Friday, December 01, 2006

The cart before the horse

Big Media Matt has an interesting post about the NY Times Tough article on Education. Matt says in reference to the conclusion of Toughs article:
This seems to me to involve assuming a can opener. Schools full of poor kids could do just as well as schools full of middle-class kids if they had more resources at their disposal than the middle-class schools had. But why would they have more resources? It's hard to imagine suburban homeowners voting for a politician who promises to raise their taxes in order to pay their kids' best teachers to go teach in inner city schools, thereby making it harder for their kids to get into selective colleges and reducing the value of the homes they own.
To really make this work, you'd need to totally change the way the American education system works and gets paid for.

Before we even can get to changing the funding mechanisms of education, we need accomplish a few things. First, we need access to accurate and relevant empirical data on student and school performance. That is a key goal of NCLB. But many of the states have failed to act in good faith to implement them. The most glaring flaw in NCLB in my opinion was to allow the states to come up with their own systems. What we currently have is some states with decent statewide testing methods producing useful data, some states trying to get there, and some states, either deliberately or not, using testing methods that are deeply flawed. DOE is attempting to force those states into compliance. We need solid data to know what the hell is going on and if our reform efforts are working.

Next we need to game out a variety of school governance, teacher related reforms, pedogical strategies, and community strategies to name a few before we go to the taxpayers and ask them for more money. Tough discusses some of the success stories of the Charter movement, but to achieve the kind of education system we want, we need in my opinion to be creative and more than a bit daring in trying out various reforms. That takes money, which the federal government could play a key role, and that takes real leadership to forge the kind of political consensus that allows that sort of environment to be created. That last part is the most difficult and the failure thus far to create it is broadly shared, from voucher advocates who want to create an analog of the parochial system on the public dime to paranoid dimwits at groups like the NEA who only recently seemed to have grasped the publics deep unhappiness with the education status quo. There has to a broad consensus for reform and experimentation. Everyone needs to ante up. That means Unions as much as it means tax demagogues and voucher geeks. That is why I view NCLB as a largely good thing. The Federal Government can play a key role in helping to forge that consensus by providing leadership on a national level. That might be as important a contribution as the fiscal resources.

I think Matt is not quite correct about how funding for schools would have to be played out. Obviously, it will be a tough slog for anyone to try to convince taxpayers to take money out of the schools their kids go to and send it somewhere else. No one is going to try to sell it that way. Instead you sweeten the pot for them as well as your underperforming schools. But you need to have a credible plan for using their money, and some plan of accountability. Schools are something that I think we have seen people willing to accept some measure of increased taxation for, but there is legitimate skepticism about the status quo, as there should be.

Getting solid data and some effective reform strategies tested by that data will be a big achievement. I would argue it's a terrible argument to simply dismiss these efforts as worthless because we haven't achieved Education nirvana yet. Demanding huge gains in resolving the intractable problems associated with racial and economic related differences in education outcomes out of the gate is at best unfair, and at worst the result of a deliberate effort of certain stakeholders in the status quo and outright enemies of public education to derail the whole effort. Let's not allow these people to get away with it.

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