The recent $40 million failure of the ILEARN test has prompted the “Red for Ed” rally scheduled for November 19, 2019 at the State House when the General Assembly gathers for its annual organization day. Among other things, the movement is asking for schools and teachers to be “held harmless” from the consequences that the legislature has tied to such testing. That would include not penalizing schools for performance on this test, stopping the clock on the time given to “failing schools” to improve (since this testing year was essentially wasted), and not penalizing teachers based on data generated by this test.
It is also a good time to revisit our overall approach to education policy in Indiana. What we have now isn’t really a “system” per se in that its component parts don’t work well together. Rather than our current ideologically driven approach based on what policymakers think ought to work, we should evaluate the systems and curricula that actually are working in places like Singapore, Canada, Finland, and Japan and adapt their approaches as best we can to Indiana. Ultimately, a good educational system will have to be built on the quality of its teachers. That means attracting the best and the brightest high school students to the teaching colleges. It means preparing those incoming teachers to teach the curriculum which, in turn, requires a stable approach to education. And, once trained, it means retaining those teachers.
There has been some criticism of the Red for Ed rally and its goals by school privatization enthusiasts. But it has mostly been hand waving. Shane Phipps, writing at Inside Education does a pretty good job of addressing some of these criticisms.
At root, there is a lack of appreciation as to what a world-class educational system provides and possibly a lack of ambition by policymakers. Can we afford one? We can’t afford not to have one. Opportunity is slipping away from Hoosiers because we’re allowing our foundation to erode. The high stakes testing and privatization approach that have been in place for the better part of a generation have put us in a downward spiral. Teachers have been scapegoats and their salaries have remained mostly stagnant as their burdens have grown.
When it comes to education, we are too often shrewd with our pennies but foolish with our dollars. This is an investment. As Caleb Mills, the father of Indiana’s common school system observed in the 19th century, a good education system adds to the social, literary, and intellectual capital of the citizens and adds materially to the real and substantial happiness of everyone. Mills said that we must “convince the ignorant man that knowledge would increase his happiness and satisfy the prejudiced man that he has only misapprehended the best means of securing his own welfare.” In 1848, a referendum was put to the people of the State, asking “are you in favor of free schools?” The result was narrowly in favor, but it was significant that the opposition came chiefly from the areas with the highest level of illiteracy. The people with better educations recognized the tremendous opportunity provided by public education.
There is a charitable, moral argument for paying to educate your neighbors. But, even on the level of simple self-interest, we have an interest in the proper education of all who are socially and politically connected to us. Better schools lead to (as Mills pointed out) “more valuable real estate, productive capital, lightened public burdens, increased social enjoyments, and security of possession.” Investment in education pays further dividends in reduced expenses from crime and costs of punishment. What’s more, for most areas, the school serves as the nucleus of the social fabric. It’s an important part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community.
Mills again: “There is but one way to secure good schools, and that is to pay for them.” How much should we pay for them? As much as they are worth. Taxes are absolutely part of the equation. This will require some courage from legislators as taxes inevitably cause initial dissatisfaction. Per Mills, “a legislature that would wait for a harmony of views before action would never affect anything great and noble.” As with any investment, benefits come later. Politicians who crow about surplus funds and low taxes while we are unable to attract and retain teachers should receive the same reception as a homeowner who brags about a shiny new car and a healthy bank account while the foundations of his home are crumbling. The State has taken over the business of funding schools. Locals lack the power to move the needle very much. If we want good schools, we will have to persuade the legislators we have or get new ones. Because the State made the decision to swallow the elephant of public education, it now represents about half of the state budget. As such, there is a strong argument to be made that education should be a central focus of every legislator and that the General Assembly should be judged based on the resulting quality of Indiana schools. In 2021, as the Governor takes total control of the State’s education system (by virtue of the Superintendent of Public Instruction becoming an appointed position), a gubernatorial candidate’s education bona fides should be one of the electorate’s primary concerns.
Ultimately, we need to produce the best teachers at our institutes of higher learning and pay teachers commensurate to their training and value. We are entrusting them to instill in our children the capacity to be productive citizens. What’s that worth? To attract and retain teachers of the highest caliber, we need to recognize what society gains by attracting the best and the brightest to the profession. Mills describes the situation in the 1840s: “What inducement had a youth of commanding talents, noble and generous aspirations, to spend years of time and hundreds of dollars [19th century money] to fit himself for an employment that would not command a higher compensation than was given for services requiring no intellectual training or moral culture?” The young men you would have wanted as teachers chose instead to become preachers and lawyers. History may not repeat, but it certainly seems to rhyme.
The privatization fad isn’t working. Voucher and charter schools do not produce better results than traditional public schools and there is some evidence that they produce worse outcomes. A fractured approach to education cannot produce consistent results. If we’re looking to be responsible with our money, we can’t afford to have education dollars sucked up by self-dealing charter management companies with opaque accounting or vouchers sent to private institutions with books closed to the public. We can’t spend tens of millions of dollars on tests with arbitrary faulty metrics. The reason we’re having so much trouble with the tests and vouchers and charters is because the arguments for them were always pretexts. The tests weren’t designed to provide feedback to improve education — they are designed as cudgels for proclaiming that public schools are failing (and to redirect public money to testing companies.) Vouchers weren’t designed to give poor children attending public schools a way out — they were designed to subsidize religious education and give “good families” a way to keep their kids away from undesirables. If we were serious about our approach to charter schools, we’d consider the rigorous accountability process used in Massachusetts. But, we’re not, so we get charters authorized by tiny Daleville and overseen by apparently nobody.
If the concern was truly that Indiana’s traditional public schools were not performing as well as they should, the rational approach would be to look to those school systems in our country and around the world that are producing the desired outcomes. That’s not what we did because those systems would not have provided a rationale for subsidizing private, religious education; reducing the influence of teacher’s unions; or redirecting public education money to friends and well-wishers of privatization enthusiasts. So, they had to come up with this cobbled together mess of half-measures and contradictions they could market to the public with rhetoric about “choice,” “accountability,” “empowerment,” and “the market.” When the results fail to materialize they either ignore the results or just say we have to do it harder. Privatization can’t fail, it can only be failed.
We have been some place like this before. Prior to creation of common schools, Indiana’s commitment to public education was more aspirational than real. The qualifications of teachers were left to local trustees. The quality of education was wildly uneven. There was a powerful disincentive for educated Hoosiers to become teachers. At a time other institutions were becoming well organized and efficient, the schools were struggling with unequal lengths of term, incapable teachers, dishonest trustees, diversity of textbooks, lax enforcement of school laws and school discipline, neighborhood quarrels over school sites, narrow views of education, and a lack of wise leadership. (Worley at p.6) This description reminded me powerfully of our recent charter school debacle at the Indiana Virtual School.
We pulled ourselves off the educational floor once. So did Finland and Singapore and Ontario and any number of places that now surpass us in educational outcomes. We can do it again. But we have to look to examples that work and craft a system with pieces that fit together, one enhancing the other. A Hobbesian war of all-against-all, even if marketed under the banner of “choice,” will inevitably result in a cacophony of cross-purposes. We need to rethink our policies.
—One of the People