"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, July 09, 2006

How Can Schools Be Accountable?

Terry Moe is the chair of the Political Science department at Stanford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow. He's also a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, whose members include well-known ideological conservatives like John Chubb, chief education officer and one of the founders of Edison Schools, Checker Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president and trustee of the Fordham Foundation, and E. D. Hirsch, the famous English professor turned cultural literacy expert who's also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Moe makes the following argument in the July/August 2006 edition of Stanford Magazine:

For any organization, public or private, the key to effective performance lies in getting the incentives right, and thus in motivating employees to pursue the organization’s objectives as productively as possible. This is Management 101. Yet traditionally, public education has failed to follow this simple principle. And for that it has paid a heavy price, not just in lackluster performance, but in reforms that disappoint. Huge amounts of money have been pumped into the schools, with spending up more than 75 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars per student since 1980. Yet the recipients have had little incentive to spend it efficiently, and they haven’t put it to productive use. Similar problems apply to virtually all other mainstream reforms. The push for smaller classes, for example, is extraordinarily expensive, has only modest effects on student learning—and does nothing to change anyone’s incentives. A mediocre teacher in a smaller class is still a mediocre teacher.

This seems eminently practical. Who could question such a statement?

Indeed, you've heard policy-makers of all stripes, conservative and liberal, say something like what Moe argues: huge amounts of money have been invested in school, more than has ever been invested -- literally mountains and mountains of cash -- and we have nothing to show.

But we actually have LOTS to show.
This last accomplishment listed above is probably not a good thing. But, because no one else is willing to perform these services, our schools are charged with not only educating our children, but providing them an unprecedented range of services to help them. As Noel Epstein wrote in the Washington Post on 11/27/05:

(Public schools) not only provide before-school programs, breakfasts, lunches, after-school care, afternoon snacks and sometimes dinners (as well as summertime meals). They also instruct children about sex and, in many places, teach them to drive. They face growing pressure to take tots as early as age 3 in pre-kindergarten programs. They share responsibility for keeping children off drugs, making sure they don't carry weapons, instilling ethical behavior, curbing AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, battling alcohol abuse, preventing student suicides, discouraging cigarette smoking, tackling child obesity, heading off gang fights, providing a refuge for homeless children, ensuring that students are vaccinated, boarding some pupils, tending to toddlers of teenage mothers and otherwise acting in loco parentis in ways not anticipated a generation ago.

There's little doubt that what is happening in a large number of schools, especially inner-city schools, is horrible. But we have to ask this simple question: what should schools be responsible for doing? Or, to use the current parlance, what are schools accountable for? If you say that schools are accountable for acting as surrogate parents, taking kids off the street for 9 months out of the year, giving them lots of busywork, and pumping them full of facts in order to prepare for state standardized tests, I'd argue that schools are doing pretty well. But if you say that schools are accountable for preparing the future citizens of America, for creating doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and scientists, for inculcating a sense of civic duty and a desire to be ethical and honest, and to compensate for the economic disparities that exist between the wealthiest and poorest Americans, I'd say the vast majority of schools -- even the "good" ones -- are not doing their jobs at all.

So what would it take for schools to be able to perform their duties, to fulfill the aspirations of our country and our planet and ensure that all will be well when our children are handed the reins and take over?

Listen to Noel Epstein again: "It's time to put an end to all the headlines about achievement problems in our schools -- a far easier chore than most people imagine. All we need to do is two things: First, stop calling those establishments simply schools, when they're really hybrid institutions that are raising many of our children, not just educating them. Then ensure that those who deliver family-like services there are devoted exclusively to those tasks, so that the educators can focus fully on academics."

Even with the things that we can show are working, dumping boatloads of cash into schools is not going to significantly affect what happens in them because we are doing nothing to change what is happening outside them.

So how can schools be accountable? Let them be accountable for what they're supposed to be accountable for.

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