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How is The Third Program of the USSR Communist Party related to education reform in the USA?

On October 31st 1961 the XXII Summit of Communist Party of USSR unanimously accepted The Third Party Program (communist historians say that the first one was completed when Bolsheviks took over the Russia, the second one was completed when the USSR developed a solid economical fundament).

For three years before the Summit more than a hundred of the highest USSR scientists, historians, sociologists, party officials had been working on the Program.

Months before the Summit the draft of The Program was published for a public discussion. Almost forty four million people participated in open discussions on the local levels. Almost thirty thousand comments had been received and more than five thousand of them had been published as examples of what people say about The Program.

The program starts from the description of Communism as an ideal society which will be achieved in the USSR within twenty ears.

We all know that that did not happen.

I know about this because when I was a student I had to take “Scientific Communism”, a subject designated for describing what Communism is, why it will inevitably replace all current societies, and how to achieve it; the study included reading of all major Party documents.

Nothing was scientific about it. It was purely ideological subject mostly based on communist propaganda (neither Marx, nor Engels or Lenin left many details about Communism, and Soviet philosophers had to write about it almost from scratch).

Nowadays, every time when I read a document describing pathways for education reform in the US I have a Déjà vu.

The latest document I read was “A Blueprint for R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching)” (at http://www2.ed.gov/documents/respect/blueprint-for-respect.pdf) .

It is filled with words like “envisioning”, “developing”, “emerging”. It gives a shiny description of an ideal teacher, a perfect teaching environment, an exemplary social infrastructure.

We can read that “Effective teachers and principals are career-long learners”, and “Effective educators have high standards of professional practice and demonstrate their ability to improve learning” (didn’t we know this ten or even thirty years ago?).

Long story short, the document states that:

1. we need to have many more good teachers and principals;

2. in order to attract top talent we have to respect good teachers, pay them more and offer a career path;

3. communities should be involved in education;

4. teachers should work in teams;

5. we need effective teacher preparation programs.

6. we all – teachers, officials, parents – should share responsibility for advancing education and provide leadership in doing that.

7. To achieve all that we need more money (specifically, five billion dollars).

Anyone familiar with many reports on education issued over the past decades would find these seven points very familiar because in one form or another they are being repeated again and again and again.

In a way they have become a mantra, or a slogan, or a banner for most of the reformers.

All reports share the same logic: “Other countries do better, we suck, this is what is wrong, this is what we want, we need more money”.

There might be some differences about what is wrong and what we want, but the end is always the same – more money.

Since NCLB billions of dollars had been spent on education and now reformers call for spending more billions.

None of the reformers mention the fact that the US already spends more money per a student than the most of other countries (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-education-spending-tops-global-list-study-shows/).

If we stop chanting the mantra and take a look at the facts “we have to make a conclusion that the amount of money invested in education does not matter as much as the way it is spent (i.e. distributed). If we want to avoid another decade(s) of spending hundreds of millions of dollars and not seeing a significant improvement in learning outcomes of students, we need to analyze the reasons for not having a significant improvement in the past.” (“Teachology”, a pdf version, Chapter 7, page 30; at http://teachology.xyz/Teachology_ebook.pdf).

Money is a huge factor, but even more important factor is how the money being spent.

In a way all reformers acknowledge the importance of an efficient money distribution, for example, when talking about establishing more charter schools, or pushing for a merit pay for teachers, or investing in more efficient teacher preparation programs.

But they ignore that statistics shows that only one in five charter schools outperform regular public schools, and that there is no statistically unambiguous evidence that a merit pay works (e.g. according to Dale Russakoff; http://www.amazon.com/The-Prize-Charge-Americas-Schools-ebook/dp/B00AXS6BIE).

The reason that many charter schools do not show any advantage over regular public schools is that all strong teachers have been already taken by the schools demonstrating good results. The rest of the teachers who work in the rest of the schools (charter or public) need serious help with their professional growth.

But when reformers talk about teacher professional development, the first thing they want to do is to: “assess the professional development needs of teachers and school leaders at all levels and provide them with targeted feedback, professional learning, and other support”.

This is my prediction for the result of the implementation of the latter approach.

1. Millions of dollars will be distributed in grants to universities and colleges, to non-profits and for-profits for developing a “comprehensive list of important criteria” used to asses and evaluate different teacher professional development programs (this cannot be done, of course, without having many meetings, roundtables, and conferences needed to ignite and wide-spread discussions, where scholars will be arguing about the current state of teacher professional development and how to improve it).

2. Then even more millions of dollars will be spent to conduct numerous surveys (including developing questionnaires distributed in a printed or electronic formats, developing computerized analytical tools - which by the way every state will be doing on its own, collecting and analyzing data, and of course, more round tables).

3. Finally, all these activities will lead to publishing numerous papers and reports, to interviews and documentaries. In the end, some of the teacher professional development programs will be noted as exceptional, some as adequate, others as poorly structured. The latter ones soon will change their names and will rebrand themselves. The system will spit out an enormous amount of “research results and recommendations”, but nothing really will change for teachers in the field of teacher professional development. New reformers will be working on new documents to promote new approaches which will require new money.

I know I drew a very bleak picture.

It is because I always want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario (I prefer to be pleasantly surprised if that scenario turns out to be wrong, but this kind of a surprise does not come very often, maybe one time out of seven).

If I know the worst-case scenario I can start thinking about what to do to increase the probability of avoiding it (in this particular situation all I can do so far is writing and warning about what will happen unless more people get actively involved in stopping it from happening).

Now probably is a natural moment to take a pause and to say why do I feel a Déjà vu when I read various reports, i.e. what do all those reports have in common with The Third Program of the USSR Communist Party?

The answer is simple; all those documents (including the Program) ignore the fact that in ordinary circumstances ordinary people are not led by visions or ideas, but led merely by “a carrot and a stick”, like having more money or not being fired (FYI: this is one of the reasons that all dictators always depict the outside world as filled with enemies – to keep in people the feeling of a danger and being threatened, hence “there is no place for a simple and ordinary life, we all must be heroes!”).

We may sincerely agree with what we hear about “current crisis in education” and how “we all responsible for making it better”, but when given a choice between taking a useless course to get a certificate which brings some points toward the next evaluation (hence, money) or spending extra time after classes with students who are falling behind, the natural choice for the most of us is taking a useless course.

A theorem:

Many of the courses offered to teachers as an instrument for professional development are useless.

The proof:

If that was not a case we would not have the problems we have now.

The key problem of contemporary education is not an insufficient teaching, it is an insufficient teacher preparation. Effective, productive, sufficient teacher preparation will result in effective, productive, sufficient teaching.” (“Teachology”)

So, (A) what is wrong with the proposition to “assess the professional development needs of teachers”, and (B) how is this related to the distribution of money within a teacher professional development system?

(A) Since the inception of various teacher professional development programs and courses, teachers (almost) always have been put into a position of passive receivers of the knowledge and wisdom provided to them by a “Scientist”. Those “Scientists” firmly believe that they know very well professional development needs of teachers. Asking the same persons to “assess the professional development needs of teachers” is the same as asking them to asses their own work; and I do not expect many of them would say: “Oh man, we did so poor job with those teachers, let’s give our grants to someone else”.

One might ask: but who should be assessing the quality of professional development courses if there are no other professionals in the field?

My answer is: teachers have to play the central position in assessing the quality of teacher professional development courses and programs. In order to make them taking that position we need to answer question (B).

(B) Since the inception of various teacher professional development programs and courses the most of the money went directly to developers and providers of those courses and programs. The said providers are not responsible for the quality of the course they offer, but merely for having teachers passing the course. The standard scheme is simple; a provider advertises its courses and if the number of teachers subscribed to the program reaches some officially established minimum, the provider gets financing from various funds. So far this approach has not helped to boost professional growth teachers en masse.

Instead of giving any money directly to providers, that money should go to teachers and teachers should choose which professional development program to buy. Eventually the word of mouth will weed out providers which programs will not help teachers to improve the results of their every day work (this is where the government can help by helping teachers to spread the word). I would suggest that out of 90 % of the money currently spent on research in education 60 % of it instead should be diverted to teachers and offered to them as a means for their professional development.

Of course, this approach will only work when the most of our teachers will be hunting for effective teacher professional development programs. But it is an illusion to think that a merit pay alone would force teachers into this position. Among many reasons discussed in various publications, I only mention one, namely, a merit pay stands in a contradiction with another favorable by reformers proposition such as teamwork.

If not a merit pay, than what?

The answer to this question is provided by the General Theory of Human Behavior, or GTHB.

GTHB states that humans are social animals and have a strong desire to be accepted as a member of a group, including a professional group. On the surface professional groups are formed by sharing similar duties and responsibilities (every member of the same group has the same title – “a teacher”), but the core attribute of each profession is a shared result of the actions of each group member. 

In education: the results are student outcomes, and sharing means having those outcomes open to public.

In general, for every teacher learning outcomes of his or her students have to be routinely made available to (embrace yourself!) everyone in the world.

Imagine what a strong motivation to do the best he/she can would a teacher had if at the end of every year everyone could see how his/her students performed comparing to the rest of the country!” (“Teachology”).

To make this approach as efficient as possible, (a) learning outcomes of student taking the same course (e.g. 6 grade math) should be measured using comparable scales (even if the students go to different schools in different states), (b) every classroom has to have a live web camera (we gradually come to an understanding that a policeman should wear a camera, but a teacher also does not have anything to hide).

I would suggest that out of 90 % of the money currently spent on research in education 40 % of it instead should be diverted to developing technical infrastructure for making teaching uniformly assessed and publicly opened as described above. This is into what the government and philanthropist have to heavily invest – of course, only if they really want to make a difference.

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