Friday, December 23, 2016

Consent of the governed as a real check on utopians

From Education Is Still Inequitable: Low- and high-income students may get similar quality teaching, but the outcomes remain vastly unequal. by Lisette Partelow. Interesting for four reasons.

1 - US News and World Report? They are still around? I first came across them in college in the early eighties. Occasionally saw them on newsstands and in airports for another decade or two after that. They really haven't been on my radar screen for years. I knew it as a weekly magazine in the same category as Time or Newsweek. I see from Wikipedia that US News and World Report is now monthly and digital only. It also appears as if it has made a major transition. Once it was a newsmagazine which published college rankings and now it is a college ranking service which does some news.

2 - In this particular article, having read the first 2-3 paragraphs, I got the sense that this must be either sponsored content or an Opinion piece. The author, Lisette Partelow, is listed as a contributor which doesn't help clarify much. There is nothing on the page that tells you whether this is supposed to be straight reporting or whether it is Opinion. You have to look in the URL to see that in fact this is Opinion. With all the blather about Fake News, it seems like they might be more interested in keeping the two more clearly distinguished from one another.

3 - It is interesting how the internet allows you to get context so easily and quickly. Why is the author writing in the fashion she does with the policies she is advocating? She comes across as an authoritarian socialist (discussed below). A quick search yields context. Partelow has worked her entire career in government, education, and think tanks/advocacy groups. Her undergraduate is in psychology and her masters is in Public Affairs. That explains a lot in terms of her utopian world view.

4 - Partelow is discussing on a recent report with explosive findings.
Recently, Mathematica published a report that upended years of research and conventional wisdom about teaching. The report's main findings – that low-income students and high-income students are equally likely to be taught by great, mediocre and low-performing teachers, respectively – came as a surprise to many of us in the education policy world who have cited research showing that low-income students' lack of access to qualified teachers is one likely contributor to our nation's achievement gaps.

Following the release of the study, social media traffic on my feed was some mix of surprise and "I told you so," with many using the study to confirm their own preexisting positions. Undoubtedly the study's methodology and the many additional research questions it raises will be picked over thoroughly. But the full report contains considerable detail that addresses a lot of the critiques I've seen thus far.
So it sounds like Partelow believes that the findings are real, that poor kids are not being disadvantaged by the quality of teachers they are assigned.

Here is where it gets interesting. Partelow embraces a fairly explicit Marxist policy set. She wants equal outcomes from all the blank slate students.
In other words, even if there is more equality in our nation's classrooms than previously thought, America's education system is still not equitable.
She sees schools as responsible, not for developing all children to the extent of their abilities, but rather, to produce equal outcomes across all children. This socialist belief that all individuals are equal and it is simply a matter of developing the right policies so that they can all be equal is undermined by most of our scientific research. Steven Pinker's Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a good synopsis of the field.

Partelow makes her policy recommendation more explicit than is common (hence the reason this is interesting, it is uncharacteristically honest).
Giving low-income students more access to those teachers at the top of the distribution, then, is another important strategy for improving their outcomes. Embedded deep within Mathematica's report is some good news: Most of the districts participating in the study (which skewed toward large urban districts) were already employing at least some strategies for giving low-income students greater access to high-performing teachers.
There are two bell-curves here. There is the bell-curve of students and their capabilities and there is the bell-curve of teachers and their capabilities. Partelow is advocating that parents of children in the top half of the bell-curve should not do what is best for their children but instead should give up good teachers to make up for deficiencies among children at the bottom half of the student bell-curve.

It sounds noble. It sounds like "from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs." It sounds like advocating for parental neglect. It sounds utopian. It sounds like there is no chance that citizens would accept this.

Partelow does do the service of forcing to the surface some irreconcilable issues. This is a clash of visions between blank slate socialists and tragic conservatives. Everyone wants what is best for children but what constitutes best? That some are underserved while others are over-served in order for all to be equal (Partelow's position)? Or that all should be developed to the extent of their capability (which would likely lead to better teachers with better students)? These are deep and often ignored questions.

The reality, from my perspective, is that all parents want what is best for their children and will do a lot to bring that about. If the system seeks to disadvantage their child (as Partelow recommends), the parents will circumvent the system. Partelow, and people of her beliefs, are likely a major part of why there has been a decline in support for public schools and a rise in support for private schools, vouchers, charters and magnate schools. Partelow wants to give the minimum necessary to the best students so that the least capable students can be better served whereas parents of the best students want the best possible for those better students.

Partelow finishes full-unicorn.
The end goal of such policies would be making teaching in high-needs schools the most prestigious, sought after teaching job a teacher could obtain, with pay and working conditions commensurate with such prestige. This would include comprehensive high-quality induction, professional compensation, relevant and effective professional learning opportunities and adequate time for teachers to plan and collaborate together in order to provide higher quality instruction. Incentivizing districts and school leaders to place their best teachers at the highest-needs schools while also providing these teachers with needed supports could make a huge difference for students and teachers alike.
She is dedicated to the bottom half of students which is estimable. But in a world of limited resources, her policy of redirecting resources from the top half means the top half students won't develop to their full capability. It is a trade-off in which one group wins (poor performing students) and another group loses (high capability students) and Partelow wants to be the arbiter as to who wins and who loses.

Regrettably for such authoritarian utopians, parents want to have a say in the decision as well. Because of our republican democracy structured around subsidiarity, parents usually end up with the upper hand and authoritarian socialists end up with failing school systems. The evidence is in the spreading repudiation of blank slate socialists and spread of vouchers, charter schools and magnate schools.

Some choices are simply hard and nobody gets quite what they want. Consent of the governed puts even more constraints in place.

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