Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Three Pronged Solution For Education in America

Given that Obama and his team have finally seriously broached the subject today, let's take a look at my three ideas for changing education in America. It's a three pronged approach, but there are additional facets to explore later.

First - the cost of education is too expensive. Why? Because the administrative overhead is extremely out of balance, particularly at the executive, top-end level. Thus, idea one: Cut the top first - eliminating the super-level of bureaucratic administration starting at the System or Superintendent's office.

Saving many millions of dollars by cutting those offices and redistributing it to the schools will generate a great investment in the front lines; where the education takes place and with the students. In the mid 1800s, where our modern systemic structure emerged, the most educated person in a school district, indeed, was the Superintendent of Schools. Kids were taught by young, unmarried women who received all their direction from this Superintendent. Today, the teachers could suffice as the superintendents of most school districts in the 1800s. Principals often have Ed.Ds or some long litany of educational credentials. What was the last good thing your Superintendent did that affected the daily education of a student? If your answer is, like many, you have no clue, then why are we spending the enormous overhead to support this bloated infrastructure? If there are administrative staff who will be displaced, send them out to the schools to help with the day-to-day operations, where the kids are.

Cutting the top first works at the collegiate level as well. Cutting the State System Offices - for example the CSU Chancellor's office - will save the system a great sum of money. Redistribute the funds to the colleges and universities in the system. Each college and university has their own governing boards, independent of the CSU dignitaries. The CSU maintains it's own expensive board. These systems are redundant. Again, if there are administrative staff that will be displaced by closing down the Long Beach operation of the CSU, redistribute them to the various campus and have them help in teaching or administrating locally, where the students are. If you don't add value to the student experience, then you are in jeopardy of losing your job.

Second - we need to expand the academic curriculum so that it harmonizes with the culture and needs of today's students and families. Thus idea 2 - introduce a year round calendar that engages students and teaching staff for a full year, with some time for a good break to rejuvenate for a family holiday (hopefully harmonizing with a corresponding work vacation).

Back over 150 years ago, we were a largely agrarian nation. This when the school systems and district systems were created. The calendar, reflected the nation at the time, and the needs to sustain the population. Indeed, children were needed to work the family farm over the summer. Aside from a large chunk of the mid-west and some other agricultural geographies (e.g. Central Valley of California), the nature of childhood doesn't involve plowing the fields, picking rock, or being involved in animal husbandry.

Contrarily, there is no substitute today for both parents working in the urban environments in many States. Most families are comprised of parents who don't work on the farm, but are otherwise gainfully employed year round. Moreover with the farms becoming more and more absorbed by major business conglomerates, and modernized, farm life these days is a year round affair. To think that students should be let loose for an extended summer break, to help on the family farm, or for whatever reason is a quaint, and antiquated notion. Why not move the school calendar - with some well placed extended breaks not more than a month at a time - to a year round format? This will decrease the length of time it takes for people to graduate provided schools don't take the opportunity to fill up the curricula with more, rather than focusing on creating efficiencies in an effective curriculum.

Third - the idea of life-time employment in any industry is suffering a swift demise in this economy, but why should it be protected in academic settings? Thus prong 2 - invert the tenure rules and decouple it from any form of supervisor/evaluative measures for teaching staff.

Tenure evolved over time, mainly during the mid 1900s as a direct reaction to the threat to faculty of being fired for speaking heresy on a campus if the President didn't like the findings of your last study. There was also a threat of prosecution by the government and in particular the communist witch hunts, mainly familiar to us as McCarthyism. It has evolved from a pure protection of academic freedom to a de facto personnel policy, a decision point typically five to seven years after initial employment where the person receives an up or out vote.

Today, a person's freedom of speech, and more importantly, the protection of Academic Freedom (separate from tenure as a vehicle for this protection) is well grounded in the legal system. Tenure has become obsolete. Moreover, tenure offers no equal protection for the people who need it the most - the junior faculty who are trying to obtain tenure. In fact, the policy effectively grants tenure to the people who need it the least - senior faculty with a well established publication and teaching record - and does not provide it for the people who need it the most - the junior faculty member who may otherwise be plowing into new and innovative ends of the knowledge development. And as a result, we get isomorphic tendencies in both the development of new knowledge and the propagation of old antiquated teaching practice. There is no protection for innovations in both research and pedagogy for all the new folks entering the field are afraid that if they don't fall into line, they will not be granted the holy grail of tenure.

What we really should do is, instead of the current practice, give tenure to new faculty for a duration not to amount to more than 5 or 7 years. Once you reach that point, you get a decision as to if you should remain as a qualified teacher, and you should stand on your own record. Once you reach that point, the meritocracy should kick in. If you have been doing well, publishing and developing new veins of research, and teaching in effective ways, you should be retained, but not promised lifetime employment.

Any high quality faculty member should have, by then, cultivated a means by which you would not need tenure and you stand on the quality of your past and continued work instead of on the promise of what you might do - which is what we see in tenured ranks around the globe. There is a great deal of deadwood in the tenured faculty ranks. People cling to the status as if it was their only justification for employment - as in, "I'm tenured, you cannot touch me. I'll do whatever I want." Which many times over means, hell, no, I'm not going to teach differently or offer a new course, or take on any responsibility that might require more work on my part.

This practice leaves our schools, colleges, and universities stagnant and tenure serves not as a facilitator of but roadblock to innovation and creativity, particularly in some of the oldest disciplines. America does not run in a siloed environment. Students and parents should insist that their education is not offered in a siloed environment as well.

Well, there you have it. Let me summarize. We could greatly improve our system if we attacked the system as we know it using three prongs (all three tend to be sacred cows, but shoot, this is a blog and what fun is if if we can't slay a few of those every so often).

Prong 1 - Cut the bloated administrative overhead, starting with the top levels first, and flatten the organizational structures by funneling the saved funds direct to the schools where the real action of teaching and learning occurs.

Prong 2 - Expand the school calendar to extend it across the year so that it no longer reflects an old-world, agrarian mentality. Yes, students (and teachers and administrators for that matter) need substantial breaks, but not three months over the summer. In fact, we could finish up educating our students in a much more compressed time frame if we were both efficient and effective with our curricula.

Prong 3 - Invert the tenure model to give it to the new folks who more need the protection and those who need it the least are given the liberty to stand on their own records and work to continually improve and advance. Tenure as a de facto personnel policy and surrogate for accountability and supervision in America should be abolished. Instead, we should be actively promoting the improvement of our teaching faculty, and it should not stop after the first seven years of employment once, as is customary, tenure is granted. Indeed, there is proven research that suggests that faculty productivity post tenure declines, very rarely rising to the same levels of productivity demonstrated before hand. The days of deadwood faculty leaning on tenure as the only reason and rationale for their continued employment are over.

Tenure should, in no way and in no uncertain terms, be the only means of supervision of professional teaching staff. However, as it sits Tenure as a principle and a policy currently stands as the only means of holding teachers accountable, unless your school or college has post-tenure review; a discussion of which could constitute a whole other post. Never mind figuring out what actually qualifies as "high quality" teaching, and how to wrangle a system that rewards for merit.

Blog on friends.

Blog on all.

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