Monday, March 17, 2014

Education Rights and Wrongs

Two good letters to the editor in the Star Tribune today, responding to an earlier Strib editorial calling for an overhaul of teacher tenure in the public schools:

There are good reasons for maintaining it

Once again the Star Tribune Editorial Board has come out for changing the tenure law (March 14) so that as we lay off teachers we keep the “effective” ones.

To start with, I have a great idea. Let’s fund education in 2014-15 at the same level adjusted for inflation as 2004-05. One recent report from the Minnesota School Boards Association found that this alone would increase education funding per student by almost $700. That alone would prevent us from making any cuts in the first place.

Second, what does “effective” mean? Since even under the new teacher evaluation law teachers are observed only once a year, it always means test scores. So how do we compare a teacher who only teaches gifted and talented students with one who works with those who are struggling? What about the 60 percent of teachers who teach in an area where no standardized test exists?

The reason we have tenure is simple. Districts would have an economic incentive to lay off more-expensive teachers first. Let’s start by calculating what it truly costs to educate a child, and then fund it.

Marc Doepner-Hove, Mound

• • •

The editorial ignored the rigorous evaluations in place before achieving tenure. It also ignored existing processes to remove teachers. These powers simply require due process.

Worse, the editorial ignored the most obvious threat to professionals — replacement by cheap, new graduates or volunteers in the name of austerity.

Reasonable protections for teachers exist to protect tireless, devoted professionals from retribution for:

• Supporting academic integrity.
• Assigning real literature like Steinbeck or Twain.
• Speaking out to protect students.
• Insisting on academic freedom.
• Whistleblowing.
• Writing letters to the editor.

Ultimately, the corporate movement to eliminate tenure has yet to prove tenure has an impact on performance. Schools with teacher tenure rank among both the best and the worst in America. Instead of attacking professionals in the height of their career, let’s support them and educate our children.

Nathan Gauslin, Brooklyn Park
Doepner-Hove's points seem unassailable to me, particularly. "Effective" is meaningless when there are no systems in use to evaluate teachers, and in the current education situation, laying off expensive, experienced teachers is clearly what's wanted. If they can be replaced by temporary teachers, it seems, all the better.

For balance with all that logic, the Strib ran a commentary attacking progressive education on the opposite page. The writer, Gary Marvin Davison, thinks children need to be stuffed full of facts (the difference between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics, or between the literary styles of Hemingway and Fitzgerald) and that when schools try to allow students to build knowledge based on their own interests, all hell breaks loose.

He hates the idea that, in this age of the internet, students should be taught to find the answers to things they don't know instead of preemptively memorizing everything. They need to have all that stuff in their heads, on call, 24-7. He sets up this silly strawman example:
Imagine going to a cardiologist with complaints about chest pains and being told that the doctor would have to take a moment to look up what is known about arterial blockage, because this was not covered in medical school. Imagine describing to an attorney how police officers broke into one’s home without a search warrant and being told by this lawyer that this sounds like an interesting predicament that he or she would have to research, because such issues were not part of the law school curriculum.
The straw is poking out all around there. A cardiologist is a specialist; a lawyer is a specialist. (Although you shouldn't be surprised if you went to a lawyer who specializes in contracts with your Fourth Amendment problem and found that lawyer had to look up a few things, or even begged off of helping you at all.) K-12 students are not specialists.

Davison is concerned that kids don't know the difference between the Roman and Byzantine empires. I'm more concerned that they don't get a grounding in computer programming, personally. But you have to realize that you can't teach everything or even most things -- there is too much knowledge. You have to teach how to learn. You have to encourage curiosity.

Davison's rant reminds me of this post by Joi Ito of the Media Lab at MIT. Ito wrote:
I have some amazing friends who tell me that when they were young, they read the dictionary from cover to cover. Other friends of mine have read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

My sister calls me an "interest driven learner." I think that's code for "short attention span" or "not a good long term planner" or something like that. I can't imagine being able to read the dictionary from cover to cover. In fact, I don't think most people could sit down and read the dictionary from cover to cover.

Although reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia from cover to cover may seem a bit extreme, it often feels like that's what we're asking kids to do who go through formal education....

Personally, I find the dictionary, the encyclopedia and videos online as excellent resources when I need to learn something. I find the need to learn things every day in the course of pursuing interests, preparing for meetings and interacting with exciting people. I'm extremely motivated to learn and I learn a lot.
It's an oversimplification to say that kids don't need to be taught anything at all. For instance, it's hard to find your spelling error if your spelling is so far from accurate that it's unrecognizable to a spell checker or can't be found near the real spelling in a dictionary. But the idea that E.D. Hirsch's "cultural literacy" or the now-hot Core Curriculum will save us is even farther from the right path.


Oh, big shock. A quick google of Gary Marvin Davison's name turns up his alliance with anti-teachers' union groups. So his op-ed is a better counterpoint to the two letters to the editor than I had thought at the outset.

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