Tuesday, January 23, 2007

COLUMN -- State of the State fell short on real education reform

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:57 PM |  

Monday, January 22, 2007

Better government, better energy, better health care and better education are part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s vision of a better Minnesota, but in the governor’s state-of-the-state address, the greatest of these is education. The governor spent almost half his speech on education, detailing very specific proposals, which will be debated, modified, rejected or implemented by the 2007 legislature.

The proposals themselves were the focus of post-speech punditry. Legislators liked some, disliked others and were ready with proposals of their own. That’s a good thing in the sense that the more discussion of more ideas the better. But at the end of the day, parents that have packed their kids off to public school for any length of time recognize the pattern – jump on the latest education fad, run with it for a while until something shinier comes along, then lunge at it.

Never mentioned in the analysis of the governor’s education proposals is the far more fundamental question, why does Minnesota’s education system look the way it does? If we don’t someday tackle the “why” question, we’re doomed to that never-ending cycle of fad-to-fancy education policy. Education “reform,” which is what the governor is shooting for, is less about what we do and more about how decide to do what we do.

The beginning is a very good place to start, so let’s start with “dough.” The governor was absolutely correct when he said that debating the level of funding consumes most of the oxygen in the room, and very little time gets spent on reforms. But his solution – “let me address funding up-front” – is exactly the wrong approach. It puts the proverbial cart before the horse.

The biggest criticism of the state’s approach to education is that all it does is throw money at problems. Starting by throwing money is a bad start. Everyone seems to agree that education needs reform, so doesn’t it make more sense to look first at reform in terms of what it is we are trying to achieve? Then we can determine how to measure what we’re trying to achieve, determine what it takes to get to our goals, and finally determine what that will cost and how we will pay for it.

If education is as important as we make it out to be then we should spend no less and no more than is necessary. Education policy should neither contract nor expand to accommodate an arbitrary budget number.

“American high schools are obsolete,” said the governor. That’s not a policy problem – it’s a process problem. Before we can talk about fixing the current education system, we need to ask how did we get to a point where we’re mandating that our kids attend an obsolete system? How did we let our system become obsolete?

The problem is most certainly an obsolete way of viewing public education.

As long as we view public education as a top-down, expert-driven, one-size-fits-all system that delivers knowledge and skills, we have little hope of any real reform. We’re destined to live with a system that is 75 percent of what anyone wants and half of what anyone needs. Instead of top-down proposals, however well intentioned, we need a bottom-up focus that starts with students.

The governor can tell us, “too many of our high school students are engaged in academic loitering for much of their high school career. In too many cases, our high school students are bored, check-out, coasting and not even vaguely aware of their post-high school plans or opportunities, and they are just marking time.” But only those students can tell us why they are loitering, why they are bored and what would motivate them to check in and make the most of their educational opportunity.

Only teachers, through their local school administrators, can tell the state what each individual school needs to respond to what students want and need. And that will be different for every school district and every school within every district. You want reform education? Turn over responsibility for setting educational objectives and determining and managing budgets to the local school administrator. Make school administrators responsible for justifying their budgets.

You want accountability? Encourage parental school choice so the impact of failing to educate kids is felt immediately at the local level.

Without passing judgment on the worth of the governor’s individual education proposals, what he presented in his state-of-the-state address was an education policy Mulligan, not real reform. Real reform is doing things differently, not simply doing different things.

UPDATE: What Kind of Education Reform Do We Need ? By Tom Neuville, State Senator, District 25.

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