Target fixation is a term I learned riding a motorcycle, but it’s become a useful teaching metaphor. The lesson is basically to look where you want to go, not where you’re afraid of going. I learned my lesson when I almost hit a curb and catapulted into the Delaware River after trying to avoid a tractor trailer on a narrow bridge, but I apply it to all manner of things.
Since President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind over a decade ago, assessing the performance of our public schools has become a national obsession. NCLB was designed to tie federal Title I spending, the government’s flagship aid program for disadvantaged students, to yearly standardized tests. It was a response to Clinton-era spending increases, and it was supposed to bring market forces to bear on urban education at a time when costs were spiraling out of control without affecting performance.
As someone who worked in a school funded nearly entirely by Title I money, I’ll admit that reform was necessary. You can’t just throw money at bad schools in poor neighborhoods to make them better. But apart from instigating an important conversation, NCLB didn’t work. Today we have a system that’s obsessed with its own failings, desperately afraid of taking its eyes off of where it does not want to go, particularly with regard to its disadvantaged students. We still haven’t brought costs under control, and the achievement gap is as wide or wider than it was when the conversation started.
Lest you think this is a thinly-veiled partisan rant, allow me to submit that Bill Clinton initiated the charter school movement and the notion of empowerment zones, high-profile money pits in major media markets. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, was Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s charter-pushing, union-busting superintendent who came to his job with practically no experience in schools and learned to play the neighborhood power game very quickly. The focus on bundling assessments and federal money has politicized, nationalized, and privatized the conversation around education policy. It needs to become more local and more specific, lest we forget the real money still comes from our property taxes.
Anyone who has ever worked at a school or sent their kids to one knows they are cultural institutions. To improve them, you have to improve their cultures. Accountability is one way to do that, particularly if leaders on the ground buy into the criteria, but raising pay to increase the caliber of personnel is more effective. Want to cut costs? The upward cost trend in education is the result of retirement funds and health insurance (financial services and insurance companies), growth in administrative oversight (paper pushers), lawsuits (insurance companies and lawyers), and bussing students around (gasoline). Finding the money there will take reforming more than Title I spending. We have a whole new generation of motivated, idealistic, and well-trained teachers who like the job for its intrinsic draw, the vacation, and the kids. Let’s figure out how to pay them to stay there.