15 January 2012

Solving Education Locally

I am a Middle School History teacher of 9 years and still love my profession. When I started teaching, I had a dream of creating the ideal curriculum and then simply propagating it around the world to overhaul education. My first few years teaching were in a private school which tried to do exactly this. Although the educational level was much higher than public schools, I became imminently aware that the core of quality education is not having the best curriculum, but having the best teachers. Curriculum is decidedly easier to replicate than great teachers.

I still do not understand how any teacher or parent (and I am both) who understands that the most important factor in education is the teacher in the classroom would ever seek centralized solutions, as such solutions can never ensure that each classroom has a great teacher in it who is empowered to make the best decisions for his classroom. Political solutions, by definition, are centralized solutions to a localized problem. It does not matter whether the centralized solutions come from government or teachers unions, they cannot ensure quality in each local classroom.

The only viable solution, in my opinion, places the control of the classroom firmly in the teacher's hands. It is the New Zealand solution of some years back: localize the funding and the decisions in each school in the hands of the parents/teachers. In other words, the principal and teachers of each school should be solely answerable to the parents of their students, with no tenure.

This could be achieved through the complete privatization of education, but that would be unpopular. It can also be achieved by school choice whereby each school receives a certain amount per student who attends and then parents can vote with their feet if they are unhappy. Unfortunately, this option is unpopular with teachers, who often don't trust parents to make sound educational choices. From my experience, parents VERY consistently request for their child to be in the classes of the most competent teachers. The other common problem with vouchers and school choice is that the governments start attaching curricular and testing requirements to the funding, invalidating the purpose of local decision-making.

Politicians will never favor the privatization or localization of education because that would remove it from their influence. They want to find central solutions to all of our problems, whereby they are the heroes who save us and are subsequently rewarded by re-election. Their "solutions" generally involve centralizing decisions even more, which is always detrimental to education.

I have travelled all over the world observing great teachers, both public and private. In spite of the problems with our current system, I have observed public, inner city, American school teachers like Rafe Esquith, who manage to minimize the negative impacts of standardized testing and poor curricula on their activities in the classroom. His 5th grade students' scores on standardized tests are high because his students are learning what they ought to in his own self-designed curriculum, not because he focuses centrally on testing.

Finally, I find that the "Finland Phenomenon" is possible in each classroom without fixing the entire educational system. Yes, there are horrible schools where teachers may be restricted from the freedom of achieving this in their classroom, but quality teachers should not stay in such schools. I have decided to create a "Finland Phenomenon" in my classroom and am impressed by how much control I have to independently make a difference and motivate students by creating the right environment.

Let us lobby for localization of educational decision-making while doing our best to create our ideal learning environment in our own classroom.