Tag Archives: reform

Education Reform Basics

Democrats for Education Reform is an important organization in our state. It’s composed of people–mostly, but not exclusively, Democrats–who want to approach education issues from the standpoint of what is best for children, and without the usual political constraints. (“Political constraints” in this context means automatic obeisance to the teachers’ unions. The organization is not anti-Union, but neither do its members feel obliged to agree with the union on every issue, as Democrats have traditionally done.)

Last night, my husband and I attended an event sponsored by DFER. There were at least a hundred people in attendance, and it was an interesting and diverse crowd: teachers from both traditional public schools and charters, business people, legislators and ordinary citizens concerned with the problems of public education. The speaker was was Stephen Brill, and he was “interviewed” by Matt Tully, the Star columnist who has written movingly about Manual High School and the issues facing educators in our poorer precincts.

Brill has recently written a book (who hasn’t??) about what’s wrong with public education. He is not an educator; he describes himself as a reporter. He made a lot of money establishing Court TV and several magazines; he was self-possessed to the point of smugness, and he made sure the audience knew he teaches a seminar at Yale.

Brill made a number of points that most observers would agree with, and he showed real skill in evading questions for which he clearly had no answers. (Case in point: he forcefully defended testing students as a method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. When I asked him how that should work in inner-city classrooms that experience student turnover in excess of 100% during the school year–classrooms in which the students being tested at the end of the year are not the same children who were tested at the beginning of the school year–he didn’t answer the question; instead, he launched into an extended and mostly irrelevant defense of “doing something” even if that something wasn’t perfect.)

The format was question and answer, and there was a lot of earnest discussion about the importance of good teachers (duh!), the pros and cons of charter schools, and the role of teachers’ unions. But the truly important question was asked at the very end of the program. It was a simple enough inquiry by a woman who identified herself as a longtime proponent of education reform: “how do you define a good education?”

It caught Brill flat-footed. And therein lies the real problem.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the education system is broken. (To his credit, Brill agreed that most suburban schools are no better than the schools serving urban areas–students simply tend to come from homes that have prepared them better.) Pretty much everyone wants to improve public education–I don’t know anyone who’s celebrating the status quo. But all the arguments about how to improve schools, all the fancy talk about measurement and testing and excellence, tends to ignore the central question: what do we mean by education? What should students know when they graduate? What skills should they have? Why? How does education differ from job training? How does education for citizenship differ from education as a consumer good?

The Chamber of Commerce wants schools to produce an “educated workforce.” Parents want schools to provide “marketable skills.” Policy wonks talk about global competitiveness. Our Governor seems fixated on credentialing–turning out students who’ve earned a piece of paper in the least possible amount of time. Some old fogies (me, for example) believe an education requires acquainting students with great literature, with science, with history, with at least a minimal understanding of their government, and–above all–the ability to think logically and critically.

It’s an unresolved–and largely unasked–question, and it’s the elephant in the room. Because if we don’t agree about what an education is, how on earth will we know whether we are providing it?


A Perfect Storm

Sometimes, a “perfect storm” of problems forces us to make much-needed changes that are politically impossible in normal times. Perhaps—just perhaps—this is one of those times when we can use a few of the fiscal lemons we are being handed to make policy lemonade.

Storm number one is revenue. Indiana is in a world of fiscal hurt. Tax receipts are well below the levels that would allow us to keep state spending flat, and the cuts that have already compromised many essential services are now slicing education funding. Public universities are hurting, but by far the most damage will be done to public K-12 schools that are already struggling. As Matt Tully has reminded us in his outstanding series about Manual High School, these schools have virtually no human or fiscal resources to fall back on. They face enormous challenges, and we have an obligation to help them meet those challenges. It’s not only the right thing to do, our civic self-interest requires it.

Storm number two is costs. Which brings me to the Star’s recent report on the pay and perks of area school superintendents.  

Let me be clear: I’m not begrudging the superintendents their compensation, nor criticizing the school boards who are paying them. I understand the competitive pressures that have brought us to a point where a superintendent’s compensation package in even a small district runs upward of 200,000.

What I don’t understand is why Marion County needs eleven of them.

The entire student population of Marion County today is less than the enrollment of IPS in 1967. Logic says it should not take eleven superintendents, eleven assistant superintendents, eleven curriculum directors, eleven lunchroom operations, eleven bus systems and eleven school boards –together with the costs of clerical staffs and physical facilities to house them all—to educate those students.

I understand that the politics of consolidating these districts is toxic. The number of interest groups fighting over the diminishing supply of public patronage is huge. Even the Kernan-Shepard Report avoided addressing Marion County’s overabundance of districts, although the principles they endorsed elsewhere certainly apply. And it is certainly true that a legislature without the will to make even the most obvious adjustments to Indiana’s dysfunctional governing apparatus—a legislature unwilling to abolish 1008 unnecessary township trustees and meaningfully reduce the 10,000 plus public officials we pay with our tax dollars—is unlikely to consolidate the administration of Marion County’s schools.

Ideally, the Mayor would provide leadership on this issue. The public schools, as Matt Tully has convincingly demonstrated, are key to our city’s ability to succeed, key to our economic development efforts and our quality of life. Consolidating the bureaucracies—not the schools themselves, but their duplicative administrations—would allow us to free up millions of dollars that could be used to improve what goes on in the classroom. The benefits to the city would be profound, and the message sent would be inspiring.

Stormy times call for something other than patronage as usual.

Who Can We Trust?

The Indianapolis Star has been advocating rather forcefully for laws to tighten restrictions on the lobbyists who exercise increasing power at the Statehouse. The Star argues that such restrictions are necessary if we are to restore a modicum of trust in our legislative body.

 They’re right.

 My most recent book—“Distrust, American Style”—was an inquiry into the current American “trust deficit.” I learned a lot.

In recent decades, old-fashioned corruption and greed combined with regulatory dysfunction to undermine business ethics. Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, the sub-prime housing market meltdown—these and so many others are the stuff of hourly news reports. Many business scandals were enabled by failures of federal regulatory agencies; others were traced back to K Street influence-peddlers.

But it goes well beyond Wall Street greed and government incompetence.

Religious organizations haven’t been covering themselves with glory, heavenly or otherwise. Revelations ranging from misappropriation of funds to protection of pedophiles to the “outing” of stridently anti-gay clergy have discouraged believers and increased skepticism of organized religion. In that other American religion, major league sports, the news has been no better. High profile investigations confirmed widespread use of steroids by baseball players. An NBA referee was found guilty of taking bribes to “shade” close calls, and others have been accused of betting on games at which they officiate.  Michael Vick’s federal  indictment and guilty plea on charges related to dog fighting was tabloid fodder for weeks.

Scandals have even involved charitable organizations; a few years ago, United Way of America had to fire an Executive Director accused of using contributions to finance a lavish lifestyle, and other charities have been accused of spending far more on overhead than on good works.

In short, the institutions of our common civic life have seemingly unraveled.

Perhaps—as my more cynical friends believe—things have always been this way. But in earlier times, we did not have 24/7 cable news, millions of blogs and assorted broadcast pundits constantly telling us about it. If Americans are less trusting than we used to be, it’s no wonder.

Unfortunately, when citizens don’t know who they can trust, everything becomes fodder for suspicion and urban legend. Eventually, government grinds to a halt, and even the most routine tasks fall victim to conspiracy theories and fear-mongering. We are perilously close to such a meltdown in American civic life.

Our system of government was deliberately structured around the notion of checks and balances. The founders recognized that not all public servants would be trustworthy; their response was to create structures and competing power centers that would force accountability and transparency—to create a system we could trust, even when some people in that system weren’t trustworthy.

Perhaps the Indiana legislature is filled with the innocent do-gooders that Pat Bauer and Brian Bosma touchingly describe. But many of us have our doubts. The modest reforms supported by the Indianapolis Star would be a welcome step toward removing those doubts and restoring a measure of  trust in our governing institutions.