Hold on, hold on. Keep the money coming!
The following segment of Rhode Island Association of School Principals Executive Director John Golden’s op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal struck me as noteworthy — taken in context of his declaration that public education ought to be left to educators — and his appearance on Dan Yorke’s show today deepened the concerns that the passage originally raised:
Rhode Island principals and teachers are engaged in a reform effort that is unprecedented in this state and — this is the impressive part — American school reform. In Rhode Island, there have been sweeping changes in how we approach student literacy, how we structure secondary schools, how we award diplomas, how we create school cultures that meet student needs, and how we intervene when students perform below standard. The impact of these changes can already be seen in our schools, but the full affect will not be felt for years.
And there’s the rub. For the reasons cited above, it appears that neither the General Assembly nor Governor Carcieri is willing to wait to see the current reform initiatives through to fruition. By flat-funding education for 2007-08, the legislature is in effect starving the reform effort and ensuring that the people needed to make change happen — literacy coaches, performance-based-graduation-requirements coordinators, and curriculum leaders — will be lost to tight budgets. For his part, the governor has alternated between celebrating the gains made and expressing frustration that the pace of change is not fast enough.
Of course, experts ought to be prominent in public decisions. The testimony of military leaders (for example) ought to carry substantial weight as Americans decide whether a particular war effort is worth continuing. Just so, education specialists certainly ought to be heeded when it comes to public decisions about our educational system. That necessity, however, only highlights the fact that the public ought to have the final call.
On Yorke’s show, for example, Golden argued that schools in states that emphasize mandatory standardized testing may tend to lower standards in order to make it look as if more students are passing. But Rhode Island’s supposed alternative is a more comprehensive evaluation system — involving such folks as “performance-based-graduation-requirements coordinators” — that allows for more subjective, student-specific criteria. Wouldn’t that be susceptible to inflation, as well? I’d suggest that the public’s intuition is correct in preferring standards with an external standard that they can understand and trust.
Similarly, Golden’s plea for continued funding emphasizes the necessity of specialty teachers, but he doesn’t appear able to show improvements commensurate with the larger workforce. What strikes me with this is that kids start fresh, so the fruits of new paradigms might reasonably be expected to be increasingly visible with each successive class. (Perhaps such efforts on the part of educators as entering children into regional and national competitions of one sort or another might make improvements more visible.) The reality is that Rhode Islanders are looking at a state with fleeing and faltering middle and upper classes. A plea for money must take into account money’s scarcity.
And there — I’d suggest — is the rub. Mr. Golden, and those of his profession, ought to marry each public appeal for money with a public appeal to teachers and other educators to step back a bit and let the benefits of efforts of which they (at least) must be aware become more widely known. If the Goldens of the industry aren’t able to show explicit and tangible advances, and if those implementing the reforms continue to behave as if they are mainly motivated to get as much as they possibly can each year — rather than placing their hopes increasingly in the future — why should the public trust that more time will bring more than a another request for more time and (of course) money?