for class activities and resources (computers, books, trips, etc.). Classes might occasionally meet at a “school” but much of the real estate currently dedicated to our school factories could be sold or redesigned for other community benefit. A teaching career might consist of two cycles of teaching, or 24 years.

Most around the table were initially skeptical. And certainly the system is not without it’s challenges. Comments ranged from “this is what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about,” to, “that will never happen.” But such a design could start as a small pilot with relatively little risk. The Brightworks school in San Francisco (a private enterprise) is already doing something like this. Oakland could start tomorrow with a pilot of three or four teachers and 36 or 48 students and just see how it works. Teachers would be freed of the constraints of the factory schedule that currently drives instruction. Families who chose this program would be free to opt out of the state’s standardized testing system in favor of the holistic approach that would naturally evolve within such a system.

I suspect the skepticism of those teachers who I was chatting with may be a common reaction to such a plan. Many would question the scalability of such a system, and I suspect that it might be difficult to find teachers willing to take a risk on such a program. But nibbling at the edges of our current system seems unlikely to produce significant impact on problems like our current dropout rates or on disproportionate discipline or placement in special education.

I don’t think public schools are a lost cause. Many children are able to succeed in school and the existing process serves them well. But should we be satisfied with a system that only serves some children? We have an obligation to serve all.

Tuesday August 14, 2012 — Mark —