Public education reform, Part I


Expanding High-End Course Offerings (1993-94)


I come from a family of teachers, and even though I never intended to teach in the public schools, from an early age I learned each subject as though I might one day teach it.  In the 1980’s, I joined Mensa, since my standardized test scores placed me in the upper 2%.  I didn’t know what to expect, but the main activity for me was advocating for gifted children and gifted education – whatever that means.   I learned that I had been “a gifted underachiever” and that was the group or “population” I wanted to serve as a teacher, so I began taking education courses and eventually earned a 5-12 Teaching Credential in broadfield social sciences.

As I worked as a substitute in my home-town public school system, I gained a lot more insight into what is wrong with our school system.  I had read Paul Goodman and other severe critics of large, bureaucratic school systems under state control – especially Ivan Illich who I have already written about in an earlier WordPress post.

One of the “products” of this experience, which I presented to the local school administrators, was the following essay on how to improve high schools, and opportunities for “giften underachievers” as well as the rest of those who suffer under our present system.   More than 20 years later, the problems and shorcomings are still the same, and almost no one is talking about “solutions” like Illich’s or my own as presented here (which obviously owe a lot to Illich’s work).

Expanding High-End Course Offerings (1993-94)
Advantages and Possibilities

by Paul Stephens

I. Introduction

Most of the recent criticism directed at the American system of public education has emphasized the fact that we are far behind the rest of the industrialized world in educating our children for an increasingly threatening and problematical future. It is estimated that American high school graduates are 2-4 years behind their Japanese, German, Swiss, French, Canadian, or Scandinavian counterparts. When we have exchange students from these countries, we often find that they are not only academically advanced far beyond their age-counterparts here, but that their artistic, cultural, and even athletic skills are far beyond those of our students. They typically know at least two languag­es besides their own, and they are able to communicate high-level thinking effectively in a foreign language.

According to respectable academic studies, most textbooks used in typical American public schools have declined approx­imately two grade levels since the 1960’s. This means that a sixth grader today may be using the same level of mater­ials which a fourth grader used 30 years ago. Many of us, as parents or teachers, know that this is true – even in Great Falls. At the same time, math and science programs in systems like ours have advanced the standard over the same period. Most math and science students in Great Falls now actually learn more material (more diffi­cult and more advanced) in less time than we did 30 years ago. Arts and humanities programs have also been improved, although selective­ly. There are probably more opportunities now for gifted students, but the identification process is flawed, and those excluded from special programs may be worse-off than they would have been under a basic, untracked system.

There are, of course, whole fields which barely existed then, from Computer Applica­tions to Environmental Science; from AIDS Education to Street Law. These are all to the good, and meaning­ful and useful for more students than presently have access to them. The same could be said of foreign language study. What we have is good, and we need much more of it than what is presently being offered. Somehow, we must convince students, their parents, and the general public that improving the quality of education is the best investment we can possibly make for the future.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread attitude clearly expressed in the 1993-95 Great Falls school levy votes which holds that our students are already getting far more in the form of educational resources than they need or deserve. No matter how much money we have spent on public education, results have not improved. Schools are perceived to be permissive, undisciplined, and top-heavy with administrators who do little or nothing to improve educational services. In fact, they are likely to hinder it by over-regulation and discouragement of gifted teachers who want to take greater responsibility for their work and students’ outcomes. Like other government programs and services, public schools are failing or have already failed to ac­complish their stated purposes, and with governments being bankrupted by rapidly-inflated medical costs and other entitlements, more spending on education is impossible, even if voters wanted it.

II. What is the problem?

There are also many well-educated, intelligent parents and teachers who are dissat­isfied with the situation as it now exists, and would like to see some serious restruc­turing and reform in the education system and its direc­tion. Centralized, bureaucratic, hierarch­ical, “top-down” adminis­tration is now widely believed to have failed, wherever it was tried. Special interest legislation, defective personnel policies, and bureaucr­atic inertia have severely prejudiced and diminished the successful outcomes planned for in our systems.

As an economist and public interest activist, I have learned that monopo­lies don’t work because they restrict entry (and thus the quantity, quality, and variety of educational services being offered) while simultaneously raising costs to the clients or customers (students, parents, and taxpayers). The same is true of old-style bureaucr­atic, centra­lly-planned socialism where government becomes the monopoly provider of services. Instead of working for the general interest and greater good, the bureaucra­cies tend to serve their own interests or the interests of the party in power, the voters, and powerful special interest groups, including teacher’s and other unions, contractors, and suppli­ers. The public schools, unfortunate­ly, are effective monopolies in Montana, and set up according to the principles of a socialist bureaucracy. Until we come to terms with this problem, no other major reforms are likely to be undertaken or accomplished.

It has been argued that the very results our educators envy in other countries are largely due to very centralized, uniform, and seemingly authori­tarian public education systems in Japan and Europe. If this is true, it is also the case that these are systems very different in philosophy and methodolo­gy from our own. Educa­tional values have the highest priority. Students may clean their own classrooms and serve their own food. Often, they wear uniforms which has the benefit of eliminating the dress and status competition. These systems are based on and accentuate a service ethic and public spiritedness, however rigid and con­formist they might otherwise seem to be.

Principals are often selected from the best teachers on rotating, part-time assignments. Administrative personnel, non-teaching “supervisors” or “consul­tants,” and other non-productive employees are kept to a minimum. Good teachers rarely make good administrators, and even if they do, they are worth far more in a teaching capacity. Instead of paying admin­istrators more, teachers might well emulate doctors or lawyers, where the administrator is the lesser-paid servant of the professional staff, and not the other way around. Workplace democracy is an idea whose time came long ago in education, but politics and adversarial labor/management systems have effectively prevented it from happening.

It is the quality and ability of the classroom teachers (and the freedom and incentives to do their best — what is called “empowerment”) that makes the difference. There are plenty of good teachers looking for work, or a better position where they are empowered and can take pride in the results. The problem is to re-design the system so that they are free to teach and don’t quit in disgust at the bureau­cratic nightmare and politics that surrounds them. Parents must be encouraged to take a much more active role in their children’s educa­tion, and social problems must be dealt with real­istically, instead of being blamed on the education system (or providing an excuse for its every failure.)

III. The process of reform. What would it mean to us?

The intended purposes of public education in other developed count­ries include a recognition of the global economy, the global com­munity, and an appreciation of advanced science, technology and every other kind of complex knowledge and culture. One often gets the feeling in American public schools that their purpose is to exclude many kinds of knowledge and thinking, or to keep students ignorant of complex, difficult subject-matter instead of prepar­ing them to master it.

In other societies, teachers are better-educated, better-paid, and more respected than they are, here. Schools are carefully designed to optimize the potential and opportunities for every student. They emphasize a work ethic and communicate a serious­ness of purpose which is usually lacking in American schools. And they teach, not preach, democratic values of self-help, in­dividual respon­sibility, team cooperation, and a con­sciousness of an unpredic­table and potentially disastrous future shaped by a tragic, conflict-ridden past.

They are educating for the world we live in, rather than some static, backward-looking, superstitious public constituency. Perhaps the insoluble contradic­tion of American public education is the fact that the quality of a particular system depends entirely on the good will and support of whatever vocal and politically organized public is in charge of it. If public at­titudes are headed in a direction different from the educational process, educators will not get the support and recognition they need. This inevitably leads to a “lowest common denom­inator” approach to education, and may be seen locally in the recent attempt to establish a legal definition for the “basic edu­cation” which our Montana Constitu­tion calls for.

This was not an effort to support education more, but to spend less money, and that only on education which was constitu­tionally mandated! In fact, it seems to have been motivated by a desire to eliminate state funding for gifted education, arts and humanities electives, and other high-end programs! How backward is a society which tries to find ways to avoid or prevent education instead of nurturing it? The fact is, Montana is no better off — and in some ways, even worse — than the rest of the country. People who move here from other places may think our schools in Great Falls are good. This means that they may be better than the American average, but not as good as those of other countries or other kinds of systems. Educators usually resist or deny such comparisons strenuously — especially if they are unfavorable.

It is the quality of students and their educational outcomes which seem to have declined the most, and this may indeed be more the fault of television, bad music, anti-intellectualism, and general social decay and breakdown than to the education process itself, although education bears the ultimate responsibility for all these changes. Even in the United States there are many high-quality, innovative public “magnet” or specialized schools in various parts of the country, as well as the traditional high-quality private schools and those associated with university schools of education. It is doubtful that our system compares very favor­ably with these, although our best students still enter top universities and seem to do well enough in competition with their peers. The problem is that very few of our students achieve to this level, whereas in Japan or Europe, an average student might do so.

The object of public education should always be to provide maximum opportu­nity and challenge for those who are most inter­ested in educational pursuits. This is what is no longer being done. We used to have good libraries and a large number of self-educated readers who had directed their own learning process in a particular direction, and in accordance with personal goals or interests. We used to have an open-admission, low-cost system of higher education in which almost anyone could study without scholarships or the need to weigh monetary returns in one’s decisions about courses or a major.

Instead, our higher education systems have been altered to meet the needs of high-income business and professional training. It is either vocational, unaffordable, or both. K-12 funding rewards “average” or below-average, “at-risk” stu­dents, or those who are already lost to most kinds of educa­tion or counseling. Our high schools have become welfare agencies or treatment and rehabilita­tion centers more than places to develop cultural, intel­lectual, and scientific awareness and skills. While dis­proportionately invest­ing our human capital in the needs and problems of the unfortunate and learning-disabled, those who can and want to achieve have been badly discouraged and hindered in their efforts to develop, equip, and support a higher quality of life for everyone.

Learning as a means of self-realization and personal satisfaction is practical­ly unheard of, unless one wishes to pay for non-credit “adult educa­tion” courses from the public schools, or through some alternative institution like the Y or a museum. Participation in scouting, 4-H, or other volun­tary, non-school paths to adult responsibility, competency, and citizenship has declined precipitously over the past 30 years.

Middle school students who test several grade levels above their age cohorts are typically discouraged or prevented from skipping even one grade. The prevailing middle-school philosophy seems to be that students should not be expected to advance cognitively while going through puberty, but should be allowed to devote several years to social and emotional growth and then somehow return to their studies later in high school, by which time they are usually done with books, school, and ideas.

Thus, for the intellectually motivated, it is imperative that altern­ative programs be in place and freely available to whatever extent there is a demand for them in order to keep up the momentum of cognitive development. Accelera­tion — skipping one or more grades — is a simple and overwhelm­ingly successful strategy, yet almost unknown in Great Falls. The only rationale I can find for preventing students from skipping grades is that this ultimately reduces the school population, since these students are out of the system a year or more earlier. Thus, the District loses that much revenue from the state or local levies. Do we really need a captive audience of bored non-learners in order to keep the public schools going?

In recent months I’ve proposed two new courses which I think should be offered to any students in our high schools wanting to take them. They are courses in Economics and Philosophy, and those who have seen the outlines have invariably responded favorably, but with the excuse that there isn’t money or space available to offer these courses. Meanwhile, there are literally scores of electives in business, sports, “outdoor living,” food preparation, and other subjects which are given for credit and cost just as much as academically challenging courses.

There is presently not even one gifted education teacher at the high school level, and a proposal to hire a full-time coordinator (effectively an adminis­trator, not a classroom teacher) has apparently been dropped. I have offered to work as a Gifted Education Tutor or resource person at half or less than what a regular teacher makes, and provide these courses and independent study programs experimentally. If the GFEA or other institutional factors would prevent that, I would work part-time or on an hourly basis, since I am a certified teacher. We must carefully weigh and prioritize the value of every elective course and program before we can tell the people of Great Falls that we need courses in “outdoor living” or “weight train­ing” more than philosophy, economics, or advanced foreign languages.

A third course I would like to teach is a Humanit­ies survey which was offered in the 1970’s as a 2-credit, 2-hour course at Great Falls High School, taught by Joe Wolfe. Undoub­tedly there are other courses which could also be offered to advanced students or those with specialized interests, such as the various AP courses and advanced language courses. Why not put all these together in an honors program which could be located in a separate building — a kind of “magnet school” for Great Falls? Several buildings are available, already used or mothballed by the District, and I’m sure there are many teachers who would welcome the chance to teach in such a school. We need more high school classrooms, and the current estimated cost is $9 million. This bond issue won’t even be offered to the voters this year, so the shortage of space will be here for several years to come. Opening a magnet school would solve many problems quickly and beneficially with little or no extra cost to the taxpayers.

Let’s do the best for the best students and teachers, rewarding success and achievement, and placing incentives for both teachers and students where they will do the most good. There is already a strong commitment from most of us to spend public education monies fairly, equitably, and effectively. I believe a magnet school could easily be established for the same average cost per student as we spend, today. It is the enter­tainment courses along with remedial and special ed programs which take a vastly dispropor­tionate share of educa­tional resour­ces.­ Thus, the education system — especially advanced course offerings, gifted education, and the very processes of innovation and reform — is deprived of resources which are desperately needed to bring our education standards up to those of other communities and nations. And while we’re at it, let’s offer a separate Native American curriculum developed by and for Native Americans, instead of expecting them to learn whatever it is that white people have imposed on them.

We need different programs and educational philosophies to properly address the needs of better learners or those with different learning objectives. Many gifted children are isolated and ignored, alienated by their giftedness and lack of contact with their peers. Under such conditions, they often become behavior problems and drop-outs, personally convinced by their own experience that school is boring and a waste of time; an experience which rarely, if ever, addresses their personal interests and concerns.

It is estimated that half or more gifted children never get the chance to realize even a fraction of their potentials under the present system. Gifted education specialists have long advocated ability grouping and special schools for those whose interests and capacities are broader, deeper, and occur at an earlier age. As a political issue, there is little support for extra or different programs for the best. It is assumed that they will do better than average in any case, and educators themselves have discouraged gifted education by characterizing it as elitist (more “prestigious” and much more expensive) rather than merely “different” or “more appropriate.” Hence, its lack of public support.

One would have thought that grown-up gifted children who became educational theorists would have solved the problem by now, and successfully brought into being the schools and educa­tional methods and philosophies which they once needed but didn’t have. In Montana, it’s almost never happened, and mean­while, the large number of children who were not encour­aged or given an appropriate education have no further interest in improving the system for others. Eventu­ally, it will change, either as a con­scious desire to reform the prevailing education philosophy and systems, or to provide viable alternatives to them.


Alternative Models Supporting Gifted Education

I. Single-payer (“Voucher”) Systems

There are many alternatives to the present system, but few public education supporters want to talk about them — least of all the education bureaucracy which presently exists. One is to change to a single-payer rather than a single-provider education system — what some call a “voucher system.”

As a middle-class entitle­ment, free, high-quality public education is already under attack as budgets shrink and costs expand above the rate of inflation. Many people no longer want to subsidize education for the children of the wealthy, or continue to throw money at those who can’t or won’t learn in the systems we have provided for them, and rightly so. Diversity and choice, price and quality competi­tion,­ and freedom to offer and provide much-improved and innova­tive educational services will ensure that future genera­tions will be much better educated than this one, with the same or significant­ly less support from the taxpayer. At-risk and low-income students can be given larger and more-restric­tive vouch­ers whenever equity, criminal justice, or opportunity issues are involved.

II. American Federation of Teachers Proposal

The other empowerment/diversification model which may yet catch on is that proposed by the American Federa­tion of Teachers (AFT). It provides for indepen­dent teacher-organized schools, each of which is publicly supported according to the number of students it attracts and successfully educates. Decentraliza­tion of this kind would work very well, for it is the monopoly aspect as well as centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic control (and the resulting politici­zation) which have destroyed the tradition­al system of local community or neighborhood schools, once the finest public education system in the world.

Under the AFT proposal, we would still have public schools, not private or sectarian ones, and they could use existing buildings and support services. They would require (and attract) a different kind of teacher than we have, today — ones who would work as profes­sionals, in self-administered coopera­tives or partnerships, with wages, benefits, and facilities costs deter­mined independent­ly, according to their own particular philo­sophies of education, management styles, and student needs and preferences. They would offer a variety of curricula and instructional methods, and would be evaluated and rewarded according to results, not tenure, seniority, or number of degrees and credits earned from some “approved program” offered by an underfunded yet unaffordable state college or university.

III. Freedom of Entry and Certification

Although the AFT would probably oppose this corollary, it would be logical to allow a number of different alterna­tive methods of teacher training and certification to prolife­rate, any of which is likely to be better than the status quo. The larger teacher’s union — the National Education Association (NEA, of which the GFEA and MEA are affiliates) — is the major force behind “higher standards” for teacher training, since it reduces the supply of teachers available, and thus tends to raise teacher’s salaries. However, the NEA is strongly opposed to actually measuring or testing a teacher’s competence, since that might impact their present membership adversely.

In fact, the “higher standards” they advocate are nothing more than requiring more college courses, a college major (preferably a master’s degree) in the field(s) being taught, and subservience to the higher education bureau­cracy in all matters of policy for K-12 systems. The idea that anyone might learn something outside of a college course or specific college major program is quite alien to their thinking. Certification for interdisciplinary, holistic, or other innovative educational philosophies or methods — especially life or work experience — is not available. Non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian settings and philosophies are likewise excluded from most systems. Little spontaneity or deviation in content or style is permitted of teachers. Those whose training and background in a subject is passionate and self-directed have virtually no chance of getting certified and being allowed to teach. And in no case has profes­sional competency testing replaced seniority and college credits as the basis for certification and promotion. There are all sorts of useful assessments which could be used, but adversarial union/bureaucracy politics and state laws have prohibited them.

In every case, teaching and learning are considered to be high-pressure duties or “hard labor” to be “compen­sated” by rigidly-enforced payment schedules as a matter of “profes­sionalism,” independent of need or productivity. If teachers aren’t expected to enjoy and derive personal satis­faction from their work, how can we expect students to do so, or value education as an end in itself, without getting paid for it? We might make the present system work better by actually paying students a per diem to attend and complete their work, but that is not an option. A better alternative is to make education seem worthwhile for its own sake, independent of any extrinsic reward.

As things stand now, it is the colleges and universities which control the teacher education and certification process, and it is directed to serve the interests of the higher education estab­lishment rather than the K-12 schools which will actually employ the teachers. Let each school determine what kind of education and background it would like its teachers to have and compete freely in salaries, empowerment, and personal satisfac­tion, and we will soon discover that most good teachers or would-be teachers are no longer being excluded or discouraged from teaching, but are being properly trained and hired. Now, it is more often those who are unsuited (or too insecure) for any other intellectual or profes­sional work who become tenured teachers, rather than those who are most inter­ested and successful in the learning/teaching process. Risk-taking is a value not often found among today’s tenured teachers, although in theory it should be.

Students and their parents should choose the schools and teachers they prefer, and cooperate with them in providing for their educational needs and interests. Thus, the clients would be empowered to the extent of being able to choose whatever is most useful and beneficial to themselves and their families. And the “customers” — the ones who pay the bills and ultimately control the system (voting citizens and taxpayers) — might finally begin to feel that they are getting more than their money’s worth, and feel good about support­ing education.

Free competition and choice seems to be the one essential reform which must be undertaken if we are to save public educa­tion — or any other public institu­tion in a free society. Surely the perpetual budget deficits and downward economic trends, soaring crime rates, declining health statistics, and dumbing-down of cur­riculum and expecta­tions will eventually force us to make extremely difficult choices about how we spend our education dollars. The economics and philosophy we have failed to teach and learn today may cost us not only billions of dollars later on, but our very survival as a nation or civili­zation. As those of us who already live in straighte­ned cir­cumstan­ces know, we cannot afford to waste any money or other resources on less than successful programs or institutions.

Those teachers and administrators who deny that there is anything wrong with the present system should be willing to let it compete openly and freely with alternative methodologies and institutions. We show little confidence in our own view of things if we refuse to permit any competition or reforms. Those of us who are philosophically in favor of public education should know that public schools can only be improved or stren­gth­ened­ by empower­ing personnel and clients through divers­ification and choice. Most of all, education needs to be de-politi­cized, which means ending state control of the education process, teacher training, and certification.

The same freedoms of belief, speech, association, and thought which apply to the press and religion must also be applied to publicly-supported educa­tion. All the concomitant benefits to the economy, society, environ­ment, public health, and the larger cultural life of the country will soon follow, once we are free to think, teach, work togeth­er, and provide for our individual and collec­tive needs. Practi­cally speaking, freedom of education and educational oppor­tunity provide the basis for all other freedoms and oppor­tuniti­es.


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