A Race to the Bottom?

According to a 2008 study by the Illinois Education Research Council, Chicago Public School teachers scored an average of 19 (out of 36) on standardized ACT tests. This compares to an average score of 21 among all Illinois high school students and 18 of Chicago Public School students. Younger/newer teachers tended to have higher ACT test scores.   Conclusion?  Many Chicago teachers are likely unfit for teaching.   How about Chicago students?  A mere 33% of Chicago Public School students who enter high school will go to college.  Fewer will graduate.  In an article a few months ago (Philip Elliott; Associated Press), it states that only 5% of African American students are fully ready for life after high school.  Chicago’s educational system is dysfunctional and depressing.     

But there is a glimmer of hope.  When it comes to ACT scores, it was reported several weeks ago that academically the top 11 open-enrollment high schools in Chicago are charter schools.  This is reason for optimism.  I have a keen interest in education – and improving the “system.”  I’ve not been shy about editorial comment or criticism (e.g. see posts of 4/2/12; 4/5/12; 9/12/12; 9/17/12). 

Bottom line?  We need to recruit better teachers.  We need to dump lousy teachers.   We need more charter schools and magnets schools.  We need more tutors.  Mentors.  Accountability.  Family involvement.  Outreach to those who live in poverty.  We need to focus on non-cognitive skills as well as the cognitive.   If the Chicago Teachers Union and the politicians who support them continue to get in the way (which they do regularly on the issues above), they deserve the blame for our children’s failures.   As it is, they seem to be leading Chicago’s educational race to the bottom.  Are we there yet?  Giddyap. . . .

How Children Succeed

I just finished a wonderful book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, a journalist and former editor of the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Tough addresses the controversial question of why there is an achievement gap between underprivileged students – and those who aren’t. 

The quick answer is that most educators believe that academic success relates to cognitive skills – the kind of “intelligence” that can be measured on IQ tests. However more and more, there is an understanding that non-cognitive skills (curiosity, socialization, character, self control, self confidence and “grit”) are better predictors of academic achievement.  The success of a student has less to do with “smarts” than with more ordinary personality traits such as the ability to stay focused and to control impulses. 

Non-cognitive skills  – such as persistence and curiosity – can actually predict future success.  College graduates who participated in New York’s KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) were not so much the academic stars but the ones who plugged away at problems and resolved to improve themselves.  Grit. 

Are we surprised that children who grow up in abusive or dysfunctional environments statistically have more trouble concentrating, sitting still or rebounding from disappointments?  There is neurological/medical reason for this.  The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which regulates thoughts and behavior.  When this region is damaged, a condition that often occurs in children living in the pressures of poverty, it is tougher to suppress unproductive instincts.  Studies show that early nurturing from parents combats the biochemical effects of stress.  The prefrontal cortex then becomes more responsive to intervention and the learning of essential non-cognitive skills.

While throwing money at the problem is always viewed as a solution, psychological intervention may be a better remedy.  KIPP is now experimenting with “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  For any educator, this 197 page book is a must read.   

Education: So what do we do?

Some said that while my Monday editorial critiques, it offers no substance — on reforming education.  I’ll add some thoughts.

How about if we pay nursery school, kindergarten, 1st, 2d, 3d grade teachers (the early grades) what we pay college professors (and college professors get paid what nursery school teachers make)?  Young children are virtual sponges.  They learn and absorb the most in these early years.  This is the time!  This is where we need our best teachers.  By the time children reach college, learning patterns are fixed.  Will this happen?  Should it happen?  Probably not — but you get my drift.

Longer and more school days beginning with the grades referenced above.  The U.S. averages 180 school days per year.  That’s right down there with Portugal, Haiti and Bolivia.   The average day is 6.5 hours.  We can do better.  We must do better. 

Unions represent teachers – sure – but they must be spokesmen for students.   The job is education.  Become champions of education instead of the trumpets of discord.   Blindly protect the worst teachers?  Everyone loses.   Strike for fewer work days and shorter hours?  Give me a break.  Work for the betterment of students?  Everyone wins.   And policy makers need to understand what it takes to be a good teacher.

Today anyone can become  a teacher.  Yet some teachers don’t have the ability to teach.   Raise the bar on teacher certification. 

Teachers deserve incentive pay and h.d.p. (hazardous duty pay) for working in tough schools.  Great results deserve meritorious compensation.   

Charter schools – yes.  Magnet schools – yes.  Vouchers – yes.   Tutoring programs – yes.  Require parental involvement (and educate parents while we’re at it) – yes.    Keep our eye on the ball — the objective is to educate.

Hold students to higher levels of achievement.  Let’s not “dumb down” expectations.   Grades are important.  You fail?  You fail.  Try again. . . . and again.  And succeed.  I’ve read that uniforms (or strict dress codes) improve student performance.  Worth a try??   

Teach computer literacy and typing early on.   Best course I ever had in high school — typing. 

Be creative.  Be inspirational.  Be learning-oriented.  Target achievement.  Develop a new mind-set.  Educate.  We can get there. 

Education – An Editorial

We spend more and more money on public school education and each year, the results are dismal.   Our educational system is flawed if not broken.  Why?    

I am concerned that teachers unions impede the education process by focusing on teachers — not education.  There is blind protection of the lowest common denominator (the worst teachers), opposition to charter schools, objection to longer hours and more school days and rejection of merit pay for great teachers who achieve great results.   And unfunded (and unfair to taxpayer) pensions drain state and local budgets.   And tenure?  Where did that come from?   No other business has such foolishness. 

A big negative in educational outcome is parental void.   We want parents to be involved in the education of their children.  But when parents are out of the mix, teachers must step up to a higher calling. 

The notion of federal control over education is not working.  Requiring states to send massive amounts of taxpayer money to Washington to be massaged and nitpicked by (and paid in salaries to) bureaucrats is draining and counterproductive.  The U.S. Department of Education (begun in 1979) has 5,000 employees and a budget of $94 billion(!).  I have a feeling that states can use that money more productively.  

School districts?   According to a 2002 census, there were nearly 14,000 in the U.S. (each a bureaucratic fiefdom unto itself).   And Illinois (a state that is nearly bankrupt) has nearly a thousand of them.  Can we consolidate?   

 We need to educate.   Those with good jobs and higher pay are normally better educated.  Those without solid education* are the un and under-employed.  Want to build the economy?  Education.  Want to reduce crime?  Education.  Want to reduce unemployment?  Education.  It’s the Rx for lots of things. . . .    

     *”Education” does not mean a child must be college-bound.   It can mean the trades, military,  associate degrees, agriculture and a host of other job and skill set training.  (See posts of 11/23 and 12/5)

Education: An Observation

I get on the train each morning and most of the people on board are reading a newspaper, a book, doing work or studying.   A few may be catching up on sleep.  I normally read. 

Some, however, mainly the younger set, are sitting there with earphones in, holding their Ipod or Iphone, slack-jawed, listening to music or playing video games.  And it’s that way for the whole trip.  And their 30 minute ride – this wonderful concentrated opportunity for learning or enrichment – at least from my perspective – has been a waste.   I have to wonder if there is anything that can be done (or should be done) to  discourage this trend.  Ban IPods or video games for anyone under a certain age?  Surely we all need “down time” but to focus on down time on a consistent basis at the expense of learning?  I dunno. . . .  What do you think?