Some things better left to those who are expertsPublished 11:24am Friday, April 8, 2011
Although it is a noble profession, there are some drawbacks to being a teacher. One of them is that many people think that they could do it better.
Same goes for the whole business of education. People whose knowledge of education is confined to being a student and, perhaps, voting in a couple of school board elections, think they know how education should work.
That might have been a valid opinion back in the 1800’s when so many children were learning in multi-grade, one-room schoolhouses. It’s a safe bet, however, that even those teachers of yore actually knew quite a bit more about their jobs than did the average farmer or shopkeeper.
Today, trying to make changes in how education is done or how classrooms are run is a minefield where even experts ought to tread warily.
Unfortunately, that is not how it works, because a lot of the big decisions about education policy and finances are literally made by committee — and often by a committee that has no knowledge of what students need, what teachers need or how the whole thing should be managed.
In Minnesota, we call that committee the Legislature.
Besides the various plans that legislators and committees of legislators have proposed for evaluating and paying teachers, there are plans for evaluating whole school districts — plans that have flaws so obvious and so deep that one can only hope that the authors will soon smile and say, “just kidding.”
Consider the plan that was part of the House K-12 finance bill this year. It calls for schools to be assigned a letter grade — A to F, just like students — that reflects how well its students do on state tests. Schools that get an A, or which improve their grade from year to year, would get bonus money from the state.
That sounds good if one doesn’t think about it too hard — just like the House when it approved the plan.
The lure of money might inspire some schools to do better, if they could do it without any extra resources. Giving money to the winners would do nothing to help those which are not doing well – and which presumably are the schools which most need the extra resources. It’s a great system if the goal is to create a huge divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” But is that really what Minnesota is all about?
On the other hand, is it fair or wise to funnel all the money to failing schools?
It’s a tough question.
Nor does the House plan match its letter grades to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which means schools might face some tough choices. Kind of like having two teachers in a classroom, each using her own rules for grading. There’s a reason things aren’t done that way.
The real problem, however, is in the notion that education success can be boiled down into a five-letter rating scale. a century-old system for grading individual students really apply to large and complex organizations? Not really. In fact, it’s not even clear that A-F grades are a good way to assess individual students’ work.
(By the way, the simple A-F plan came from a freshman Republican representative who lives in a wealthy Twin Cities suburb – and whose education and primary work experience is in accounting.)
The only things that the House’s A-F rating plan has going for it are this: It’s easy to explain and it gives the appearance of firm action by lawmakers.
If we really want to accomplish something — better education for the state’s children — it is going to take a better plan than most elected officials can devise, even if they are certified public accountants.
The smart move, just as with determining teacher evaluations, would be to appoint a highly qualified panel to devise a plan, which would then have the force of law. Would the plan be perfect? No. Would it be better than a committee of lawmakers can devise? Certainly.
Lawmakers don’t design bridges or make health diagnoses. They shouldn’t try to design an educational system either, at least not without a whole lot of expert and professional help.