Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why we keep wasting money in education and how we can stop

Budget time is always illuminating.  If you follow the money, you begin to get a clear picture of what we value.  In education, for example, even when millions of dollars need to be cut, there is always money for new positions: in our district we now have “Instructional Coordinators” whose job it is to implement RTI, a new method – not a program we are repeatedly reminded – to assist students who struggle with learning.  In previous years we've had Literacy Lead teachers; in other districts they have technology integrationists or learning catalysts or curriculum support teachers.  In each case the purpose of these new positions is to apply and spread a “new and improved” method for teaching.

It’s understandable when you consider that, as a society, we are infatuated with “new and improved” (we put these words together as if they belong in a pair like “salt and pepper”).  Despite our criticism of the factory model in education (kids in rows with a teacher churning out the same lesson with the same worksheets to be completed in the same way by all children), our values continue to be firmly industrial: we believe in constant improvement, that everything can get better through the application of scientific principles. We don’t even ask the question – do we want to continue to improve what we’re already doing? Improvement is good.  And “new” is so tangled with “improved” in our mind that new is good.

Why do we need a new position for these new ideas?  Couldn't we simply introduce them to the existing staff?  That’s connected to another value: we want to improve quickly.  The industrial ideal sets great store by immediate results – quick profit.  We have no patience for the traditional understanding of time, of nurturing, of patience, of slow.  This value, applied to education, is revealed in our obsession with data collection to “prove” that our methods are yielding results, as though learning can be manufactured, as if it occurs in tidy lock-stepped increasing increments that can be neatly charted, as if, like big agriculture, we can find the equivalent of grow lamps and fertilizer to maximize our yield. We don’t question speed.  “Fast,” like “new” and “improved,” is always good.

But how do we get all teachers to learn, understand, accept and apply new methods quickly?  Learning, at least learning beyond rote repetition, is a slow process as teachers know better than anyone.  Teachers can “learn” new methods sufficiently to put up the posters, use the vocabulary, rearrange their classrooms - but to apply them takes time and deep understanding. A quick solution is a work-around: create a new position and hire people who already know how to use whatever method we are espousing as the “fix” for education. These new people will then inspire others by showcasing the new methods and train the rest of the staff over time.
It sounds like a good idea.  After all, the results should yield new and improved fast.

The first difficulty arising from this solution, however, is the budget: to afford the new positions, we need to eliminate some traditional ones. The second is that times change again. There are always newer new things. Then what?  Eliminate that new position. Create a new new one. Rehire.
That’s when the cost of change begins to balloon. The continuous destabilization of staff causes collateral damage. “Reorganization” always pits one group against another, strips the commitment and passion away from those who are deemed unimportant and sets them against the new group. What’s more, the new position is usually in the charge of the school district (another work-around to allow districts to rehire who they deem appropriately versed in the new and improved methods) rather than based in schools where the students are. Unfortunately, no matter how research-based our methods, in the end, it is only in relationship with children that learning happens. Every cut to schools and classrooms is a cut to student learning.

But in true industrial fashion, we might dismiss these costs if the benefits outweigh them.  Are the people in these new positions able to effect the change they are hired to implement?  Do teachers change their practice?  

A few do, of course. However, they are the ones who are already teaching in a similar way: the new method is just a variation easily adopted. For the rest, I've rarely seen it. First, learning happens in relationship. That is true for adults as well as children. Yet these new positions are set up in opposition to the rest of the staff, set up as “special,” created at the expense of some other position or program, created, in fact, because management doesn't believe teachers can change or learn without “special” support, set up, because teachers need to be fixed and aren't worthy as they are. No matter how powerful these “special teachers” are, they are put in an untenable position.

And the children?  Does all of this reshuffling of resources change their learning? No. Not one bit. As our education budgets focus on “new and improved,” students receive less and less support, since money is syphoned out of schools to pay for a constant round of changes.  And a hidden cost: teaching is an emotionally draining position. (This is very easy to understand. Simply imagine yourself in a room with 30 children for six hours five days a week.) If the environment of the teacher is stressful, negative, and frustrating, their reserves are reduced. It’s harder to remain positive and patient. And to learn, children need both in limitless supplies from their teachers.  

Despite continued failure, we still believe that new and improved ideas will fix education so that each child can learn faster and better. We simply need to do more (another industrial value). We now have “Principals of Innovation and Change” in a number of school districts (as though we can manufacture innovation). We know that teachers are the fulcrum for whatever idea we espouse, so all plans center on reshaping teachers to fit the ideas. It hasn't worked. We are now considering putting more pressure on teachers to make them more pliant. Look to our neighbours to the south. It won’t work.
What we need is a shift in values.

Every year we are reminded that most of our budget goes to pay staff, the biggest portion going (unsurprisingly) to teachers. What makes most sense, then, is that we value our richest resource: teachers. That doesn't mean we don’t need and want teachers to learn new methods. It means that the process starts with teachers, whose expertise and understanding of the teaching context in their school is our most valuable asset.

Here are some simple budget strategies based on valuing teachers, which at the same time, provide opportunities for learning new ideas.
  • Eliminate the budget line for new positions designed to teach new methods as well as the one used to fly people in from around the world to spend an hour or two telling teachers how to teach in new ways. Instead, use the funding to provide release time in schools for teachers to learn together about what they need to know when they need to know it, to follow their curiosity, to discover, to challenge themselves, to explore together. When our learning is connected to the problems we are facing we are motivated not only to learn from others, but to create new ideas that directly meet student needs.
  • Provide a budget line for what teachers want to learn. Ask them. Use that information to develop (with teachers by teachers) after-school, evening and online workshops, do-shops, making and sharing sessions. When we are part of the planning and engaged in the experience, when it matches what we need, we are excited to attend, even after a long day’s work.
  • Organize meeting opportunities for people teaching the same courses – grade 7 teachers, for example, or Math 10 –  and people who are passionate about the same idea – using technology to meet the needs of diverse learners, let’s say. Do not use the time to tell them what to think. Instead, provide time for teams to co-develop lessons and resources that meet curricular objectives, to share ideas and to build a strong network of support across the district. When the experience is directly related to our work or our passion, our commitment sky-rockets, our contribution doubles.
  • In the current paradigm of changing and fixing, discouragement drives shut doors and passive non-compliance. Instead, spend money gathering, organizing, sharing and celebrating the extraordinary work of teachers in the district. Not only will the school district have valuable resources and inspiration for all teachers, but simply being appreciated for the long hours, the hard work, the deep commitment, is a strong motivator to continue to do excellent work.  
Even adding the small costs that I've suggested, the savings would be enormous. The results, I’m confident, would be impressive. Not immediately, though. It would take some time. There are no quick fixes for important things. But imagine the strength that would come from not squandering the money spent on “improving” teachers.  Instead of telling them what to do – constantly retraining them to fit into some factory teaching design using the same method in the same way – we would ask them what they can contribute to our common goal, which is always the same: to educate children beautifully.

I’m not against new ideas in education. On the contrary. But in valuing ideas first, we run roughshod over people and the ideas die. If we value people first, the best and strongest ideas can spread from person to person and grow to meet the needs in schools for children.  

Imagine the power.