Sunday, October 9, 2011

The End Game

One of the things I’ve learned in training to be a teacher is when planning lessons, I should start where I want to finish. So, if I'm building a unit on, say, butterflies, I should know what I want my students to know about butterflies by the end of the unit and then work my way backwards from there, breaking down information, skills and strategies that I'd work into the unit. That way I can organize the information; scope out where the big leaps might happen; figure out where the major pitfalls could be and identify where the big opportunities for deeper thinking may lie. Of course in real life the kids will trip me up and I’ll have to rejigger a lot along the way, but at least I’d not only have a road map, I'd have a destination.

I thought of this today when I was washing dishes and recalling a conversation I had at lunch this past week. I was eating with a couple of very old friends – one a sociologist, the other a journalist. The conversation got around to education and education reform and my friend the sociologist mentioned an email conversation she'd had with her brother, a retired hedge fund person still in his 40s. In the exchange, she’d asked her brother, who’s a big proponent of the Michelle Rhee-Joel Klein-Waiting-For-Superman-Make-It-Like-the-Market school of education reform, which he’d rather have, a system in which a few have great success or one in which most people have more success than they have now but not great success. Without a doubt, he told her, he’d choose a system that promised great success for a few. And I realized, if that’s the end result you’re looking for – the greater success of a few, the many be damned – you can apply market place principles to get there.

In a market, you try to replace people who don’t produce according to the accepted measure of success. You reward people who do produce with more money. You flatten what it means to succeed into the bluntest of terms for easy comparison. When the close of a fiscal term rolls around, a few people like my friend’s brother will make a lot of money while a lot of other people, most other people, won’t. Likewise, when the end of the school year comes around, some kids will do really well on their standardized tests, and lots of kids will have vomited all over the sheet with bubbles on test day and then breathed with relief for the remaining weeks of the year. (For details, check out Linda Perlstein’s Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.

The thing about all this, though, is that the Michelle Rhee-Joel Klein-Waiting-For-Superman-Make-It-Like-the-Market school of education reform doesn’t bill itself as a movement looking to raise up a few. Of course it doesn’t. It’s, as Michelle Rhee says about her new organization (and I paraphrase), a movement for the children, for the students. It’s the movement that inspired No Child Left Behind, the one that propels that Race to the Top. And while “race to the top” implies some people will get there first, I think the people who are for it would still say they want everyone to get there. Only they don’t. Because the end game of marketplace reforms necessarily brings market-like results. Some succeed, many don’t, and the many who don’t better hope for an invisible hand pushing a robust service economy. Pretty grim.

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