walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Power to Lead, Power to Teach

The big domestic story that we try to cover here at Via Meadia has two dimensions: the breakdown of our old social model, and the construction of something that can one day replace it. We track that story in many fields: education is one of the most important. From K to PhD the old system is expensive, cumbersome and, too often, produces mediocrity or worse.

Yet we don’t need less education in this country. Americans need to learn more, and learn it faster, and learn it in schools that don’t cost more than they can reasonably afford to pay.

A lot of our coverage is necessarily downbeat, as we chronicle the woes of an increasingly dysfunctional system—but we believe that the American story is ultimately one of renewal and innovation rather than of stagnation and decline. All over the country, institutions and organizations are trying new ideas, changing the way they work, cutting unnecessary costs and red tape, and inventing the future on the wreckage of the past.

Charter schools are one example. They are not a panacea, and some work better than others, but they have accomplished some great things, and they are an excellent example of the reconstruction process at work.

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the country’s largest public charter school network, shares some ideas for American education over at the Atlantic:

At KIPP, one of our founding principles is “Power to Lead”—giving principals the autonomy to adapt and innovate within their own schools. They are also able to recruit and hire teachers on their own, and to give those teachers the leeway to teach the way they see fit. In exchange, they have to demonstrate that their approach is producing results for students—through a combination of standards-based testing and other measures—or risk having their charter revoked.

Freeing teachers and principals to do what they do best is a big step. It takes enormous dedication to students and a clear commitment to accountability in order to work. But when all these elements are combined—a clear goal and achievable standards, authority at the school level, and flexibility in the classroom—the results are powerful and transformative. A 2010 independent report by Mathematica found that the vast majority of KIPP schools produced academic gains in math and reading that are significant and substantial…

In the end, all public schools, district and charter, have the same mandate: prepare students to succeed in a knowledge-based economy, not simply to pass an annual basic skills exam. If we are to see that mandate fulfilled on the large scale, school systems will have to return much of the decision-making power to where it needs to be: inside the school walls.

The future is springing up all around us.

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  • Jeff Medcalf

    In related news, I would like to draw your attention to Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative. The initiative helps to found classically-oriented public K12 charter schools emphasizing Western culture and personal responsibility, with a goal of producing wise and virtuous citizens. (Disclosure: I am on the board of the Classical Academy of Columbus.)

  • Anthony

    Freeing teachers and principals to do what they do best…. What does that really mean? Equally, what does preparing students to succeed in a knowledge-based economy entail (K-12)? Renewing public education as WRM intimates is important. Yet aside from subsidiarity, national ideas towards K-12 eduction are all over the map despite cognitive research outlining successful ways of learning.

    Is there a particular American character to our public education given our transethnic character and if so what steps must we take to generate high performing schools nationally – our K-8 future (competence and community) definitely depends on credible power to lead and teach.

  • Olorin

    Last month, I participated in a community theatre production of Equus by Peter Shaffer. After one of the matinees, we held a session for a group from a DC charter school (I know not which one) which had come to see the performance. They had all read the play before coming. The session was remarkable in that all the students involved themselves, asked pointed questions, made relevant comments. This is difficult material. I was very impressed, especially considering these were high school students.

    My overarching concern about education is that we have lost the context. Nothing happens in a vacuum, yet the perspective offered to students begins, essentially, on the day they were born. History, literature, philosophy, culture (music, art, theatre, architecture), religion have all but vanished from the curriculum, replaced with dumbed-down, endlessly boring pap. Students nowadays barely read, let alone write. The students at that Equus talk-back session were so remarkable because they are so rare.

    One of my sons asked me recently whether I thought he ought to return to college. No, I said. Go to the local community college and take an accounting or business course or two. Then start reading the Great Books. You might just start to get what’s missing from today’s liberal arts curriculum: context.

  • http://www.allenmitchum.com Allen Mitchum

    It starts and ends with government workers unions, and specifically in this case, teachers unions. Until we solve the issue of government unions, all of these problems will remain.

    The events in Ohio suggest there is a long, long way to go in educating the public on the threats posed by government unions. In reality, it shouldn’t be difficult – even FDR opposed the unionization of government workers.

  • thibaud

    Charter schools are nice, but the model doesn’t scale.

    Case in point: Reed Hastings of Netflix is a backer of a couple of charter schools in East San Jose (“RocketShip”) that are essentially intensive reading academies for underperforming hispanic kids. While the results have been good, the model has not spread beyond a percent of a percent of the school population, for several reasons:

    a) the charter school operating model is a financial sinkhole

    b) the impressive discipline and focus of RocketShip depends for its results on the intense commitment and allegiance of the parents – and yet hardly any parents are willing to push their kids relentlessly, as this model requires.

    There’s no way around it: schools are extremely expensive, and the culture of the home is by far the biggest driver of school performance. The sad fact is that a very large percentage of American families with school-aged kids do not care about their kids’ education.

    Our biggest problems aren’t financial. They’re cultural.

  • QET

    The problem of education (lack thereof) in this country is due less to what schools & teachers are or are not doing and what students (and their parents) are doing. Which is, nothing. Education today is viewed by the segments of society who suffer most from its lack as something that schools provide and students only passively receive. Students and parents are encouraged to be utterly passive and simply receive what the school gives. It is the government’s job to give “education” and the student’s job merely to sit there and receive it. If students fail, it must be becuase the school is not giving enough or the right things. As is typical across our entire society, any talk of the effort that a student and his parents need to make to ensure an education happens is dismissed as “blaming the victim.” Because the only thing properly demandable of a person is that he simply passively await reception of what it is somebody else’s responsibility to provide. No amount of additional funding and no amount of “innovation” in actively providing the material to the passive recipient is going to alter the present outcome.

  • Anthony

    WRM, example of future springing up all around us: Harvard and MIT team up to fund online courses (EdX), utilizing MITx’s platform.

  • matt

    charter schools = privatizing schools. You state: “but they have accomplished some great things, and they are an excellent example of the reconstruction process at work.”

    actually the data are A LOT more fuzzy than you indicate. the results of charter schools are NO DIFFERENT than public schools. ( please note, the plural of incredible anecdote about hedge fund mgrs. who adopt vanity schools is not data) simply asserting otherwise is nothing more than using this as a cover for what you really think is the problem – unions. blaming everything on unions is not just lazy, its unfair and wrong.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @matt: Even if the data show no difference in outcomes, charter schools are much cheaper. That alone is a gain in efficiency, and not to be sneezed at. If we all we can get is mediocrity in our educational system, at least we can avoid paying top dollar for it. Why pay for a Cadillac and drive a Yugo?

  • Jeff Medcalf

    thibaud, of course it doesn’t scale. Most charter schools are trying to educate people for leadership, and frankly only a small percentage of the population (if we are like most societies, probably under 5%) are capable of leadership, and thus capable of absorbing that kind of education.

    Whatever replaces the blue model will include schools for leaders and tradesmen, as well as the schools for clerks which are what almost all of our current schools (and almost all of our current colleges) actually are.

  • http://www.theparenttrigger.com Bruno Behrend

    Everything scales, and everything starts to work the moment you disolve districts, and have the money follow the child.

    There is no possible way to either save, or improve, the existing model. It isn’t intended to educate, but to employ.

    As for Thibaud’s point about the culture, the fact remains that beaking it down to the parent/child is the only possible solution to that problem.

    Given the difficulty of passing even tepid reform, and the likelihood that reform is co-opted and destoyed in implementation, why not just cut to the chase, and tranform education instead af wasting time “reforming” it.

    Charterize, voucherize, and digitize. Dismantle the existing system. Fund the child, and everything scales to the child. As schools begin to meet childrens’ needs, the spontaneous order will displace the controlled chaos of the decrepit district system.

  • thibaud

    @WRM 10 – “charter schools are much cheaper. That alone is a gain in efficiency, and not to be sneezed at.”

    Now it’s WRM who’s refusing to eat his broccoli.

    Classroom instruction is EXPENSIVE for anyone not paying rock-bottom wages to teachers. The biggest line item in any school operating budget is staff salaries. These will consume 75% to 80% of the budget in any school, be it public or private. There is no way to reduce this ratio without depriving the children of face to face classroom instruction time, which is the essence of effective primary and secondary education.

    Also, what evidence does WRM have for this claim?

    Is he conflating actual charter schools with Catholic Church-supported parochial schools that a) own their real estate, b) can draw upon a global, extraordinarily wealthy parent institution, and c) have exceptionally low teaching salaries in part because so many of their staff have taken a vow of poverty?

    Even if this claim were true – and everything I’ve seen suggests it isn’t – by this weird measure the most “efficient” schools in the world, by far, are going to be those where

    a) instructional salaries are minuscule and
    b) student:teacher ratios are sky-high.

    Paying teachers rock-bottom wages works in the third world. It worked in the Catholic school system, back in the days when there was a steady supply of educated young men and women willing to take a vow of poverty and enter a teaching convent or monastery. It doesn’t work anywhere else.

    As to classroom size, it would be lovely if we all had virtual teachers who could scale their classrooms to serve millions of students, but in reality, humans – especially children – need face to face interaction. Until we change human DNA, schoolchildren will require significant face to face classroom interaction with teachers and peers for at least 30 hours per week, at least 180 days per year.

    As it is, no parent in the US or western Europe is willing to accept the sardine classrooms that you find across Asia and the developing world, where 40 or so kids are packed into a large closet of about 400-500 square feet. When public school classrooms get close to 30 kids in this country, the parents begin filing lawsuits.

    “Efficiency” is a dead-end. Classroom instruction is EXPENSIVE – for any school, except those that pay their teachers peanuts and/or pack 40 kids into a classroom.

  • thibaud

    @11 Bruno – “Fund the child, and everything scales to the child.”

    ? What does “scales to the child” mean? Do you have any experience with school finance or school operating budgets?

    Scale by definition is more outputs with fewer inputs. I’m all for increasing digital education where it makes sense, particularly in rote learning of basic skills in math, language instruction, grammar, logic, maybe chemistry and historical timelines etc. My children do this in an online math program run by Stanford. It’s nice, albeit surprisingly bug-ridden for something created and administered by one of the greatest CS programs in the world, but all in all, it’s just a complement to the face to face instruction they get at school and from their tutor.

    As investor after investor has learned, primary and secondary schools don’t scale because children learn primarily through direct interaction with a real live person, and there’s a hard trade-off between the quality of interaction and the number of students per teacher.

    And the teacher needs to have a good handle on child psychology and behavior, excellent classroom management skills, an even temper, and other traits that, our brave new advances in AI notwithstanding, virtual teachers lack.

    Maybe Miss Siri will evolve to become a super-teacher in 40 or 50 years, but in the meantime, good teachers will continue to be expensive. Cut it any way you wish, but the instructional cost alone, for quality face to face instruction across a basic curriculum, will not be less than $6,000-$7,000 per child per year in an advanced industrial economy.

    Add in foreign languages, science labs, arts and extracurriculars and you’re looking at closer to $9,000 per child per year – for the classroom cost alone.

    Assuming that your students are not going 100% digital, you will then have to account for real estate maintenance, utilities, amortization of capex etc. There’s another $2k per child per year – at scale, mind you, which is not going to be achieved when there is maximum choice and some school facilities attract far less than the optimal enrollment per square foot and others attract far more than optimal enrollment.

    Sorry, folks, but there’s no silver bullet that makes it possible to achieve quality education for millions of kids without paying at least $10k per year per child.

    Until such time as Miss Siri evolves into Miss Jean Brodie, it makes more sense for us to man up and address the roots of our underperformance, which are overwhelmingly cultural and demographic/immigration-related. Slashing the budget and bashing public school teachers won’t address these problems in the slightest.

  • http://www.theparenttrigger.com Bruno Behrend

    Do you have any experience with school finance or school operating budgets?

    Yes. I work with dissident board members, transparency groups, and a wide variety of education reformers across the political spectrum.

    I wrote a tax & education reform plan for IL, the Exec Sum of which can be found here.

    http://extremewisdom.com/wp-content/uploads/fundamental_execsumm.pdf

    School budgets are really district budgets, which are legalized money laundering schemes designed to employ dead wood and mediocre teachers.

    Get rid of districts, and there is plenty of money, even for your 19th century schoolroom.

    I’m all for increasing digital education where it makes sense, particularly…

    Good, then you answer your own question. Break the political back of the bureaucrats and unions, and the scalable part of the model creates itself.

    And the teacher needs to have a good handle on child psychology and behavior, excellent classroom management skills, etc.

    The nation is littered with the people you describe above. They are parents, retired citizens, volunteers, people yearning to break into education and get out of the corporate sector. They are everywhere.

    If every public school fell to rubble tomorrow, 1000s of strip malls would fill up with service providers loaded with these folks delivering better education for a lower price.

    While defenders of the status quo have their studies countering the obvious, Katrina proved that dismantlement, rapid charterization, and scalability are all possible.

    We just need more Hurricanes (or a Galaxy Class starship from the future.)

    Maybe Miss Siri will evolve to become a super-teacher in 40 or 50 years….

    You forget that some students/families are already ready and primed for this. Why prevent them from accessing such providers? The money saved can be plowed into accelerating the process for others.

    but in the meantime, good teachers will continue to be expensive

    Asked and answered. Open the system to non-teachers willing to work for less – yes, break the unions – and the price will drop.

    Why pay someone $50-100K if there is someone willing to do it for less. Why assume teaching needs to be a lifetime of public employment when returning veterans and younger citizens can deliver the same product for less?

    Sure, there will be need for master-teachers and life-long conveyors of content. You will get NEITHER in this system.

    it makes more sense for us to man up and address the roots of our underperformance, which are overwhelmingly cultural and demographic/immigration-related.

    You make my case. The district model has been attempting (mendaciously and inefficiently) to address these issues for decades, and they only make things worse.

    See Detroit, Chicago, etc.

    If you fund the child, even at a lower level ($5500/$8000), you allow for these problems to be solved at the granular (individual/scalable) level.

    There is good work being done showing that resources spent on parents is more useful than spending on student/enrichment, schools, teacher training (a massive waste, BTW)

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-23/chicago-economist-s-crazy-idea-for-education-wins-ken-griffin-s-backing.html

    However, this doesn’t support saving the existing system. Pouring money into school districts to “educate parents” will be as big a waste as “teacher training.”
    ___

    A few days ago, you called the health care system a “kludge,” and argued that it was beyond “reform.” Dittos and Bingo!

    America’s district system is the biggest kludge of all, and it is made worse by its politically corrupt clout exercised from DOE to district.

    It is even less “reformable” than healthcare, and decades of dollars and reforms provide strong evidence, if not outright proof, that I am right.

    I get you. You one of those really smart, reform oriented, centrists, who thinks that the right administration, with the right ideas, can turn American schools into Finnish schools.

    Not gonna happen. We aren’t 5.3 million white, Lutheran liberals with a collective sensibility.

    We are 310+ million diverse crazy people steeped in a milieu of rabid individualism, declining culture, and increasing self-entitlement. Collectivize us, and we become 310 million Mugabes scamming our neighbors (see Banks, Government, Unions, Corporations, Welfare recipients)

    Individualize the funding, and make the schools independent, and we have a shot at fixing the problem the American way.

    Shoot for Finland, and you get Detroit.

  • thibaud

    Interesting: much to think about here. Will read your links when I have time. Thanks for the thoughtful, impassioned and courteous response.
    T

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