Sorry for the length. I’d write a tl;dr but I can’t stomach the idea of people reading random shit online being picky about their time.
I try not to generally opine too much. I think maybe I’m too cynical, too weary of ideologues when I usually just see shades of gray, too ambivalent given the fact that I feel “public” knowledge (including my own) is painfully devoid of the real complexities that make these issues difficult to solve.
But I’ve been feeling strangely compelled to say something on this issue and this movie because it feels kind of personal. I have several close family members that have spent significant portions of their career (from teaching to counseling to administration) in California public education for the last 40 years. (My opinion, however, is based on my observations of their experiences, but doesn’t necessarily directly reflect their own beliefs.)
Now, this is a simplified model, of course, but there seems to me to be this function that (roughly) determine’s your “success”, using the common score-based or elite-college-acceptance-based measure, in educational pursuits:
S = ?I + ?F + ?P + ?T
S is Success
I is Intelligence (“Nature” IQ, Personal Ambition, etc.. innate properties)
F is Family Factors (“Nurture”, Education of Parents, Expectations, etc)
P is Peer Group (aka, the ambient F + I of your adjacent students)
T is Teaching (quality of instruction, instructional program, instructional personnel)
They’re not entirely independent, but close enough to do fake science. For the sake of argument, let’s say “I” is fixed for each individual, so I’m ignoring it.
The big question, it seems, is what exactly the constants are at each question mark.
I believe these films and essays and ponderances and political campaigns that focus so entirely on the “T”, are focusing on the wrong thing. It probably has the smallest constant–and the least impact, positive or negative.
Granted: there are numerous, valid arguments to make about tenure being terrible. There are myraid complaints that can be fairly leveled against unions. Yes, public educational programs can sometimes be uninspired, obsolete, and unambitious.
But fantastic teachers in “bad schools” do worse (in their students’ aggregate S terms) than apathetic teachers
in “good schools.” If you talked to teachers, and they were in a candid mood, my guess is you’d discover this is widely accepted.
They know how hopeless it can be to fight upstream in a “bad school”… and that’s because the F and P factors are stacked against you, and those constants are much larger.
Teachers, even good teachers, seldom can trump the influence of family and peers.
If we take the charter schools in the film as an example, I think self-selection bias is at play. It really fits _perfectly_ with the forumla and the low-T-constant theory:
The parents who elect to enter the lottery are exhibiting a strong “F” factor, and, if they succeed in winning a slot, their child enters an environment with a bunch of other kids from high-F families, resulting in a great “P”.
And yes, the teachers might be better too, and the instruction might be better. But the teachers themselves are self-selecting! The very act of teaching at a school where people fight to get in generally provides a student body full of willing students coming from encouraging families. Of course those kids will learn!
And the “better” the teacher is, the more mobile they often are and the better shot they have at the “good” teaching jobs.. aka, the classrooms full of willing students.
Granted, there are amazing, indefatigable teachers who spend a career teaching in “bad” classrooms, but they’re the exception, not the rule. In my observation, the common case is enthusiastic, smart, well-educated young teachers can stick it out for a few years. Then, they’re human after all, they capitulate, exhausted, and drag their
shattered ideals to a different school with a more receptive classroom environment (if they remain in teaching at all). It’s job satisfaction; it’s self-preservation. (Analogy: generally, great hackers don’t want to be test engineers even if that’s possibly where they could do the most good.)
I say: the real problem is cultural (and literally, cultural, not racial). Maybe, it’s who our heros are, and our parents’ heros are, and the dubious-expected-outcome nature of the “American Dream.” Maybe it’s what’s viewed as “the way out” by older
brothers and sisters and friends. Maybe’s it’s a generation’s assumption that the last 100 years of American prosperity was inevitable, predestined, God-given, and not the product of a whole damn lot of work by their predecessor citizens. Hell, I dunno, cause figuring that out is the hard part that probably has many potential answers.
If you really look at all those other countries that ourscore the US–I think it’s worth examining the cultural assessment of the value of study. The classrooms, the teachers, the salaries, and the very students, are a natural outgrowth of that.
But that means it’s the F, and consequently the P that have the biggest constants.
The T is–honestly–noise. A blip in the trend line. Good teachers can accelerate good students, but they don’t make them.
So why isn’t this the predominant dialog?
Teachers and teaching are an easy scapegoat because, yes, they have evident problems, and because it’s sort of deceptively intuitive that if people aren’t learning, it’s because they’re not being taught. But I think, really, the criticism centers on them because teachers aren’t us–every family, and critically, every voter. People want an outlet for their anger when Americans are undereducated. But what politician will face the camera and say to the voting population “it’s mostly your fault”? Who wants to go see a movie where the audience is the villain? (Aside: actually, that sounds kind of rad.)
So, shades of gray reality check: I have no idea what the answer is, but the first step seems to be ensuring we’ve actually identified the problem. That’s the programmer in me talking.