Students Tackle Public Policy Issues in Education Reform “Smackdown”

Alumni panelists Jared Fox '03, Kecia Hayes '89 and Rob Banzer '88
Alumni panelists Jared Fox '03, Kecia Hayes '89 and Rob Banzer '88

The U.S. continually ranks relatively low in quality of education, even though the nation spends more money per student than any other country. Policy changes that aim at reforming the U.S. school system could help address this disparity so that the country can perform better on a global scale, but innovative solutions are somewhat lacking and tend to be controversial. Professor Gary Wyckoff’s students worked in teams this semester to meet the challenge of devising effective yet feasible policy proposals for education. They presented and defended their projects to a panel of alumni who work in education on May 12.

Wyckoff is director of the Public Policy Program at Hamilton. The alumni panelists for this “smackdown,” as Wyckoff referred to it, included Rob Banzer ’88, assistant superintendent for instruction at Brockport High School; Jared Fox ’03, a science teacher at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City; and Kecia Hayes ’89, director of the Teachers College Partnership Schools Consortium at Columbia University in New York City.

The U.S. National Reform Team, comprised of Alicia Rost ’15, Austin Engros ’15, Fiona Wissel ’15, Matt Billet ’15, Will Hasllun ’15, and Teddy Black ’15, presented their proposal first. This group emphasized holistic, sweeping change across the entire education system from the standpoint of federal government. Their goals included universal preschool, firing ineffective teachers, and boosting funding for extra-curricular activities.

The need for universal pre-k in the U.S. was one of the most important features of the US National Reform Team’s proposal. The group’s members emphasized that students who enrolled in preschool tend to outperform students who did not. However, because this type of education is typically private and expensive, more affluent students are more likely to reap these benefits. The team cited Oklahoma as an example of a successful universal preschool program, and they hope to see such reform implemented nationwide.

In addition, this group proposed increased funding to help repair the physical condition of school in low-income neighborhoods, where dilapidation is the norm but is typically ignored. Though such policy is expensive, some of the cost would be offset by putting more energy-efficient technology into schools. The alumni panel received this idea quite well, but the suggestion to cut the lowest-performing 10% of teachers and raise salaries for the remaining instructors was more hotly-contested. Though the team demonstrated how they might get the proper funding for their proposal—for example, by cutting inefficient and unpopular military programs—the panel, especially Hayes, took issue with the political feasibility and ethical implications of firing so many individuals without due process.

The New York State Reform Team presented their proposal next. This group, which included Candice McCardle ’15, Caroline Glover ’15, Kevin Petrick ’13, Joe Rausch ’15, Mike DiMare ’14,and Patrick Donadio ‘15 focused on education reform on a smaller, more local scale. They stressed the need for constructivist, choice-centered learning in the classroom as well as better teacher preparation programs and alternative assessment methods.

The team spoke first about the need for more stringent guidelines for teacher preparation programs. Instead of admitting all prospective teachers and only weeding out some poor performers with an exam at the end of instruction, the NY Reform Team proposed tougher entrance requirements and public rankings for preparation programs.

This group also recommended more choice in the curriculum and a more flexible assessment structure. Under their proposal, students could choose to take two exams, one from a language and humanities category and the other from a quantitative and science-based category. This eliminates needless stress in students and encourages them to seek out the subjects that are meaningful to them. Tests would be assessed based on creativity, style and thought process instead of solely whether or not the answer is correct. Though the panel found this idea to be commendable, Banzer commented that it is very costly and time-consuming to grade tests in such a detailed manner.

In addition, this plan advises that teacher assessment rely solely on student evaluations, which the group believes is more effective at gauging teacher quality, and teachers should receive bonuses based on their ranking by students relative to their peers. Finally, students would have increased access to school counselors and health services, which has been found to increase interest among students in their academics.

Though the two groups targeted different areas in their proposals, increasing student creativity and critical thinking clearly played a central role in developing their ideas. When Fox asked the US National group about what they believe to be the purpose of education, one group member explained that they hoped their plan would inspire the type of lifelong skills and cognitive abilities that Hamilton students develop in college. Though these policy proposals are meant to function as an academic exercise, they demonstrate the major issues that face the education system and the type of innovative thinking required to start creating solutions.

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