The Problem of Compartmental and Universal Thinking in Ed Reform


In response to education posts in this space, commenter Joe Smith has been raising smart questions that deserve deeper thought.  Unfortunately, that often means they’ll go without response, given my limited time.  Yesterday, however, Joe’s comment to my post about the discrepancy between the race and gender of struggling Providence students and their teachers evokes a bigger theme:

The last Commissioner would duck when the point of teacher gender proportions was raised in response to his statement that the classroom teachers should reflect the community – clearly his focus was on women of color. Heaven forbid we talk about whether the elementary school 85-15 women to men ratio has an effect on the reading / literacy gap among boys.

And take out ‘gym’ teachers (and music) – probably goes north of 90%

But Justin – it’s not just public schools. You write – If a school could try to fill an obvious need by emphasizing male teachers, for example, then families who think that environment might help their children could give it a try, and we could all observe the results.

Well, Catholic schools are 86% female in elementary – about the same as public schools – and same trend that high school tends to be more closer to 50/50. Arguably decades ago that would be unsurprising given the role of nuns in catholic education; however, laity make up 98% of the catholic teachers so it would seem the same “supply” side of the market issues prevail. Hence, either “the demand” side from parents is weak or regardless of that, there are supply side (ranging from low starting pay across both public and private to the cultural dynamics) issues that simply expanding ‘choice’ isn’t going to fix. Given private schools have more flexibility in hiring, those schools would have an easier time hiring more male teachers if it was simply the need to respond to demand forces.

Perhaps we need to look at the other end of the supply pipeline. Why not, for example, eliminate the social security penalty on early retirees if the earned income is from an elementary/middle school (public or private)? Relook the AmeriCorps incentives instead of just blanket student loan forgiveness.

This relates to a Twitter exchange involving Erika Sanzi and Matt Allen, in which Matt wrote:

I want to see the research that shows that the gender/race/whatever of the teacher matching students impacts education. If it does, then why are we not talking about splitting schools up by race and gender?? Wouldn’t that be the rational next step?

I responded to Matt that things aren’t as simple as that; many other factors would confound the data. But if (1) the system is already struggling for some other reason, (2) students are expressing a feeling of ambivalence from teachers, and (3) the race/gender disparity is this big, decreasing the perceived differences between teachers and students could be part of a first-round of actions.  We can’t deny that our progressive society is saturated with racial thinking, and even were it nothing but an easy excuse for failure, there is some value to taking that excuse away.

Of course, the complexity of the issue is relevant to Joe Smith’s argument, too.  If private schools are doing something else right, demographic differences between students and faculty might not have any effect at all.  For instance, a private school can lose its students easily if it fails to provide some perceived extra value versus the “free” public alternative, and the teachers don’t tend to be unionized.  These factors could give teachers greater incentive to make every student feel wanted, which could far outweigh any tendency to engage only with those students whom a teacher finds easiest to relate to.

To put the matter in the economic terms that Joe uses, the “demand” for male teachers in private schools could be weak because the marginal benefit over the product they already provide is minimal or nonexistent.  One would not, after all, argue against nutritionally fortifying rice sent to a starving nation on the grounds that American restaurants don’t add such fortification to the food that they provide.  They don’t have to, and most Americans don’t need it.

This analogy raises another market consideration for educational freedom, the whole purpose of which is to provide opportunity to those who lack the means to acquire it on their own.  It may be that the needs of students from families that can afford to pay additionally to their taxes for education are different from the needs of students from families that cannot.  Creating a pool of revenue that serves this community would make it possible to address a market need that is currently unanswered.

All of the analysis points to the single most important quality of educational freedom reforms:  They aren’t about finding and providing the solution, but about creating a new framework in which the people closest to the schools and closest to the students can figure out what solutions work for them.  Just so, the single biggest flaw of our current approach to education is that it requires us to figure out paradigms and fixes that can be applied universally.

That’s a very strange demand from a society that claims to value diversity.