More on Education Reform and Economics

How happy am I that we're getting more articles about education reform from the New York Times pundits?

Today, Friedman talks more about how we need to reform schools, if we want to improve our economy. He says that children need to know more than just how to read and write; they need to learn how to be innovative and entrepreneurial in order to retain their jobs in a global market. Workers that have survived the recession have that skill set. Those that merely did the work on their desk were axed.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today.
Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again
hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to
make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs,
energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old
customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive.
Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating
from high school and college — more education — but we need more of
them with the right education.

I find Friedman's column a little depressing, because schools as a whole aren't even doing a satisfactory job with the reading and writing thing. Now, we expect them to teach innovative thinking, too?

In addition, schools have never been able to teach innovation. Schools were set up to create a homogeneous mass of unthinking workers. That's what they do best. They reward kids who sit motionless in seats, draw inside the lines, and have neat desks. There are no boxes for innovation or creativity on Jonah's Progress Report, just "keeps desk neat" and "listens attentively". 

So, I'm happy that the Times is dealing with education reform. However, I'm going to check off "needs improvement" on their Progress Report.

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32 thoughts on “More on Education Reform and Economics

  1. The thing that’s really frustrating to me is that people have been saying this for decades. The push for teaching creativity and innovation in schools as opposed to simply learning by rote has been around since at least the 60s. The problem is that teaching that way is going to cost a lot. It’s going to mean smaller classes, more teachers and differently trained teachers. It’s going to mean special programs that connect schools to businesses. It’s going to need some visionary people on school boards and as principals. But visionary people don’t usually go to those jobs. They’re out running their own startup.
    I’m very frustrated, personally, by the fact that I can’t teach in public school unless I go get trained some more at a huge personal cost. I feel like I would add a lot at a public high school as a teacher, but I’ll likely never get that opportunity because of the arcane certification process. And I’m guessing there are others out there like me who could teach and teach well if they could do it without the certification. It could potentially be an infusion of a diverse teaching population which could provide some very interesting techniques and perspectives for our students.

  2. Do we actually know that workers who merely “did the work on their desk” are the people getting axed?
    What I think is maybe more accurate is that people in white collar workplaces who are nimble in organizational sociology and who have some ability to accumulate cultural capital inside those workplaces are the survivors. I’m not saying that this is without having other skills that go directly towards the needs of those businesses or organizations–that’s part of successfully working the sociology of an organization.
    But the take-away about what students need is then a bit different from what Friedman et al often argue for, I think. Writing and reading and even more critically speaking/presentation become important in this view because they’re communicative tools that help you interpret and maneuver the shifting structures inside an organization. But they don’t mean much unless you’re also teaching political skills, emotional skills, self-awareness, and so on. And you have to teach those skills in something other than the standard self-esteem building everyone-is-a-precious-flower kind of way, they’ve got to be taught with a realistic sense of what the sociological and psychological landscape is, whether we’re talking 4th graders or 30-something middle managers.

  3. ” I feel like I would add a lot at a public high school as a teacher, but I’ll likely never get that opportunity because of the arcane certification process.”
    This is the one reform on which I am adamantly opposed to the teacher’s unions. I do think that teaching children (even high school students) is significantly different than teaching or interacting with adults. My recent foray into Girl Scouts has shown me how different 8 year old minds are, a revelation, especially when I get a variable group of them, rather than just the one I know really well. But, I think a lot of those skills can come on the job, and in apprenticeship programs, rather than in formal, and costly educational programs. And, a professional with experience in the non-educational world does bring something to the teaching, of, say technology, or statistics.
    Educational reforms seem to strengthen the certification requirements, though, and I suspect this is a sop to teachers unions, who see, correctly, that all the other reforms will stall as long as they can restrict the supply of teachers. But it’s the reform that I think is most important (not merit pay, or firing teachers, or evaluating teachers on their kids test scores). Unless we have a putative supply of other, potentially effective teachers, reforms aimed at improving teaching aren’t going to do much.
    (Mind you, I think *most* teachers are doing the best job they can be asked to do in the circumstances)
    bj
    PS: Oh, and Laura, your state might have an emergency certification program even your expertise is in the right area.

  4. “They reward kids who sit motionless in seats, draw inside the lines, and have neat desks. There are no boxes for innovation or creativity on Jonah’s Progress Report, just “keeps desk neat” and “listens attentively”. ”
    I’ll never forget when my son’s kindergarten report card came back saying he didn’t draw inside the lines. That is so not my experience of his drawing! And who cares?
    John Lovas (a writing professor who passed away a few years ago) used to have a criterion on his rubric for risk-taking. I was fascinated by it, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it myself.
    I think something is going to go on E’s IEP about letting him draw when he’s being uncommunicative or seems not to know how to address a question. His psych found it was a rich area of expression for him when she was testing him.
    “And you have to teach those skills in something other than the standard self-esteem building everyone-is-a-precious-flower kind of way, they’ve got to be taught with a realistic sense of what the sociological and psychological landscape is, whether we’re talking 4th graders or 30-something middle managers.”
    And we have to realize that 4th graders are different from 30-something middle managers and learn differently. They’re still trying to master two-step directions. We can’t throw too much complexity at them. (Complexity is not the same thing as rigor.)

  5. And we have to realize that 4th graders are different from 30-something middle managers and learn differently. They’re still trying to master two-step directions. We can’t throw too much complexity at them.
    Based on my experience, 4th graders are better at two-step directions that 30-something middle managers.

  6. bj, I agree that teaching adults is different than teaching kids and I’m not interested in teaching 8 year olds. I’m interested in teaching high schoolers. I don’t doubt that I could use training and mentorship and I’m completely open to that and I think different people will need different amounts. But most certification programs have lots of things in them that I just don’t need. I’m not even opposed to getting certified in some way. I just don’t want to go to school for two more years and pay thousands of dollars when I have 20 years of teaching experience and wrote a dissertation on teaching writing. Not everyone is going to have that kind of experience, but it pisses me off to no end that I can step right into a private school with my credentials but not a public school where I might be of significant use. I may indeed break down and do the public school certification but right now, I just don’t have the money.

  7. In PA, I don’t think you’d even be able to get into a private school without nearly starting over for a new Bachelor’s degree.

  8. Laura, I think I agree with everything you’ve said.
    I think, though, the problem still arises because we are going to have some form of “certification” ’cause we’re paying people on the public purse and the system is union dominated — we’re not going to move to a system where a particular individual just gets to hire who they want. The problem is figuring out what kind of certification it should be, and to avoid making it what it appears to be now, something basically paramount to an entry fee. Come up with 20K for an education program, jump through a number of hoops, and we’ll let you teach. Personally, I think I’d let anyone with a degree in the subject they want to teach teach in high school, under a temporary certification, and then have an evaluation system for determining whether they get “tenure.” But, you’d have to get hired on — so how would you get hired, under a system that attends greatly to seniority within the system. Actually, it just makes my head hurt to think about it.
    I really think addressing the certification issue is the biggest positive change we could make for education, and I think it’s the least likely reform to happen.

  9. I keep saying this, but what kids need to learn self-reliance and creativity is unstructured time, not super-powered (or extra) schooling. Keep taking away kids’ chemistry sets and scheduling them into “enrichment activities” instead of letting them get bored and find interests, and you’ll continue to get kids who do what you want them to do, not independent thinkers. Keep driving them everywhere and they won’t learn to navigate on foot. Etc.

  10. “Keep taking away kids’ chemistry sets and scheduling them into “enrichment activities” instead of letting them get bored and find interests, and you’ll continue to get kids who do what you want them to do, not independent thinkers. ”
    Good point. Another insight from the girl scout troop. The girls are completely thrilled when they have something to do, but get squirrely and out of control if they run out of activities. But, part of the problem there is that we want them to amuse themselves quietly, in a way that doesn’t disturb the rest of us, a task they have particular difficulty with.

  11. Back to Friedman – his is sort of Lake Wobegon advice, for ‘all the kids are above average’. Half the kids are below average, and loosey-goosey personal growth education means they need pictograms on the cash register when they get their jobs at BurgerKing. It seems clear to me that kids who come in with terrible skills need to have them brought to standard before we work hard on their creativity.
    Contra Friedman, in my wife’s law firm, the Layoff Fairy touched her magic wand to the people who didn’t have enough hours/billing based on criteria set by the management committee. People who were fortunate enough to have been working in growth areas (distressed debt, bankruptcy, etc.) did swell. Who knew?

  12. Friedman is a moron and he’s as wrong about this as anything else. People got laid off because they were in the wrong industry, at the wrong job site or poor performers. Education reform has nothing to do with innovativeness in the workplace.

  13. “schools have never been able to teach innovation. Schools were set up to create a homogeneous mass of unthinking workers. That’s what they do best. They reward kids who sit motionless in seats, draw inside the lines, and have neat desks.”
    Yup. Exactly. It’s not why we pulled Damian out of school last year, but it’s part of why we’re continuing to homeschool. And I don’t think it’s any accident that the incidence of homeschooling has risen dramatically. Depending how parents choose to do it, it has tremendous potential to give their kids freedom to explore, to color outside the lines and never be marked down for it, and therefore to become independent thinkers. D’s creativity has exploded since we pulled him out of school.
    I fully recognize that not everyone can or should homeschool. I just wish there was a way to translate those techniques into school-type settings. Sadly, I’m not sure there is, not without a from-the-ground-up overhaul, which will never happen.

  14. It certainly is frustrating to see how the educational system is performing these days. I just hope that in time, this would improve so that we can live up to our potential. My nephew is also being home schooled because his parents lost their trust in the system.

  15. A huge first step in education reform is to realize the limitations of school. Going to school is NOT equivalent to getting an education, and thus must be acknowledged by those who are wishing to create new horizons.
    Maya Frost says that we don’t need education reform. We need a revolution. She’s right on.

  16. Personally, I think I’d let anyone with a degree in the subject they want to teach teach in high school, under a temporary certification, and then have an evaluation system for determining whether they get “tenure.”
    I used to think this way but have become much less sure. Two things started to change my mind. First, listening to people in grad school complain a lot (sometimes with justification!) about how they are just expected to teach but are not given any training on how to do so, and how this makes them bad teachers. Some learn it, but many never do and area always bad teachers. But teaching college students is easier, I think, than teaching younger kids, so I’m less excited about the just have a degree and do it option. Secondly, I worked for a while in a “Pedagogical university” in Russia and was quite impressed with the emphasis put on teaching pedagogy. I’m sure some such places are worse than the one I was at, and some departments there are worse, too, but this one was very serious about pedagogy being a subject one could, and needed, to teach to teachers, and that it was age and subject specific. And they did a great job. The methods they used, and taught, to teach foreign languages (the area I was in) were truly impressive. By their second year most students spoke their language better than graduating majors in a language in the US and were good teachers of it, too. It would surprise me if this sort of thing, the importance of pedagogy, didn’t apply to subjects other than languages. None of this is to (fully) defend the bad systems we have in the US. It could be that “have a degree and teach” with a sink-or-swim method of learning would be better than what we have (though I’m less sure), but I’m pretty sure that it’s far from the ideal, too.

  17. I find that my Korean students very much lack creativity and innovation. They want to copy pictures from the book if asked to draw a character in kindergarten. They have a horrible tendancy to plagarize (usually off of Wikipedia) at almost any age when asked to do any kind of research. The focus of the parents and schools here is test scores on the kinds of tests that really only involve memorization. I recently had two classes make dioramas and the students were frustrated that they couldn’t make it perfect – and that perfection wasn’t easy. The whole point of the dioramas was to give them a monthly project that was a bit more fun.

  18. “Secondly, I worked for a while in a “Pedagogical university” in Russia and was quite impressed with the emphasis put on teaching pedagogy. I’m sure some such places are worse than the one I was at, and some departments there are worse, too, but this one was very serious about pedagogy being a subject one could, and needed, to teach to teachers, and that it was age and subject specific.”
    I have the feeling that Russian pedagogy is quite a bit different than US pedagogy. There was a discussion over at kitchentablemath.blogspot.com a couple years back where someone said that under Russian math pedagogy, they had done research on how many repetitions of a math fact the average child needs before they actually know it. I don’t know that anybody in the US works on this stuff these days (except maybe Siegfried Engelmann, the Direct Instruction guy).
    I’m sort of fuzzy on how the Russian system is set up, but a good friend of mine when I taught English in Russia in the 90s was a school physics teacher. She had studied physics under the physics department and had also done her pedagogy work under the physics department, which prepared both lab folk and teachers. That has always seemed to me a very logical way to approach advanced or technical subjects.

  19. Matt,
    Yes, RFE III. I was wondering about you, too, when you mentioned a pedagogical institute. Were you in the west or the east? It looks like I’m finally getting back for a short visit this summer. I’ll be headed to the area around Vladivostok, hopefully with an old Peace Corps colleague.

  20. That’s nice, Amy- I was in Russia West VII (I think there was no Russia West VI, sort of like 5th grade in Russian schools.), 1999-01. I was in Ryazan, SE of Moscow about 200km, and worked at the pedagogical university there. I’ve never been to Vladivostok, but have long wanted to go to the far east. (The closest I’ve been is Ulan Ude/Lake Baikal area on the way to Mongolia- still 3 more days on the train to Vladivostok, I think!)- sorry for all the off-topic discussion to everyone else. I hope the visit goes well.

  21. Tamar – I’m glad that Damian is doing so well with homeschooling. I read your blog posts and the thread on our listserv, and was very happy to see that he’s thriving at home. Sounds like you made the right move.

  22. Thomas Friedman wants schools to teach creativity and innovation on a large scale. That’s an oxymoron. Can you imagine how the public schools would do it? “Mom, I’m o.k. in foreign languages and science, but I got a D in creativity. I didn’t fulfill the grading rubric because you didn’t buy the required materials.”
    It’s a version of NCLB setting required proficiency at the 75th percentile of national tests. Yes, it’d be nice if you could do that. No, it’s not possible to do that, with the teachers, students, and society we have.
    Creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit are inborn. The best you can hope for is to find a school which won’t try to crush those talents.
    By the way, the Russian immigrants in our neck of the woods are founding interesting schools. I know of the Russian School of Math (it may have a different title) in Newton, and they also founded the Advanced Math and Science Academy Public Charter School in Marlborough, which for some time was known among parents as “The Russian Charter School.” I applaud the Russian immigrants’ refusal to acquiesce to low expectations in schooling.

  23. The Russian School of Math does afterschooling and summer camps. I wasn’t able to look at the site in depth, but given the emphasis on math Olympiads, I suspect they do foster math creativity. Russia has traditionally been very advanced in math research.
    http://www.russianschool.com/

  24. Maybe it WOULD help if education standards weren’t so bloody dreary and overdetermined. No wonder so many teachers do worksheets. NCLB has only made a bad situation worse.
    I could never teach public school because having to have all my lesson plans done eons in advance would kill me.
    I get why there have to be standards, but from what my friends who went into teaching tell me, it’s like having to measure every vitamin and calorie in every menu in advance. It’s hard to create learning experiences when the primary directive is satisfying the requirements.
    I am pro-pedagogy study, but I suspect it would also help if teachers had to have demonstrated proficiency in subject matter. Back in the day my Education major students (the ones who weren’t double majors–those kids were stars) were some of my dumbest, I’m afraid.

  25. I think Massachusetts’ good performance on NAEP can be traced back to the scandal of the low passing numbers for teachers on the teaching certification test. When the test was first introduced, about half the candidates failed the test. This was a shock to the system, and widely reported in the press at the time. It was very embarrassing to the expensive institutions whose graduates hadn’t been able to pass the test. (http://www.bu.edu/bridge/archive/1998/08-07/features2.html)
    Fast forward 11 years, and the teachers who passed this test are now established in the classroom. Friends who have considered reentering the workforce as teachers report that education schools will accept students who have passed this exam before entering.

  26. Matt:
    I think the fact that good education in pedagogy exists (and I agree with you, that learning about teaching can have a serious impact on people’s teaching), doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t benefit from drawing in people with no teaching experience but expertise.
    It shouldn’t be like colleges, though, which certainly use that model to the extreme (throwing in teachers with no experience at all). I’d front it with a 3 month program in teaching + mentorship. Mentors would cost money — I’m imagining an individual whose job it would be to sit in on a novice teacher’s lessons 1/week, and to advise & evaluate the novice teacher. That’d be at lest a 20% part-time position. And, I guess, I’d like to pay the novice teacher at 80% until they’re evaluated/accepted, on the grounds that they’re sharing the job with the mentor.

  27. This is surprising to me. In Australia we have quite a lot of emphasis on “thinking about thinking” and “thinking about learning”, ways of thinking, etcetera, even from Primary school.

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