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Education reform needs a new paradigm.

A recent book “The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?” by Dale Russakoff (available at Amazon) added fuel into already heated debate about the state of education and the ways to reform it. The decades-long battle can be summarized as a collision between “charter schools and merit pay” supporters vs. “we need job security and more resources” advocates.

Interestingly, physics had known a similar “clan vs. clan” collision little less than a hundred years ago at the dawn of the quantum mechanics. Physics was in a crisis (like the current education is). The world of microscopic phenomena did not fit into the well-established Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell’s electrodynamics. Physicists debated if the new tiny objects sought to be the bricks of atoms are particles just like tiny balls or waves like we see on the surface of a lake. Eventually the crisis had been resolved. Turned out the question itself “is it a particle or a wave?” was just a wrong question (like: “Who won 2014 Super Bowl on Mars?” - the question itself has no sense!). The new microscopic objects (electrons, protons, neutrons, even atoms and molecules) were neither particles nor waves. To resolve the crisis scientists had to invent a completely new way of thinking about the nature. Turned out that the old way of thinking, which perfectly worked for analyzing macroscopic phenomena, just could not be applied for analyzing the microscopic world - a new paradigm had to replace the old one.

The fact that decades of reforms left education in a state that still needs serous reformation is a clear sign that debaters need to seek a new paradigm, because, clearly, the current one does not work.

Yes, there has to be a way to weed out teachers who cannot teach. Yes, there has to be a way to provide incentives to teachers who do a good job.

But on the other hand, there is no evidence that a merit pay works. And on average only one in five charter schools visibly outperform public school in student learning outcomes.

Let’s stop a debate for a moment and close our eyes and try to imagine how would teachers teach and students learn in 50 years from now. And then looking from the future let’s try to find a way to get to it from where we are now.

First, we would not see in classrooms many math or physics teachers instructing students how to solve problems. Nowadays computers already can play a game of chess, beat a Chess world champion, win the Jeopardy, and take SAT tests (Don't believe? Just Google!). This is because such games as chess and Jeopardy, and such subjects as math and physics are highly structured; they have a very strict logic and a well established set of rules and choices which can be enumerated and tested out one by one (computers are very good at this kind of work). Soon enough (I expect about two to three decades) robots will learn how to solve math and physics problems and then how to teach how to solve math and physics problems. So, STEM teachers will not be needed any more in the same way as they are needed now. A similar fate and because of the similar reasons awaits for teachers teaching reading. In general, every skill which can be automated will also be able to be taught by an automat. Teachers will become more like directors, tutors, conductors, motivational speakers (a.k.a. facilitators).

But until this time comes, every skill which has to be learned by our students has to be taught by our teachers.

Textbooks do not teach students, tablets do not teach students, buildings do not teach students, standards do not teach students – teachers do.

If we want better learning outcomes from our students – we need better teaching teachers in our schools.

Of course, even the best teacher in the world is limited by the conditions he or she has to work into, but if a perfect school building with the perfect textbooks and computers and general infrastructure is filed up with weak teachers students are doomed to be mediocre.

This is why all reformers of all ranks always want to attract to their schools or districts the best teachers from all over the country.

This is why they all compete for the same people from the same pool of excellent teachers.

And this is why only one charter school out of five shows some improvement over public schools around (despite the fact that almost all charter schools have some extra resources, which regular public schools do not have).

Because those one out of five schools get the best teachers, all other schools – charter or public – have to employ the rest.

This is why I write in my book “Becoming a STEM Teacher: a Crash Course for People Entering the Profession” (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/665204): “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.”

Of course an insufficient teacher preparation is not the only problem, but is has to bee seen as the central problem of education reform (even more important than having sufficient funding and exceptional school principals).

OK, let’s assume we all agree on that. What do we do about it?

First, we do not need to spend any money any more to study what is the difference between a good teacher and a not so good teacher. Instead we should use money (and money taken from many other unnecessary “research”) to “make” more good teachers. And to do that we have to reform the system of teacher professional development. We have to give money to teachers – partly as an addition to a wage, partly as a stipend for professional development, and say: “Please, do the best you can to teach our children, and to grow professionally every day of your work. But, please, keep in mind, that we are also watching you, and at the end of every year we will publicly inform everyone in the world about the results of your work”.

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

With the money teachers can use for their professional development, and with the public attention to the results of their work, teachers will become active consumers on the market of professional development. When teacher professional development programs will be financed by teachers, eventually, only those of the programs which really help teachers to succeed will remain on the market.

The role of the government is to create efficient system for collecting data on the quality of teaching embedded into the everyday teaching practices of teachers. All the data should be clearly and openly available to public. Internal professional evaluation should remain as a part of the system, and may change with time, but should not be the focus of officials.

The focus should be on “mining” and presenting to public reliable and comparable data (http://teachology.xyz/1p.html), but only a portion of that data should be used as a part of an official internal/expert teacher evaluation.

I understand that what I described above is not yet a plan for a reform, or not even a draft of a plan (more details are in by book).

From my point of view, this idea plays a role of a litmus test; it divides people into two groups, the ones who stick to the “charter schools and merit pay” vs. “job security and need more resources” debate, and the others who are looking beyond it.

The current parading of the reformers, which is: “We have to force all teachers to teach good, and those who cannot - have to be fired”, has to be replaced with a new one, which is: “We have to give resources to teachers and a freedom to use those resources for continuous professional growth, but make comparable and public results of their work”.

How is the new paradigm related to the distant future when robots will teach as good as people can (at least in STEM education)?

Well, when technology is ready, the weakest teachers will gradually be replaced by those robots (of course, this is only one of many possible scenarios).

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Do we really know if charter schools work and more importantly – do we want to know?

Baker said expanding access to charter schools, especially in low-performing districts, would provide relief for the families of 37,000 students on waiting lists.”

Opponents of charter school expansion, including teacher’s unions and many parents, argue that such institutions drain funding from school districts and use rigorous discipline policies to drive out low-perfuming students, assertions that proponents dispute.”

The two quotes above come from Friday’s Boston Globe (10/09/2015). They reflect common sentiments familiar to everyone following the pro-con-charters discussion. The most striking attribute of this discussion is that neither party can offer solid statistical data to support its view against the opponents’ view. There are people, including parents of 37,000 students who believe that charter schools would do for their kids a better job than public schools. There are people, including many teachers and their union representatives, who believe that charter schools do not do much good for the most of the students. But if a discussion is based solely on believes and emotions it never can lead to a productive resolution (the Congress comes to mind).

I would like to ask one question to both sides: “Are you really so supercilious that you deny the right for your adversary to be right on something?”.

If the answer is “Yes” (meaning “I am right on everything and they are totally wrong”), this situation is helpless; there will be no discussion, no communication, just yelling at each other and accusing each other in all the evil in the world.

But if both sides have people who are capable of communication with the opposite side, this is what I would suggest them to do.

Sit down together and instead of arguing if charters are bad or good, start talking about how can they decide if the charters are bad or good.

Each side should say: “OK, I want to know this kind of numbers, because I believe those numbers will prove that I am right. I do not mind if you want to know other numbers important for you. Let’s figure out how do we measure together all those numbers and also let’s agree on the decision making criteria; if such and such numbers reach such and such level charters are bad/good.”

When the both parties find an agreement on how will they both validate their views, then the discussion will be directed into a constructive direction.

P.P.S (on two more articles on education reform)


P.P.P.S (A very useful lesson about reforming education which comes from Canada)

After a decade of making a transition from "traditional" ways of teaching mathematics to "learn math via discovery" Canada wants to go back.
"Canadian students’ math skills have been on a decade-long decline because rote learning was replaced by discovery-based methods that promoted multiple strategies and estimations, according to a new report that calls for a return to tradition."
This is what happens when Ideology trumps Reason - this time in education.


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