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Brand New Year, Same Old Educational Problems

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Well, here we are in the new year folks. It promises to be a good one: full, no doubt, of great examples of teachers and students rising above the nonsense that continues to find its way into our national conversation about education. And full, too, of even more of that nonsense than usual.

How do I know? It's a presidential election year. Get ready.

Let's start with this one: over in another corner of this website, Andrew Ujifusa is reporting that our candidates for president aren't taking a break from one of their favorite sports—complaining about education. Specifically, he provides a link to a video of Republican Marco Rubio accusing President Obama of "trying to take over our schools with common core." I've said before that President Obama's Department of Education may be as guilty of overreach as any cabinet department has ever been, but I can't help but chuckle as I think about a presidential candidate complaining about arbitrary misuse of executive authority...while claiming that he will arbitrarily use his executive authority to undo everything his predecessor did that he deems "unconstitutional." Who needs courts anyway?

What's not worth chuckling about is Rubio's complete misunderstanding of what Common Core is and where it came from—or, if not that, his shameless pandering. No, the standards were not issued by Obama via executive fiat, and, no, they were not forced on any states—certainly not by the federal government. You can complain that more teachers should have been involved in writing the standards, and you can hem and haw about how hard it is for parents to do their kids' homework now that Common Core has come to town, and you can complain that informational text isn't as awesome as fiction is. I can accept all of those excuses for disliking Common Core, even if I disagree with them. But it's not a federal takeover of your local schools. No. This isn't a value judgment, it's a statement of fact. Enough already.

But, wait, there's more. If you need another example of why politicians—and, maybe most especially, presidential candidates—shouldn't tak about education, go here and watch this video.

If you went, you know that was Hillary Clinton talking about schools. What she said was this: "I wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing a better than average job." Clinton appears to have been ad-libbing when she said this, and, friends, maybe she was. Why not? Say the wrong thing about Wall Street and the economy might tank; say the wrong thing about ISIS and the terrorists might win. Say the wrong thing about education and...wait, what's the wrong thing to say about education again? Just stick to platitudes like "I wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing a better than average job," and be done with it. Where's the harm in that?

Well, let's think about this for a second. As my friend Jake Knaus, an elementary school teacher and Teacher Policy Fellow with MinnCAN, an organization that promotes public education in Minnesota, put it: "Here's why studying math is important, kids." Let me let him explain:

In order to have an "average," one, by definition, needs to have half the sample above and half the sample below the average. The logical conclusion is that there would be no schools open at all, if all of the "below average" schools are closed every year.

Jake's point is that you can't just shut down all the below average schools (just like you can't replace all the below average teachers) because as soon as you do you readjust what it means to be average. If you had, say, a hundred teachers lined up in a row according to their effectiveness—and, no, don't even get me started on how we could ever actually do that; just hang with me for a second—and if the distribution of effectiveness was pretty even (which is what would have to happen for there to be an average in the first place), then replacing the bottom ten with teachers who used to be average or better (above below average, to be precise) would re-establish the average. 

What this means, of course, is that a new "bottom ten" would emerge. They would, presumably, be the second-worst ten in the previous lineup—numbers 80-89 in the lineup of worst teachers, because the last bottom ten would have been replaced by new "average" teachers. Stop right there. Two questions have to be raised. The first one is: where are these new "average" teachers going to come from? Assuming we ever could agree on what makes a teacher above average, below average, or simply average (student standardized achievement test scores, anyone?), would we find new above average teachers simply by creating them out of thin air? Are they currently riding the pines at hedge funds waiting for their big break? We are surely not going to find them in colleges and universities. If we thought that was possible we'd already be making them, not allowing new teachers to bypass teacher education altogether.

The more important question is even harder to answer: where does it end? At some point, if we keep replacing the bottom ten in the distribution, the bottom ten has to become what we previously thought of as "average." Eventually, the teachers occupying the top ten in the distribution to begin with would be overtaken and would become the bottom ten themselves. Right? Maybe Hillary Clinton wants to create a new entity, the Lake Wobegon Federal Opportunity School District: "Where Every Teacher, and Every School, Is Above Below Average." Or maybe this is all nonsense. I think they call it "continuous improvement."

Whatever it is, it ain't common sense—which is what presidential candidates always seem to be wanting to sell us. Common sense dictates that an average is made an average because something is above it and something is below it. To shut down all the below average schools—I should say, to not keep them open—isn't a real policy position. It's the kind of claim you make when you want people to think you know something about something you don't really know enough about. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt had a word for it, and I think you know what it is.

Maybe Clinton, like Rubio, was simply playing to the base, assuming Clinton's base believes that nettlesome feds have a nasty habit of making life harder for good schools while below average schools get a free ride. Who knows? All I know is that the hardest work being done in education right now is being done in those schools that struggle the most to meet the needs of students, and a lot of that work is being done by teachers who want desperately to see their students succeed—even if it means submitting to a shameless federal takeover of education. Instead of shutting them down, it would be nice to see our public leaders support the work of these teachers for a change. I'd much rather listen to them talk about how they're going to do that.

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