Monday, April 23, 2007

A few comments on education

I'm currently at the Milken Institute's Global Conference along with approximately 3000 other folks, listening to a bunch of panelist's talk about education (among other tracks). Not minor players either - Bill Bennett and Tim Pawlenty (governor of MN), heads of the state departments of education in MN, PA, MD, and OH, Sally Ride (talking about science), and others. Some interesting insights and talk (although, sadly, just talk - it is a conference after all).

Anyhow, my point is not to name drop but to make a few observations.

The first is that most teachers are underpaid. This is not particularly insightful - ask any teacher and they'll say that. This begs the question "so why do you teach?" The answer, it seems, is invariably some variation of "because I am so passionate about it." That's terrific and makes for great teachers, but at the risk of saying something offensive, I'll add this rebuttal: if you're so passionate about the profession that you're willing to work for peanuts, then you shouldn't be surprised that peanuts is what you get. In the same way that we have tons of actors who wait tables because they're passionate about acting but can't make a living with it, I wonder if we don't somehow have too many teachers in the system. If we had trouble hiring teachers, we'd probably see teacher salaries going up.

My second observation is around national standards for education. The topic came up several times today, and the general consensus seems to be that it's really hard to achieve national standards because education is such a local issue. I can't see how one can escape the need for national standards, though. The most obvious reason is the simple fact that family - and hence student - mobility is dramatically greater than what it was, say, 30 years ago. With students moving from district to district and state to state, the lack of national standards guarantees that they will have a disjoint experience.

The second reason to have national standards is that it has become apparent to me that, by and large, each teacher works in isolation and improvises how they go about teaching to a great deal. I recognize that it's really important for talented teachers to be able to devise creative methods for teaching; I even applaud this. But it also leads to discontinuities for students. Great musicians, however, all work from the same basic musical principles, and somehow this doesn't inhibit their creative expressions. Having consistent standards upon which teachers can "riff" would really go a long way to distinguishing good teachers from poor teachers, and provide better service to their "customers" by ensuring that they receive a more consistent service across their educational path.

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