Lessons Learned as a Student of Education Reform- Part 2- On Freedom

Introduction

In my first post, On Thrift, I wrote about how current education reform policies often fail to demonstrate that virtue by wasting time, money, and human potential. For this follow-up post, I am going to look at education reform policies through the lens of another American ideal, freedom.

My family has a long history of service in the United States military, going back to my 6th Great Grandfather who fought with the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War and continuing on to this day. When you have or had loved ones who served in the military, the expression “freedom is not free” takes on a deeper, more personal meaning. The sacrifices our military members make to defend our country and help protect their fellow citizens are gifts beyond measure.

One reason I especially admire those who follow a calling to serve in the military is because I don’t think I would be very good at it. Not everyone is cut out for military service, just like many are not cut out for another challenging public-service profession- teaching. Teachers provide a crucial service to society by taking on the responsibility for educating not just their own, but other people’s children. I think we are all aware of the myriad benefits that come with a more educated society- greater earning potential, more innovation, less crime, higher levels of happiness and stability- but unless you have been a teacher, it is hard to understand the unique challenges of providing that education.

Just as our nation determined a long time ago that we would be stronger and safer with an organized military, our system of public schooling, offering education for free and to all, has set us apart from many other nations in terms of offering our citizens opportunities to progress both intellectually and economically. Has this system always worked fairly and perfectly? No, and there is still much improvement to be made, but it is often taken for granted how unique and successful our education system has been in America in terms of offering a quality of life and economic growth that surpasses much of the world.

Many people view members of the military as protectors of the freedoms we cherish as Americans. I would argue that teachers also serve to protect freedom, the mental freedom of their students, and this is a crucial benefit to our democracy as well. Teachers provide the foundational knowledge and support the development of critical thinking skills that are necessary for young people to become responsible and engaged members of our society.

Given the importance of freedom to both our nation’s past and future, and the role that education plays in maintaining our freedom, it is worth examining how education policies make us more or less free. Here I will consider three broad policy areas- school choice, local control, and accountability.

School Choice

School choice policies have the most obvious connection to freedom. The rationale behind school choice policies goes something like this- Wealthy people have always had school choice because they can afford to move to the school zone they desire or pay for a private school. For families without those financial resources, their education choices are limited. Their home address dictates the school their children will attend and that’s that.

In neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, the schools are often less academically successful for many reasons- they have a harder time attracting teachers, the ability of families to volunteer and contribute to the school may be less, the children may be dealing with health issues or hunger that hinders their ability to focus and learn, crime is higher, and so on.  When families struggle, schools struggle.

School choice policies have represented a way for families to have other options than the school they are zoned to attend. Whether charter schools, voucher programs, within or between district choice, magnet schools, or personalized savings accounts, these are all attempts to provide parents with choices in where they send their children to school. School choice policies are intended to increase parents’ freedom to choose their children’s school. In many respects they achieve this goal, but there are some important caveats to consider.

The quality of school choice options is an issue. Charter schools started out with the idea that they would be locally-created labs of innovative education practices, yet they have become a highly profitable industry, and many schools have been shut down over issues with poor quality and financial mismanagement. With vouchers, the value of a voucher is often not sufficient to cover the cost of tuition at a high-quality private school, so low-income families are still left at a disadvantage. The disruption of moving from one school to another, and then perhaps another, comes at a cost to learning and the development of social relationships.

Furthermore, what about the families who, despite school choice policies, are still unable to choose? Parents may be disinterested or unaware of their options, or are not able to provide their own transportation to another school, or face waiting lists at the high-quality choice schools.

So do school choice policies increase freedom? On the surface level, yes, but with deeper consideration, I would argue that in some respects they don’t. They move us away from a system of education as a public good where the emphasis is on making every public school a good choice for students, so that they are able to attend a free school in their community with the assurance that they are receiving a quality education. They move us toward a system where individuals are pressured to choose, and to try to make the best choice to benefit their own child, and where those with higher levels of income, education, and social capital are still privileged. Choice needs to truly be a choice, not a signal that society has given up on improving the local public school, and the choices need to be good ones, if school choice policies are to genuinely increase freedom.

Local Control

Since the early days of our public school system, local control has been a priority. The federal government is not supposed to dictate to states how to structure and manage their school systems. Within states, much control is delegated to the school districts and school boards, with the understanding that those closest to the schools and students have the best knowledge of how they should be run.

There has been a shift in the past couple decades toward an increased federal role in education that has been accompanied with a rise in federal funding for schools. The Race to the Top program is the clearest example of this, with the government offering funds to states for education during the economic recession when this funding was sorely needed, if states would adopt certain programs and policies that the federal government laid out. This included adoption of uniform standards (aka Common Core) and teacher evaluation systems that took into account student test scores (aka VAM- Value-Added Measurement) among other reforms. The vast majority of states took the bait, applied for Race to the Top, and some were rewarded with funding. The outcomes of the policy implementation related to Race to the Top have been marked by controversy and discord.

The shift of local control to the state and federal levels represents a shift away from citizen ownership and authority over school systems and toward control by bureaucrats and corporations. Why corporations? Many of the education reform policies related to the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation rely on standardized testing to enact. Teacher evaluation and school accountability policies require test scores and the tests are based on standards, with states preferably having the same standards to create a unified system. In order for schools to teach those standards, they purchase curricula created specifically to align with them. Corporations create the curricula and the tests, so these education reform policies have served to hand a lot of the authority for what is being taught, how it is being taught, and how it is being assessed over to these companies, along with a ton of money. The shift away from the local control of schools represents a loss of the average citizen’s freedom to impact their local school district or school, and of educators’ freedom to run their schools, teach, and assess in the manner they find most productive.

Accountability

Local control and accountability policies are closely related, but where I wrote more about the policy aspect above, I will look more at the personal aspect here. In the introduction, I asserted that teaching is a unique and challenging public service profession where teachers strive to provide their students with mental freedom- the freedom to think in a logical, critical, and informed way. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a crisis in the profession, with those willing to take on the role of teacher diminishing. Why is this? There are many reasons, and freedom is one. The very freedom that teachers work to provide to their students is being stripped from their profession. Rather than granting teachers the authority to create their own lessons, teach at the pace and in the manner they find best, and assess their own students’ learning, teachers are being micromanaged, their time for instruction limited, and their authority usurped. People lament the loss of respect for the teaching profession, yet many of the reform policies being enacted contribute to that lack of respect. I loved teaching, and still love working with young people, discussing important issues and encouraging their development. Yet I would not want to teach in the public school system given its current constraints and I empathize with others who feel the same. Without autonomy, the chance to be creative, and the chance to exercise professional judgment, what is left of teaching? Accountability policies reliant on strict adherence to standards, schedules, curricula, and standardized tests will continue to turn bright young people away from the profession and lead to burnout among existing teachers. Have accountability policies limited teachers’ freedom? Undoubtedly. They have also limited students’ freedom to have a say in their own learning, to be judged on more than their test scores, and to experience an education environment controlled by teachers and students more than bureaucrats and corporations.

Am I arguing that there should be no standards, curricula, or tests? No- just that the emphasis placed on them within the current system is much greater than the actual value they bring to the learning process. Standards can be used as guidelines, curriculum can be created or chosen by teachers, and testing can also be done largely at the classroom level, with the role of standardized testing returning to the level it occupied not so long ago.

Conclusion

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There are reasons that policies are created. The question is, are they the right reasons and are they worth it? The specific question here is, are these education policies worth the trade-offs in freedom for what is gained, whether that is more data, more accountability, or more choices? Just like we debate safety versus privacy concerns, we can debate whether the additional information we gather through testing and the control exerted over what teachers teach is worth it compared to the limitations placed on the school and local levels. I tend to err on the side of freedom, for teachers, students, and citizens, to run our own schools and school systems with as little interference as possible. Although there are opportunities for school choice policies to increase individual freedom, there should also be consideration of education as a public good, and prioritizing the development of a system that provides the freedom a good education brings to all students. It isn’t simple, but this is an ideal we shouldn’t give up on.