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The history of American K-12 education has been marked by cycles of change, of “reforming again and again and again,” as Larry Cuban described the patterns in K-12 education (12). Something of the same pattern can be detected in community colleges, where experienced faculty remember a period of innovation during the 1960s and early 1970s, which gave way to “privatization” and the sanctity of the individual classroom (National Working Commission 23). Now there seems to be a revival of innovation. The use of computers is high on almost every list of changes, the shift toward more student-centered teaching, the use of learning communities and other collaborative efforts, programs that integrate academic and occupational content are well known, if not always widespread. This paper, by comparing the US, Canadian, and international educational systems, analyzes the problems and pitfalls of the American educational system, arguing that the US is loosing to other countries in its educational leadership.
Some developments in the US K-12 education have been more saying than doing, and some practices have been adopted without much thought being given to their underlying philosophy. The cheering for technology in the classroom is one example. Its partisans have not distinguished between practices that simply replicate old-fashioned drills or enhance the conventional information dump—now relabeled multimedia—and those used in the writing process, in math, or in business simulations that make full use of the computer’s power in non-traditional ways (Van Andel 45). Similarly, the ineffective use of discussion, the adoption of small-group methods for fact finding, or learning communities or applied math courses that merely re-label older practices are innovations only in name. A deeper understanding of pedagogical assumptions is necessary to convert slogan into innovation.
It’s difficult to produce the shift in basic approaches to teaching necessary for these innovations, as Cuban clarifies for K-12 education (How teachers taught 34). The long journeys of individual community college instructors, as they have felt their way through trial and error away from conventional didactic methods, attribute to the difficulty of changing basic conceptions of what knowledge is important and what roles students should play. But without such a shift, any particular practice—this year a computer, next year distance learning, five years down the pike yet another idea—will be adopted in partial and incomplete ways, changing the outward appearances of classrooms but not the basic forms of teaching and learning.
While individual instructors can and do change their teaching, the process by which they typically do so— trial and error, with a little help from their friends—isn’t particularly efficient, effective, or uniform. Many instructors don’t struggle, and the worst isolate themselves from their peers, so there can’t be much influence (National Working Commission 25). Instructors themselves complain about how lengthy the process is and how uncertain “learning by doing” can be. The desire that many instructors express for a more collective approach to teaching, in which faculty observe and learn from each other, reflects deep dissatisfaction with the current state of teacher preparation and development (National Working Commission 34-36).
Institutional support means more than money. It includes promotion by administrators and their intervention to coordinate many parts of a college, from deans to instructors to keepers of the master schedule. But these are cases where resources make a difference. In some colleges, resources are simply unavailable for luxuries like team teaching and staff development. Even where they are available, single-minded attention to enrollments, budgets, and efficiency—or “budget-minded administrators always looking at the bottom line”—undermines any commitment to teaching practices that do not increase enrollments, even though they may be more effective. Most subtly of all, those practices that might be adopted for pedagogical reasons—distance learning to meet the needs of remote or snow-bound students, computers to bring new kinds of instruction, learning communities to enhance connections among subjects—are invariably undermined when they are promoted for fiscal reasons.
Thus distance learning and computer instruction as mechanisms for reducing the costs of instructors invariably lead back to “talking heads” in place of interactive methods. Learning communities that teach large numbers of students with low-cost part-time instructors undermine the planning among instructors and the interactions among students that are essential to this form of teaching. Thus, the innovations will not endure unless colleges support them with the institutional resources they have at their command (National Working Commission 38-39).
In K-12 education in Canada, schools often find that the conflict over defining and measuring merit is not worth the cost to collegiality. Merit pay systems have worked well only in districts where pay is above average, working conditions are good, and teachers and unions have successfully collaborated over time—conditions that are missing in many community colleges. Merit pay might therefore create divisions, whereas one goal of a teaching institution should be to create community. The benefits of observing teaching in classrooms, creating collegiality through peer observation, and taking the quality of teaching seriously in regular reviews can all be realized, we suspect, without moving to merit pay.
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To be sure, there has been considerable controversy in Canada about teacher preparation (Van Andel 53). Many teacher training programs are considered quite weak, and they are often blamed for the problems of education. But, at least in K-12 education, there is considerable evidence that untrained teachers are disastrous for students. Equally important, community college instructors seem to regard pre-service education about teaching as appropriate to their work. Given the long process of trial and error that has led many innovative instructors to their teaching approaches, pre-service instructor education could speed up the development of teaching appropriate to community colleges (Van Andel 67).
A careful examination of practice in a group of districts in British Columbia, Canada, suggests that resource allocation practices are over-generalized. There are important differences in allocation policies among districts, which are related both to differences in norms or beliefs and to differences in district quality (Van Andel 69).
With respect to resource allocation in public school education generally, equity and excellence are usually treated as competing policy goals, poles apart. Funding schemes seek an equatorial band, which yields some of each. It seems that equity and excellence are not polar opposites but rather are like parallels of latitude, which can never meet. Consequently districts require allocation policies that promote two separate policy purposes, to be judged by two sets of criteria.
The information presented below comes from the findings of a study of ten British Columbia districts conducted by two of the authors (Coleman & LaRocque), and later work by Peter Coleman and colleagues on family contributions (Coleman, Collinge, & Tabin 95-105).
Coleman and LaRocque examined district administrative norms and practices with regard to academic emphases, school accountability, management of change, eliciting professional commitment, parental involvement, and parental integration in instruction (23-27). Resource allocation was not a major focus of the study, yet the respondents, district and school administrators, discussed resource allocation issues throughout the interviews. More- and less-successful districts clearly differed in their approaches to resource allocation with respect to (a) the conceptualization of resources, (b) the decision-making process, and (c) the norms underlying resource allocation decisions (Coleman and LaRocque 34-38).
Significant changes in state and provincial funding of districts have been driven by such equity concerns. But student achievement levels remain strongly associated with family background variables. If equity is defined as achievement levels disassociated from family background, race, or ethnicity, there remain significant inequities in the United States and in Canada (Coleman et al. 104-107).
Some scholars have argued that inequities continue as a consequence of inadequate local implementation of federal mandates (Coleman et al. 109). However, the confusion between equality and equity is also important: School districts continue to allocate resources internally on the basis of equality, without adequate measures of need, resulting in inequity. Even equality of allocation, although intended, is rare in practice: Cuban shows that staff were allocated to schools randomly with respect to achievement levels in fifteen of the districts; in the others there were fewer teachers in schools with achievement deficits (How teachers taught 56).
Fiscal resources have been widely used in the United States to spur educational reform with respect to excellence. Educational expenditures in the United States rose by 21 percent after inflation between 1993 and 1998. Much of this money has gone to increasing teacher salaries. In Canada, there is less conviction about the utility of additional expenditures, and education spending adjusted for inflation has been flat during roughly the same period (National Working Commission 89). However, teacher salaries were about 15 percent higher in Canada before the U.S. increases, which have roughly equalized average salaries between the two countries.
Yet the most-careful longitudinal analyses have been unable to demonstrate a significant relationship between overall spending and outcomes for individual students or for classes or schools. Scholars have shown that for at least one U.S. state, New Jersey, there is simply no relationship between district spending per student and the achievement of students (National Working Commission 90). A meta-analysis of district-level studies has suggested that the cost-quality relationship has changed in the last two decades from positive to neutral. In British Columbia, there is a continuing significant negative relationship between spending and achievement in districts in the province (Coleman et al. 112).
Using allocation systems as incentives to increase educational productivity is currently popular. Such schemes tend to yield state-sponsored inequities such as merit pay. But there is little evidence that merit pay schemes in school districts work. Schemes either have rapidly been abandoned or have quickly lost any connection with classroom performance. This failure is rooted in a misconception about what motivates teachers and particularly about the relative importance of fiscal and productive resources as levers to changing teacher behavior. In sum, then, fiscal resources in the form of compensatory programs have largely failed to promote either equity or excellence. The failures seem to result from a lack of careful specification of targets, arising in part from the failure of production functions to yield good guidance and from misunderstandings regarding teacher incentives or indeed the whole issue of productive resources.
The point of merit pay is to encourage good teachers to do more of whatever they are doing so well, that is, to reward production. Merit pay schemes are seldom deemed to have been successful. In Canada, as in the United States, the criteria for teacher salary advancement remain time in service and the teacher's own education, with few exceptions. Merit pay schemes have failed, in part, because we are unable to identify the marginal product of teaching. Suppose it takes two teachers to produce output, not one, or suppose it takes a team of teachers, aides, volunteers, and administrators. Rewarding one of these factors of production to the exclusion of the others will not cause output to increase appreciably, and it may justifiably engender negative consequences from the unrewarded members of the team.
In sum, the process of allocation following upon rewards depends importantly upon identifying the relevant nexus of production. To fine-tune the structure of rewards implies an understanding of who and what contributes to value-added. Until we understand the locale in which the objectives we value are produced, any merit pay scheme will be groping for success. Our efforts to discover the nature of the educational process are central to the task of moving toward more efficient allocation of the hundreds of billions of dollars North America spends in educational production.