The underlying problem in education is depressingly difficult to repair.
Perhaps my favorite moment in all of music ever comes in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The music is a bouncy march, and in the libretto, the singers are proclaiming an intent to take paradise by storm, like “a victor.” The mood changes suddenly, however, and I’ve always thought it a deliberate statement that you can’t get to Heaven with that attitude.
The school choice movement had something of that feel a decade ago. Advocates thought their solution obvious, and expected to sweep the country, but it didn’t happen. The reason wasn’t special interests (i.e., teachers unions); that fight was invigorating. The problem was that the advocates marched forward, thinking they had a wave of support behind them, and when they turned around, their political soldiers were standing around looking at their shoes.
So, it often happens that I’ll see an essay like this, from Laura Williams and get that ol’ feeling of certainty of a solution:
Everywhere in education, you see incentives at work. The incentives, though, are so far removed from the actual goals of education that they produce perverse results.
Goodhart’s Law is usually stated, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
Problem: When you set targets, like results on tests (especially standardized tests), the system will retool to improve those results, whether or not that serves the actual mission. We should note, of course, that public schools aren’t even accomplish improved test scores, which is where the special interests come into play. For that reason, we can’t trust the system that can’t even teach to the test to teach to a much mushier standard that the same system sets internally.
Solution: Make family choice the metric. Families want what’s best for their children, right? So, let them choose their schools, and the schools that gain students will be the ones that best serve them. Metric and purpose meet!
For the depressing twist, turn to Providence, where a parent reported to the new mayor, Brett Smiley, referring to the likelihood that the system is going to closer her children’s school:
“It’s a neighborhood school, it’s a family, it’s a community,” Michelle Miller, a Providence parent, said. “I was heartbroken. I was devastated. It needs improvements, but I don’t believe it’s crumbling, if it’s crumbling. And if it’s so devastating, why are our children still being housed there for the next six months?”
The building isn’t the point. Providence schools have failed generations of children regardless of the physical structures. Parents should be anxious and outraged, and in fairness, many have been. Those parents, however, have moved or found ways to utilize private schools or charters. Those who don’t do so must value their schools based on different criteria — that they are neighborhood schools, families, communities. The teachers feel like members of those “families,” not outside professionals hired to do a job. Meanwhile, the teacher unions cultivate the sense among their members that they are essentially replaceable servants whom the community will abuse absent strong representation.
And so, we need tests (especially standardized tests) to ensure that communities aren’t abused in the other direction, and the story of education remains the battle between a sense of neighborhood, family, and community and an organizational imperative for the unions to prove their value to their members. A system like this can’t be reformed by a storm of facts and smart policy. It requires painstaking community-building, little by little, done patiently.
But nobody has incentive to do that for long, and so the problem will never be fixed. The parents of school children are generational, and every generation has to relearn the lessons of the system’s reality.
Featured image by Vahid Moeini Jazani on Unsplash.