Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Biggest Problem with Schools: Tradition

I've finally found something with which every single education reformer can agree: the biggest problem facing our schools today is tradition. We do so many things for no other reason than because that's the way they were done in the past.

Why should everybody agree with this? Below is a list of various solutions that people push and how tradition keeps them from happening:

School Choice
Every neighborhood has, traditionally, had its own school. The neighborhood builds, maintains, and governs these schools for the use of locals -- not for the use of people from other neighborhoods -- and is used to spending their money on their schools; not on sending children to other people's schools.

Smaller Classes
Classes have, traditionally, been somewhere between 20-40 kids. Classrooms are built for classes this size.

Longer School Year
Traditionally, schools have taken the summer off to allow people to move to different places (not to harvest crops -- that's a myth) and then have everybody start fresh, at the same level, when September rolls around. Summer camps, swim team, family vacation, etc. are all scheduled for the summer when school's out.

A More Progressive Pedagogy
Traditionally, the teacher has been the "sage on the stage" and run a mini dictatorship in the their classroom. In other words: teachers teach the way they were taught, not the way they were taught to teach.

Smaller Schools
Traditionally, schools have housed all of the students from a certain region. Those regions coalesce around their schools to attend school plays, high school football games, etc. In some places, very little property is available where another school could open.

Banish Unions
Traditionally, teachers in many places have belonged to unions. The current contracts have been negotiated by unions. Unions have influenced the salary schedule, work rules, seniority, etc.

Recruit/Retain Better Teachers
Traditionally, most teachers have been females who had few better career options. Now that the most successful female students can enter just about any field, the teaching field continues to attract and retain people who don't feel they or rather would not pursue employment in other fields.

I could go on and on, but I think those are most of the major reform ideas floating around right now. In each case, the biggest hindrance to the idea's implementation is tradition. Still unconvinced? Here are a few other examples of ways in which tradition influences decisions:

-College professors assign hundreds of pages of reading each week, not because it's the best pedagogy but because that's what they did when they were college students.
-Grad schools assign comprehensive exams, not necessarily b/c it helps the students in any particular way but b/c the people in charge all had to take comprehensive exams when they were in grad school.
-Report cards are sent home each semester with letter or number grades (which are virtually identical across schools), not because this necessarily serves a purpose, but b/c that's the way it's always been done.
-Teachers at all levels often use textbooks as the main way to educate their class -- certainly not because textbooks are always fantastic but, rather, b/c that's the way people have always done it.

Ok, that's enough. None of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but ask yourself this: if you were starting a school from scratch -- blank slate, you can do anything you want -- how many of those would you want done in the same way they are now? And you're not allowed to use the phrase "when I was in school" in your justification.

The point is this: people are comfortable doing things the way they've always been done. But we can't eliminate either tradition or human nature, so what's the solution? I don't know exactly, but here are some things to think about:

First of all, I guarantee you that none of those ideas, alone, are a silver bullet -- and everybody needs to come to grips with that. Let me repeat: there is no silver bullet. No one idea is going to magically transform our schools. As such, it's not worth losing your temper when your pet reform meets some opposition.

With that said, I think we also need to realize that a great deal of the opposition to the ideas we know will magically transform the schools comes from human nature, not ill will. Not everybody who doesn't implement your reform is a bad person. I have a lot of pet peeves around education reform, but I'll tell you my top one: when reformers blame the people in place for not implementing their reform correctly.

Time after time we see studies of education reform done and almost all of them find either no changes to results or very small ones. At this finding the people who were sure that the reform would work work become indignant -- "the curriculum is solid, but the teachers just kept teaching the way they've always taught" or some such complaint. In other words, "if they just would've done things exactly as I wanted them done . . ."

Well, let me give you hint: nobody will ever do things exactly the way that you want them done. And they certainly won't do them that way if you simply go in and demand that they be done that way. Too many people forget to factor in whether the people they're trying to change a.) want to do things that way and b.) know how to do things that way. In this case, if the teachers didn't want to and/or know how to implement the curriculum correctly, it is a failure of your reform. Part of the job of a reformer or policymaker is to take into account how people will respond to the new policy/reform. Things don't always work out as planned, and when that happens you can chalk it up to human nature on the part of the reformees and lack of understanding of human nature on the part of the reformers.

So, in short, the first step to overcoming the limitations that tradition is placing on our school is this: understand that tradition that's holding us back. Then try and find a way to change tradition. And remember, changing a tradition is hard.


The Science Goddess said...

I think part of the issue is that since there is no "silver bullet," many people have a "why bother" attitude about change. If something isn't going to be better than what's happening now, what's the point in making the change?

We need to confront educators with the need for change (use data) so that they at least realize that whatever is currently happening isn't the right thing.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Part of implementing a reform is to gain buy-in from the people on the ground. I would think that part of gaining that buy-in is convincing them that reform will work.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your assumption that eliminating unions is a type of positive reform for schools. I taught in schools with unions and without unions (private schools, schools in non-union states): There was no difference in teacher quality due to the presence of unions. In fact, non-unionized private schools often had worse teachers because they were not subject to credentialing requirements, and the schools were not subject to state standardized test requirements.

As state employees, teachers are treated similarly to other government employees in terms of salary scales, hiring and firing. With or without unions, government employees are generally paid on a length of service + educational attainment scale. My question: Why would eliminating teacher unions have much of an effect on schools?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I wasn't making a list of positive reforms. I was making a list of reforms that various groups are pushing for.

Anonymous said...

Ah, thanks for clarifying, Corey. I couldn't tell from your list if you were advocating for these reforms or simply noting possible avenues of change.

mmazenko said...

Attorney DC makes a valid, and truly fundamental, point about blaming unions for performance in schools. The best schools in the country have tenured union staff just as the worse do. Thus, there is a clearly a lack of causality in unions producing poor results.

Additionally, one of the proposals is to hire better staff, but the working conditions, as well as pay and benefits and the integrity of the environment, are the primary motivations for taking a position. Over the last century, unions have played a key role in insuring those conditions for teachers.

Speaking from experience, I have been in union and non-union schools, as well as in right-to-work versus non-right-to-work states, and the problems of the system simply cannot be diluted to a labor issue. Currently, I am not in my union, but I am not opposed to collective bargaining, and I am unwilling to simply point to unions as a cause of poor school performance.

Anonymous said...

Mazenko: Thanks for supporting my comment about unions & teaching. I'm always surprised when analysts posit a causal relationship between union membership and teacher quality. I've honestly seen no noticeable effect of unions on teaching. Unions may keep some lower performing teachers in the schools, but they also may prevent the arbitrary dismissal of high performing teachers by principals who are basing their decisions on something other than teacher quality.

In terms of setting hours, salary, etc. - as I noted, these are pretty similar in unionized public schools and non-unionized public schools. Teachers are government employees, and are governed by similar hiring, firing and compensation policies. Until someone shows me an objective study that demonstrates the effect of unions quality, I'm going to stand by my position.