10 maxims on education, from three vantage points

Posted9/16/2014 1:01 AM

With students going back to school, it's a good time to review the 10 lessons that Americans should have learned if they were paying attention during the last few decades of debating education reform.

Once a student and also a teacher, I am now the parent of school-age children. So I can see this debate from three vantage points.


(1) The stew of educational success has these essential ingredients: The student has to be serious and committed to doing well, his or her parents have to be invested in their child's education and committed to the same goal, and the schools have to produce an environment where all children can achieve at grade level with, as the law says, "no child left behind" and no child held back.

(2) Low expectations by teachers are the root of much of the evils that plague our public schools and prevent students from achieving their fullest potential. Young people are naturally curious and have much more capacity to learn than they are sometimes given credit for. And when educators make counterproductive assumptions about who can succeed and who can't, they set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(3) While most educators won't admit it, race and class do matter. Ability grouping, also known as tracking, is illegal in many states, but it still occurs because of necessity. It helps teachers manage a classroom of 20 to 25 students who learn at different speeds. Latinos and African-Americans, along with economically disadvantaged whites, are often assumed to come from families that don't value education.

(4) Measuring teacher performance is a slippery process, in part because of the age-old debate in education about whether good and effective teaching is an art or a science. If art, then its value may be in the eye of the beholder. But if science, then its value can be empirically measured through student performance. And rewards or penalties can be doled out to encourage better outcomes.

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(5) When attempting any kind of education reform, whether we're talking about setting standards or strengthening accountability or gauging student performance through regular exams, we should always assume that changing the system will be a long and difficult ordeal because public schools routinely put the convenience of the adults who work there before the interests of the children who learn there.

(6) Educators will protest that they can't be blamed for the poor performance of students that come from disadvantaged or dysfunctional homes that might keep them from doing well in school. But you'll notice that this doesn't stop those who teach from taking their share of credit for the high performance of other students who come from healthy and positive environments that might help them do well in school.

(7) Teachers often make the worst students. They resist adopting new teaching methods, and often fall back into old habits of leading classrooms the way they have for decades even though the student population has changed dramatically in that time. They are especially hostile to being challenged by non-teachers, insisting that only those who have been in the classroom have the right to discuss what happens in one.

(8) One constant obstacle to reform is that many teachers see the classroom as their own personal office space, where they carry out their daily assignment just like other employees do in the private sector. And even though teachers are on the public payroll, they sometimes resist curriculum changes or accountability measures as unfair and unhelpful attempts to invade their space and meddle with their work.


(9) As proponents of Common Core learned the hard way, not every parent in America welcomes the idea of making sure students in different states and school districts have the same curriculum. For those parents who feel shortchanged by the current system, "same" means fairness. But for those who are content with their child's school and worry about dumbing down the subject matter, "same" means shared mediocrity.

(10) Finally, the politics of education reform are a mess. The issue splits both parties. Some Democrats see education as a civil right, and demand high academic benchmarks, while others cater to teachers unions by fighting attempts to achieve accountability. Some Republicans think the federal government has a responsibility to devise and enforce accountability measures, while others insist on local control.

Keep these lessons in mind as Americans re-engage the debate over education reform. All in pursuit of the crucial goal of making sure our public schools serve all students equitably, effectively and efficiently.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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