Friday, January 13, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Let's Not Freak Out About Education Edition

My brain is fully occupied with two things right now: (1) figuring out what to put on our school choice form, and (2) my team's current status on our integration project plan. Since topic #2 is both dull (for anyone who is not on my team, and probably for some of the people on my team, too) and off limits due to confidentiality agreements and my own decision not to blog details about work... let's talk some more about education!

And specifically, let's not freak out about it.

First up, The Grumpies had a great post defending enrichment activities for kids- you know, the things that make lots of well-meaning people roll their eyes and expound about how overscheduled kids are these days. Now that I take a step back and think about it, it is pretty funny that we, as a culture, can simultaneously worry about whether our kids are getting enough challenges/enriching experiences and whether our kids are getting enough unstructured play time. And yet, we do.

Next, an article from the Nicolas Kristof in the NYTimes about the importance of teachers. I certainly agree that teachers make a big difference in kids' lives, and I don't actually disagree with the conclusion he reaches at the end of his article- that we should spend more time this election year discusing how to encourage good teaching- but I found some of his argument a little overstated. He states: "A great teacher (defined as one better than 84 percent of peers) for a single year between fourth and eighth grades resulted in students earning almost 1 percent more at age 28" and also quotes some figures about the impact of a bad teacher.  But he glosses over a lot, no doubt partially due to the constraints of space in a NYT column. First of all, a 1% increase in income isn't really that much, particularly given what most people make at age 28. I was just one year out from grad school. If you'd judged my salary potential based on that year, you wouldn't have been impressed.

Also, kids are in school for lots of years. I actually think that most kids have a pretty good chance of coming across one or two (or more!) great teachers in that time. I had several really great teachers during my time in my average public schools. I had some mediocre teachers, too, but I can't think of one that I would consider truly "bad". And I doubt that one year with a not so great teacher spells doom, as long as the parents recognize the issue and make sure that it doesn't translate into hating school or something like that.

I'm sure most of us can look back and think of great teachers we had and a few not so great ones, too. And for the most part, we all got through our primary and secondary education, went on to college, and did fine. I'm not saying that there aren't cases where this isn't true- I'm sure there are. I'm saying that I think that for most kids, we're probably worrying more than we need to.

Which isn't to say that I think everything is hunky-dory in education land these days.  I think there are serious funding problems right now, and lots of things that could be improved... but I also don't think that most public schools are anywhere near as bad as the conventional wisdom considers them to be. Take a look at for a different view on the state of public education in this country. They are very much an advocacy group, so I don't take everything they write at face value, either. (For instance, I'm not sure I see a conspiracy of moneyed interests behind the rise in charter schools.) But I think it is worth looking at their site and thinking about what they say.

I'd very much like a thorough, unbiased evaluation of the state of public education in our country. Anyone know of one?

None of this, of course, will stop me from thinking hard about our kindergarten choices. But I hope I can keep from freaking out about the situation, whether we get our first choice school or not.


  1. Anonymous5:01 AM

    That teachers article made a huge splash when it came out (started being presented). I had a long discussion about it with an expert in the area over dinner the other month, but I cannot for the remember what his bottom line on whether the effects were big or small were. I remember he had some kind of disagreement with how the size was being interpreted but don't remember in what direction.

    As to an unbiased summary of the state of education... that's what economists DO. Unfortunately, it is a huge huge sub-field full of nuances. Diane Ravitch has a couple books, but she is neither unbiased nor an economist. Goldin and Katz have a book, but it's more from a historical/labor perspective. I don't teach the class, so I don't know what the leading textbooks are, but I would start looking at textbooks with titles like, "The economics of education" that are used in econ programs, not ed programs.

    Of course, what economists refer to is the Handbook of the Economics of Education. This handbook series would be our Bible, but it has multiple volumes and each volume is super expensive and public libraries generally don't carry it, only university. It may also need updating-- they only update every 10 years or so.

  2. Anonymous6:11 AM

    Also, the state of schooling may not be bad in ritzy majority-white suburbs.

    Try volunteering in inner-city Los Angeles. You will get a very different view of the education system. It isn't all differences in parental background. There are huge differences in things like teacher's knowledge of subject matter, among other things (like availability of textbooks).

    Additionally state-by-state the requirements, outcomes, teacher quality etc. are vastly different. If we were in California we would not have to be accelerating our 5 year old because K in CA (at least in the majority-white ritzy 'burbs) teach what 1st grades in our state teach (and they start younger). And we're not the worst state in this respect!

  3. Thanks, @nicoleandmaggie!

    I definitely agree that the state of public schools varies widely, and that schools in rich areas tend to better than schools in poor areas. I wish the discussion of public schooling focused more on that, and not on how all public schools suck. But that is a rant for another time....

  4. Check out MommaData's post on the good teacher study. She puts things in perspective.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.