Reihan Salam’s latest piece on education reform is worth reading in full, but he does a particularly good job of articulating the thinking behind one of the least discussed, but most promising ways of altering the way we educate children — increased specialization:
Instead of simply increasing the number of teachers, Hess and Meeks propose shifting teaching from a profession built around generalists – people who teach reading and fractions and supervise bus-loading and monitor the cafeteria and grade papers – to one built around specialists. Just as the Mayo Clinic has specialists working on discrete medical problems (cardiologists here, neurosurgeons there) and support staff who enable them to do their work, schools could “unbundle” the job of teaching. We don’t find it strange or scandalous that highly trained obstetricians don’t also clear bedpans. In the same vein, schools should rely more heavily on support staff to load the bus, monitor the cafeteria and grade exams while letting teachers who are really great at teaching fifth grade geometry focus on teaching fifth grade geometry. Like medical specialists, specialist teachers in the rarest, most demanding fields should expect more compensation. School employees with skills that aren’t quite as uncommon, meanwhile, could be paid less without sacrificing quality.
This particular scenario is a key cause of the animosity and vacuousness that plagues education policy debates. Think about what an era of specialization would mean for teachers. Many who don’t earn “lecturer” status would receive pay cuts or be relegated to jobs they felt were beneath them. Others might need new training or credentialing in order to stay employed. Overall, while it would unequivocally be better for kids, it would be a disaster for unions.
One reason more fire is being trained on unions is that they’ve failed to effectively respond to these hypothetical, but realistic situations in which union priorities conflict with student priorities. The standard response is to reaffirm that anything bad for teachers has t0, by definition, be bad for kids, a point that’s incredibly shortsighted given the potential for technological advances. What’s worse, unions are bent on destroying charter schools, the 4% of our education system where schools can experiment with some of these new ways of instruction.
Faced with this apparent close-mindedness, many have decided that the optimal reform strategy is to eschew any specific policies and simply do everything possible to destroy unions. The result is that unions see opponents who are only concerned with union destruction, and they respond by vehemently opposing everything these opponents might conceivably favor. This union recalcitrance then confirms everything their opponents initially believed. The cycle continues until we’re left with one side claiming it’s bad when rich people spend money to educate poor kids and the other side claiming that teachers are lazy, selfish, money-grubbing jerks.
The larger consequence is that for all the hype that certain current events (e.g. CTU strike, NYC mayoral election) are huge battles for the future of the education system, the real battle royale will take place a few years from now when there’s enough data from from Rocketship, School of One, and Teach to One that we’ll have a real answer to questions about computer-based learning. At that point it will be up to “reformers” to prove to the public that it’s possible for something that’s bad for teachers to be good for kids, and if they can, for unions to come up with a legitimate response.