Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Education Reform Looks Like When Students Come First: A Common Sense Approach to The Luna Plan

I try to steer clear of contemporary politics on this site. As a topic it is just too easy and everyone is doing it. But Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's education reform plan - technically known as "Students Come First" or the "Luna Plan" for short - has become the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. Everyone is talking about it but me. The vitriol and ad hominem attacks and intimidation tactics against Mr. Luna and his plan have spiraled out of control. Both sides are scoring cheap political points with unsubstantiated claims and second-rate rhetoric.  It is a subject I simply cannot avoid any longer.

The Luna Plan is rapidly changing and might be different by the time you read this, but as far as I can tell right now it consists of the following basic elements:

·        Mr. Luna proposes to purchase a portable electronic device - a laptop, iPad, or a different device at the discretion of each district - for all incoming high school freshman.
·        Each student would then be required to take at minimum 2 online courses throughout their high school careers.
·        The state would eliminate 770 teaching jobs over the next 2 years to pay for the portable electronic devices and the web-based educational resources.
·        Fewer teachers would result in an increase in average class size in grades 4 through 12 by roughly 2 students per class.
·        Use savings from position eliminations to institute a system of merit-based pay.
·        Eliminate tenure for new teachers and move teachers to 2 year contracts.

I wish I had time to dive up to my elbows in research and look at every last study on educational technology, but I cannot; as such, I will try to look at each of these points not with data and research but with an unbiased and common sense approach. It is no small challenge. As a parent with young children, I have a stake in the debate; however, I am also fiscally conservative and I am sensitive to the economic and budgetary challenges facing our public officials today.

I think most reasonable people can agree there are both good and bad elements in Luna's Plan. Let us start with the good. First, one of the Luna Plan's most contentious aspects is the requirement that students at traditional high schools take at least two online classes over the course of their high school careers. I could write a whole article on just this issue, so I will try to keep it succinct. Teachers reasonably argue that an online class can never replace a traditional classroom, and they are right. Learning in an intimate, personal environment with a mentor-teacher who can provide one-on-one instruction and assistance will always be superior; however, our public school classrooms have ceased to be that long ago (more on this below.) As such, the teachers criticisms are lessened. Furthermore, web-based instruction is not coming; it is already here. Sink your teeth into this little morsel of irony: as part of the teacher education program at the local state university, I was required to take an online class - taught by an instructor in Florida that I never met or even spoke to - that taught me to use technology in education. If online education is good enough to train our teachers, then it does not seem problematic that high school students be exposed to it. Two classes over four years does not seem unreasonable. One more thing: the corporation I worked at for several years used web-based classes for training. Without equivocation, students with some exposure to online learning are better prepared for both the workplace and university.

One more positive. Teacher tenure is possibly the worst idea ever. The guy who invented tenure should be locked in a cage with the guy that invented pensions and the two should be made to fight to the death. Tickets and pay-per-view packages could be sold to the public with the proceeds going to fund the absurd plans they cursed the rest of us with. In my thirty years as a student I have sat in enough classes to know there are some teachers who need encouragement to find a different career. They either do not possess the teaching gift or the idea of tenure and almost zero accountability has allowed them to check out of the classroom. These instructors hurt our children in ways that are almost impossible to repair. At best they do not impart their material to the students entrusted to them, leaving the task to some later instructor; at worst their ineffectual teaching forever quashes their students' love of learning. Administrators and parents need to have the power and the motivation to constantly demand high-quality instruction from their teachers, and job security is one of the most powerful means of accomplishing that. Period.

On to the negatives. The plan to buy a portable electronic device for every high school student must not be approved. It is simply unnecessary and wasteful. I say this for several reasons. First, how many students have affluent parents who have already provided a similar device for them? For the state to provide one would be redundant. Or worse yet, parents who can afford it would refrain, knowing the state will provide one when their students reach 9th grade. Second, this element of the plan is ridiculously expensive at a time when budgetary constraints are racking the state. Surely this is money that could be better spent elsewhere. Third, there are logistical concerns to this plan that have not been answered. Are the students allowed to take the devices home at night? If so, what safeguards are in place to protect the students and the devices? If not, where will they be stored at school? Where and when will they be charged? And lastly, there seem to be better alternatives to this part of the plan. For example, could money be saved by purchasing a smaller number of devices for checkout at the school library by students that need them?

One final criticism to the plan and by my lights, this is the big one. A real show killer. This criticism is terminal and the reason I do not support the plan overall. We as parents and educational activists must reject any plan that increases student-to-teacher ratios. Advocates of the plan have argue data does not show that there is a significant difference between 32 students in a class and 34 students in a class, and that may be true. However, if it is true, it is only because we have long passed the ratio at which our students learn best and our teachers are most effective. Here is what I mean: I currently observe 3 classes in a local public junior high school each week; each class is roughly 32 students; of those 32 students, in any given class, roughly 4 of them receive any kid of one-on-one interaction from the instructor; approximately 80% of that one-on-one interaction is negative and a result of bad behavior from the students, i.e. the student is acting out to get attention from the teacher; the remaining 28 students are being babysat by text books and worksheets. Yet we wonder why our system is not cultivating a love of learning in our students. Really? How much would you love your job if your day consisted of reading chapters out of text books and filling out worksheets? All day. Every day.

Am I exaggerating? Only by a little. All teachers administer a quiz or test every now and then, and the good ones do some kind of group learning activity on occasion; otherwise it is almost as bad as I described it above. If your child is well-behaved, unassuming, and an average or good achiever, I can almost guarantee he or she is mostly invisible to his or her teachers. Unless your student is a low achiever, there are few programs in place to encourage them to improve: average achievers are not challenged to become good ones, good ones are not challenged to become great ones, and great ones are not challenged to become exceptional. This is not to be taken as an indictment of individual teachers. Many of them are great people doing the absolute best they can. They have over 30 students per class, and over 160 students in toto. No one person could be expected to do more in those circumstances.Teachers are equal parts overwhelmed and undersupported. We must summarily dismiss any proposal which asks them to do more by increasing the student-to-teacher ratio.

The problems with education are systemic. The system needs to be changed. Parents cannot be expected to continue to send their children to a public school where they are largely ignored unless their performance on a standardized test threatens the school's AYP. Text books and worksheets are not adequate modes of instruction. Parents must be given options in education through voucher programs and charter and magnet schools, programs that would actually save the state money. You do the math: if a state spends $10,000 on educating a single student, and through a voucher program gives parents $5,000 to send their child to a private school, the state has netted a savings of $5,000. As parents increasingly utilize these options, student populations in public schools would decline, driving down the student-to-teacher ratios to manageable numbers where all students can actually receive high-quality, one-on-one instruction.

So we must ask ourselves: why have these programs - which at one time lower student-to-teacher ratios, decrease costs, and increase choice - not been tried, or worse yet, canceled when they were tried and were successful? That is the million dollar question. I submit that it is because on several levels for us as a society Students DO NOT Come First. Monopolies die hard. Our government is obsessed with the monopoly it holds on K-12 education and the power that comes with it. Public sector unions - i.e. teachers' unions - understand voucher and charter programs undermine their power and revenue base. Teachers in the public sector are threatened by competition from their private school counterparts. In short, students ceased to come first long ago, sacrificed on the alters of government control and union power. We should support high-quality education no matter where it happens or who administers it, a concept totally foreign to our current system.


  1. I agree with the idea of putting electronic devices into the students hands being a waste of funds.

    1) Unless they are buying a $3000 Panasonic Toughbook, there is no way that the devices will be able to withstand a 14-year-old boy for 4 years. No Way!
    2) The same boy, give a wireless device that is not monitored directly by an adult will look for girls and will find them... Since the parents did not purchase the device, the parental controls are not in their hands either. There is too much porn on the net to filter it all and a kid with time and means on his hands will find it.

    I do have reverse ideas on the class size issue. Run a concurrent credit Psych 101 in the auditorium for 200 seniors. Give them the true freshman experience. That is up to 6 classes handled at once by one faculty member and 200 students that have a vested understanding of what they are looking at for college. Psych 101, Art History, Intro to Engineering. Any 100 level course would that a university would run 100+ students would work and also utilize the auditoriums that generally sit empty.

  2. Thanks for replying, DD.

    You're right. The immediate access to pornography afforded by portable electronic devices is a big problem I didn't even touch on. In the hands of a 16 year old boy, such easy access could be devastating.

    You're lecture hall idea is an interesting one. While I wouldn't oppose it for a college prep crowd with a general elective (like those you mentioned), I don't think colleges use 200 student lectures because they necessarily think it is a great forum for instruction. I think they do it because they have to. The general elective classes attract such huge numbers that it wouldn't be practical to teach 25 sections of it.