More personal responsibility, less COVID-blaming, needed in education

This blog was previously published in the Des Moines Register.

More personal accountability, less COVID-blaming, needed in education

Solving an education problem is never easy, but it’s helpful to at least identify what is not at fault.

A recent Des Moines Register article, “How DMPS is trying to get kids back into class after COVID” suggests that the pandemic is the cause of a high percentage of chronic absences in the district. It then likens Des Moines schools to schools nationwide, facing the same problem.  

Misery loves company because it reduces personal accountability.

It’s likely there are several schools suffering with attendance problems, for a number of reasons, throughout the country. But the knee-jerk response is to blame COVID.

The Iowa Department of Education tells a different story. Average daily attendance for Iowa schools was 94.7% for the 2018-2019 school year, which was pre-pandemic. Attendance fell to 92.8% for the 2020-2021 academic year. A total difference of 1.90%. Only slightly downward. And with a starting point of about 95%, there wasn’t much ceiling room.  

Certainly, COVID may have factored into the slight state-wide decline. But it doesn’t explain the huge drop experienced by Des Moines schools.

About one-third of the 327 schools listed had numbers that remained the same or actually increased in attendance percentage. Only two schools had a double-digit percentage drop in attendance—Des Moines at 10.60% and Davenport at 12.50%. Four schools saw a 5-7% decline: Ames, Burlington, Red Oak and Waterloo. Most of the remaining 200 schools saw attendance decline near the state average of about 2%.

What jumps out is that no other schools experienced the catastrophe that Des Moines and Davenport faced after that two-year period.

If the pandemic was the real culprit, double-digit decreases in attendance would be plaguing every school district in Iowa. COVID came for all of us, not just Des Moines and Davenport.

Stakeholders in this dilemma are teachers, families and school administrations.

Teachers are the difference makers in education. Placing a really great teacher in every classroom is one of the biggest determining factors in a student’s academic success. But it’s hard to see how the responsibility for student attendance should rest on their shoulders. We have to get them there, before they can take it from there.

Why aren’t families getting them there? There could be several reasons why some students are missing too much school. Perhaps the student has a chronic illness. Maybe, due to poverty, he or she also works to supplement a family income. It’s also possible that the student simply chooses not to go to school and that the parents are either indifferent to that decision or incapable of requiring school attendance.   

All of those situations can and do happen in the other 325 school districts that did not experience a 10-12% drop in attendance. Family problems are not unique to Des Moines and Davenport.

That leaves the administration.

Schools are hierarchies. It’s a top-down system of power and authority that must accomplish a lot. But its main role is to constantly and consistently set clear expectations of the student body. Expectations from ruling administrators and school boards can look quite differently from district to district. And lack of problem-solving ability, poor judgement, and weak leadership during these last couple of years may have done harm that is only now being quantified.

That’s not a COVID problem. It’s a people problem.

There are so many moving parts with education issues that it’s difficult to nail down a true diagnosis. But we can stop using the pandemic as a scapegoat.

We’ve had a toxic love affair with COVID-Blame, but it’s time to end it and start assuming personal responsibility again.  

Don’t over-correct the education system

This blog was previously published in the Des Moines Register.

A speed bump was placed on the outskirts of a small, Iowa community. It was put there to slow down a teenager who “lit ‘em up” on his way out of town as he was traveling to school. As I watched the lone town motor-head, it occurred to me that he would also be the type who would fight for our country. He joined the Marines after graduation.

But before that, the speed bump was installed.

Public safety is important. Speed limits are good. Enforcing speed limits is better. But installing the speed bump was an overreaction.

It happens all too often. We get a good idea and then take it too far.

All around the country, parents have been a positive force in the education system. Throughout the pandemic, they demanded that teachers return to in-classroom teaching, questioned the efficacy of masking students, and challenged the teaching of critical race theory or any type of racism or discrimination. 

Parents have been successful, and it’s prompted our legislators to introduce meaningful education bills.

But, now, we’re starting to see a few examples of education bills going too far.  

A bill was introduced in the Iowa House that called for cameras in the classroom, allowing parents to view live footage. The bill failed—thankfully.

Most school administrators and teachers would welcome a parent who wanted to sit in and personally observe a classroom. But sitting at home, day after day, and remotely viewing through a supposedly secure Internet connection is too much. It’s unnecessary surveillance of the teacher and improper videotaping of children.

Parents can still do what parents have always done. Ask their children about what’s happening at school at the kitchen dinner table. There will undoubtedly be “fork-drop” moments. At that time, parents can set up meetings with school officials and discuss any concerns.

Cameras in the classroom are not needed.

In Indiana, House bill 1134 is on the move and will require teachers to post annually by August 1, every textbook, all printed material, audiovisual materials, electronic and digital sources, Internet sources, library materials, presentations, lectures and any other educational activity that will be used for instruction in the upcoming year.

The writers of the bill did smartly exclude copies of tests and scoring keys.  

It’s a lengthy bill that covers many areas, but at least this section of it seems to reach a certain level of ridiculousness.

Communication is helpful. A provided syllabus is good. Stating class goals is better. But requiring the posting of a year’s worth of every scrap of resource a teacher may use is too much.

The whole point of in-person instruction is so the teacher can, in real time, gauge whether the students are comprehending an idea, answer questions, determine where further reinforcement is needed or a new approach is warranted, and know through a continuous process of a type of “call and response” when the lesson plan can move forward.

Children aren’t computers. It’s not a simple matter of inputting data. Even the very best teachers will not be able to rigidly adhere to previously posted lesson plans, and it’s because they’re good teachers that it won’t happen. 

A 2021 survey found that nearly one in four teachers were likely to leave their profession. Job-related stress was a big factor.

Attempting to put cameras in classrooms or regimenting the academic year before it even begins only adds to that stress.

Nobody loves these children more than their parents, and it is right and good for them to be involved in their kids’ education. But let us be reasonable in the pursuit of improving the education system.

If too many speed bumps are placed on the career path of teaching, there will be no teachers left who are willing to join parents in the fight for a quality education for all.  

It’s time to go for the gold in education

gold-medal-usaEducation reform and the reduction in poverty must be tackled simultaneously to improve our education system.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development launched the Program for International Student Assessment in 2000 as a tool to assess education achievement on an international level. In 2000, there were just 41 countries reporting data. That year, the United States ranked 16th in reading, 20th in math, and 15th in science. Finland, Canada and New Zealand took first, second and third in reading while Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea took the top three spots in math and science.

The 2015 PISA report included data from 70 countries. The United States ranked 23rd in reading, 39th in math and 25th in science. Singapore and Hong Kong were the education heavyweights.

Americans are more competitive than that. We want the gold, the silver, or at least the bronze—not 39th.

But when it comes to education, we tend to lose our all-in, competitive drive to succeed and instead fall back on protective, territorial natures.

New Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has received blistering opposition from teachers’ unions and others. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, said that she is, “…dangerously unqualified and lacks the experience we demand…”

But teaching experience hasn’t historically produced exceptional results in this leadership role. During the first 15 years of the PISA report, Rod Paige, a former superintendent for the Houston Independent School District, served as Education Secretary during the Bush Administration and Arne Duncan, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, served for the Obama Administration. Going from 20th in math out of 41 countries in 2000 to 39th in math out of 70 countries in 2015 is not an improvement, despite having very qualified and experienced educators at the helm.

DeVos gave a less than stellar performance at her confirmation hearing, but one theme that stood out was her desire to empower parents. Nobody cares more about the education of our children than their parents. Maybe it’s time to allow them greater decision-making through school choice. If private schools were to receive public funds, though, it should be required that these institutions—just like public schools—be non-selective in accepting students and be accountable and transparent through standardized and reported testing.

The competitive scramble for those finite, public dollars could affect infrastructure. High performing schools may expand. Low performing schools may close. One thing that won’t change is that we will always have parents who want the best for their kids, students who want the opportunity to realize their full potential, and teachers who want to help them reach their dreams. The particular building in which they accomplish that is less important.

But even a monumental decision to implement school choice wouldn’t solve the poverty factor. Teachers have been telling us for a long time that student poverty is one of the greatest challenges they face in successfully educating our youth.

According to both the OECD and UNICEF, the United States has one of the highest relative (less than one-half the nation’s median income) childhood poverty rates among developed nations. The argument that poverty is affecting the success that teachers have in the classroom has merit, and it’s not the job of the educator to fix that. That responsibility belongs to our legislators.

Legislators must do everything possible to bring good-paying jobs to their state. For those families still struggling in low-paying jobs, an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $9.00 could be a real help. Small businesses have shown that reasonable increases can be absorbed.

It’s tough to instantly produce good-paying jobs, but raising the minimum wage is entirely within their power. Until legislators increase the minimum wage, they cannot sincerely say that they are doing their part to improve education.

We must do something different to better compete at the international level on education. School choice has been talked about for decades. Perhaps the time has come to act instead of talk. Trusting parents, instead of the government, to make education choices for our youth might be the sea change that is needed.

If we can make bold moves and reduce poverty, maybe we could even medal at the 2030 PISAs.