Friday 27 July 2012

Waiting for "Superman"

I read the companion book to the documentary Waiting for “Superman” a look at why public schools are failing in the U.S.

I found it quite interesting.  I’ve always thought the U.S. school system was a prime example of why two-tiered public services don’t work.  If the wealthy have the option of opting-out of the public system by paying for private services, the public services get worse and worse because they lose their most effective advocates.

One thing I found interesting was the examination of the three commonly proposed solutions to improving schools: more money per student, smaller class sizes and better teacher training.  They showed that money per student has almost doubled in the last forty years (when adjusted for inflation), although a large part of that is increased teacher salaries due to the requirement that they have a masters (more training).  And class sizes are smaller as well. 

Requiring teachers to have a masters degree puts them in more debt when they begin teaching, probably driving away some of those who would otherwise be eager and proficient.  They also claim that longer training tends to encourage passivity and lack of creative thinking.  The teachers-in-training have to spend so long being told what to do that they lose some of their drive to think for themselves.  I’m not sure I believe the argument but it would certainly bear looking into.

Waiting for “Superman” puts the blame squarely on the unions and government organizations.  In attempting to remove human failings from the system, they’ve created such a tightly dictated environment that there’s no room to be creative and experiment to find better solutions.  This is highly plausible in my opinion.  Unions and governments have good intentions, I have no doubt of it, but regulations can’t fix problems with human behaviour.

It’s impossible to regulate away unfairness, preferential treatment, bullying or any of the other unpleasant sides of having people in charge of other people.  Bullies and predators will always find a way around the rules.  Tying things up in regulations restricts everyone.  An atmosphere of distrust and fear saps morale, inhibits creativity and encourages passivity.  This sounds a lot like the problem with public schools to me.

I think the documentary (and book) are optimistic in their belief that fixing the problem will be simple.  Organizations with power rarely relinquish that power easily and the climate of suspicion is going to make it hard for different departments to work together.  People are invested in the status quo and will resist changes that negatively impact their lives, no matter how beneficial for the children. 

I really do believe that most teachers and even most administrators want children to have an excellent education.  I think our system in Canada is more open to flexibility, although I think there’s still an attitude of suspicion towards change.  Private schools aren’t as common here, which means more parents have a direct reason to improve the public schools.

Maybe it’s that simple.  If people know they’re stuck with the public system, then they make sure it’s a good one.  Which improves everyone’s chances.

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