If I were in charge…

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. For this blog I will look at the former, and discuss the latter in my following blog.

miketest4What I would change is the mandating of curriculum (so called Standards). The mandating of standards for education in a democracy can only be justified in the case of an overwhelming consensus on such standards. There is no evidence for such a consensus, and lots of evidence that these is considerable controversy over both what such a curriculum should look like and whether there should be one at all. While I have my views on what I think all children should learn, I do not see it as my, or anyone else’s place to impose those beliefs on others, much less an entire nation.

Along with that is we need to get rid of high stakes mandated standardized testing. Standardized tests have so many problems, not the least of which is that they impose a standardized curriculum. If a certain test is required , and there are high stakes for how one does on that test, then teachers must teach to it, and students must gear themselves to it as well. That means standardized curriculum. Standardized tests are also, by definition, culturally biased—they have to be normed, which means an automatic bias to the dominant group. That is just a fact of psychometrics. And, as the test makers have admitted, their reliability for individuals is not all that great, and yet they are used to judge individual students. I also do not accept their validity for much more than a test taking skills, schools skills, and one’s zip code.

What I do support is a strong public school system. One thing such a system needs is at the very least equalized funding, and really more funding is need for those who live in poverty and have other strikes against them in life to at least begin to equalize some of the built in advantages those that are well to do and of the dominant culture can give easily to their kids without schools.

I also would not allow schools supported with public funds to select students. The only selection that can be justified is to balance in terms of demographics to more equally represent the community. Such balances do matter. It does matter that we are raised and schooled with those that represent the larger society. Schools of choice are great if the choice is the choice of the students and the parents and not of the schools. One way charter schools often get around this is counseling students out with such phrases as “Your child would/does not fit here.” I would ask of anyone stating that, “Do you have a better school for my child than this one?” If they cannot honestly find a better fit for that child, one that all parties agree to, then they have no place making such statements.

I would give local schools and localities autonomy over what and how to teach. But they would have to publicly justify their decisions, allow for public input and make their results public. What kind of results would vary, but again, they need to justify why they think the results they have used demonstrate a well educated democratic citizen. There would need to be some sort of democratic governance, but that can look different in different places.

These are the main things I see that are justifiable at the national or state level. Others you can think of?

The second part of the question is what do I think good teaching and schooling look like, which I will explore in my next blog.

8 thoughts on “If I were in charge…

  1. Question…what if the community around the neighborhood school is predominantly black, hispanic, asian or white? This is reality in true urban districts…what do you do? Set quotas? Not sure how you have a school reflecting the broader community vs local without this approach. Also with 100% of dollars following the kids schools should be well funded and allow schools to decide what services to buy from what proven vendors – not just the central district. Until we see true bottom up budgeting of 100% of dollars and money following kids giving principals flexibility on staffing I am not sure schools need more money. I might be wrong but want to see bottom up budgeting. Good blog. Definitely have me thinking…

    • You ask some good questions. We definitely need to tackle segregated housing as well and the political policies that help create them. While I agree with the flexibility needed regarding money, I do not see any reason to wait for that to provide more funding for our highly underfunded schools. Schools definitely need more money. In my mind there is no question about that. Compared to what the middle class and rich spend per pupil on their children in their schools, the poor do not even come close. So I find it ingenious when people tell me we should wait for all the inefficiencies to disappear first before we meet the funding rich and middle class kids get. Ask anyone who works in the even most successful corporations and I bet they can tell you of massive inefficient spending.

  2. Sometimes I think that every school should be a teacher centered charter. My son teaches in a public charter Montessori. Not perfect but immeasurably better than the standard public school model.
    One great public school, was or is, SF Community School. It’s part of SFUSD but has no principal, just a rotating head teacher. Most of the students are from the surrounding low income neighborhoods. Half the year is a school wide project with a community connection.

    I came across this blog through a backpacking search. I really appreciate your putting your thoughts out here.

  3. I agree with everything you said. I really wish you were in charge. I’ll throw out a question for you that I always ask myself to keep myself in check when I criticize corporate reform and standardized testing. How can we respond to the parent that says, “but my son can’t read or write. At least, now, my school is giving him interventionsl they are paying attention to his deficits; and they are basically scrambling to help my child because the school’s neck is on the line.” Now, I know the existing paradigm is counterproductive, in the short term and the long term, but is there any check and balance that could be in place to, let’s say, motivate schools to be more hyper-vigilant in their educational practices without all these draconian policies. I feel obliged to answer to that parent with an adequate answer that offers solutions as well as the reasons why the existing policies are damaging…

    • In response to an individual parent about a child that was not reading or writing at a grade level where that was expected, I would hope that we were also concerned and aware of the issue, and addressing it in some proactive way. I would point to what we were doing and ask them how they thought we could work together.

      In terms of checks and balances on a larger scale–transparency is my short answer. We do need to provide evidence of what our school is doing and what kinds of successes and failures we are having. Just that the definition of those needs to be more localized and broader than standardized test scores.

  4. Hello Nick,
    Love your work. Thanks for all you do. Aren’t you going to be at TAWL in November in Tucson? If so, I will get to meet you. I have never forgotten your blog, “If I were in charge….” and I am citing it today in my next book, “The Power of Story.”

    Love, love, love your Mom, even though I have never met her either.
    WinkWorld (blog) down in the left-hand corner….

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