Education dilemmas require new ideas
Let's talk about Portland Public Schools.
With school board elections around the corner, our community is once again set to do battle over the usual suspects:
• Low academic achievement
• Ineffective teaching methods
• Financial mismanagement (usually focused on 'highly paid administrators')
• Unchecked influence wielded by the teachers union
These are serious issues that I believe cannot be resolved by a tax increase, nor by mindless idealism. These same issues plagued the school system even when the district's vaults were swollen with revenue.
Andrew Coulson, the author of 'Market Education,' thinks he's figured out how to solve these seemingly perpetual issues. He visited Portland recently with clear eyes and a sincere heart. Here's a summary of his ideas:
• Curriculum Ð The idea that centralizing and standardizing curricula will lead to sound educational decisions has been proven false by hard, sad evidence. A standardized curriculum lacks the necessary incentive structure to make educators focus on results rather than on theories of how children should learn.
• Achievement gaps Ð Desegregation was intended to improve the education of black students. Ironically, it curtailed the excellence of what had been top-notch black schools. If parents had been allowed to choose their own schools rather than being forced to relocate their children elsewhere, much would have been achieved.
Coulson wants a system that identifies areas in which students are weak, then provides them with graduated sequences of worksheets that build confidence, proficiency and eventually mastery in a wide range of skills.
'We see our current systems as indistinguishable from the goals they are meant to achieve,' he says. 'As a result, any reform that significantly alters the way schooling is provided is now mistakenly seen as an attack on the whole idea of public education.'
• Funding Ð Coulson says that since our current approach to public schooling is falling so far short of expectations, we must be prepared to consider a wide variety of alternatives.
• School choice Ð If a school system based on parental choice and competition can do a better job of fulfilling both individual needs and shared social goals, we owe it to our children and ourselves to make that system widely available.
In the end, what you think of Coulson's ideas should not matter much. Something is fundamentally flawed in the current system. If we truly care about solving serious educational problems, we will have to look beyond our emotions and ask what truly works. Not much has worked on the achievement front lately, budget constraints and politics aside.
That's why I agree with Coulson that at the very least, we owe it to our children to openly debate the merits of reintroducing market incentives in education, devoid of the hostility that has become the norm in recent debates.