Monday, June 25, 2012

Fixing Public Education ... Requires Freedom and Accountability for Teachers

Most teachers are great and very much want to do good jobs with their students. The problem is the cumbersome government bureaucracy and the "dumbing down" effect of the non-student focused teachers unions.

Charter schools, vouchers, the subsidiarity principle, local control and similar approaches all support the idea of "autonomous schools" as the guiding principle for the future of public education in America.

Public education needs an overhaul, especially in urban areas. We need to recognize that spending more money isn't the answer to our woes, but rather that the government school bureaucracy in combination with public sector teachers unions are taking us nowhere in the global race to have the world's best educated and informed citizens.

On the eve of the summer Olympics, please consider this: If we finished between 15th and 25th in Olympic basketball or track and field this summer in London, as examples, the American people would be in an uproar. We expect the gold. We accept nothing less.

So since we always tend to get that which we're willing to accept, anything other than gold in basketball is unacceptable. In other words, expect and accept mean the same thing with respect to what is considered to be an acceptable U.S. performance in Olympic basketball.

Why then do we accept other nations leaving us in the dust with respect to the competition of educating our young people?

Better Schools, Fewer Dollars provides a solid overview of the freedom and accountability issues, so we'll quote therefrom at some length:

(1) Global Educational Performance ... It's Not The Money

"Here's what looks like a policy dilemma. To attain the economic growth that it desperately needs, the United States must improve its schools and train a workforce capable of competing in the global economy. . . . improving student achievement by half of one standard deviation—roughly the current difference between the United States and Finland—would increase U.S. GDP growth by about a full percentage point annually. Yet states and the federal government face severe budgetary constraints these days; how are policymakers supposed to improve student achievement while reducing school funding?

In reality, that task is far from impossible. The story of American education over the last three decades is one not of insufficient funds but of inefficient schools. Billions of new dollars have gone into the system, to little effect. Luckily, Americans are starting to recognize that we can improve schooling without paying an additional dime. In fact, by unleashing the power of educational choice, we might even save money while getting better results and helping the economy's long-term prospects.

Over the last four decades, public education spending has increased rapidly in the United States. According to the Department of Education, public schools spent, on average, $12,922 per pupil in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. Adjusting for inflation, that's more than double the $6,402 per student that public schools spent in 1975.

Despite that doubling of funds, just about every measure of educational outcomes has remained stagnant since 1975, though some have finally begun to inch upward over the last few years. Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the only consistently observed measure of student math and reading achievement over the period—have remained relatively flat since the mid-1970s. High school graduation rates haven't budged much over the last 40 years, either.

(2) Inefficiencies Due to Government Bureaucracy and Teachers Unions

"Public schools are inefficient for many of the same reasons that the Department of Motor Vehicles and other government bureaucracies are. In her book Educational Economics, University of Washington researcher Marguerite Roza shows that public school inefficiencies are largely the product of burdensome regulations imposed by a top-down organizational model. School districts collect money and allocate it from a central base according to a variety of bureaucratic rules, only some of which make sense. Schools themselves have little discretion over how to use their resources.

Consider the way public schools spend money on their most important asset: teachers. According to the Department of Education, teacher salaries and benefits account for about 54 percent of public school budgets, which surely suggests that they should be structured in a way that maximizes those dollars. Instead, teacher salaries depend entirely on two criteria that, the evidence shows, bear little or no connection to a teacher's effectiveness: years of experience and number of advanced degrees. As a result, schools must pay higher salaries to teachers who may not be more effective than teachers lacking advanced degrees or with fewer years on the job. A more efficient system, of course, would direct capital to the teachers whom the school most wants in the classroom, regardless of what their résumés look like.

In most districts, public schools aren't even allowed to decide which teachers to employ, since tenure ensures that principals can't remove the least effective teachers. Most collective bargaining agreements also allow more senior teachers to push their way into job openings, regardless of whether the principal thinks they're right for the job. Nor can schools make their own decisions about whom to keep when they're laying teachers off: either by state law or by collective bargaining agreement, most school systems require that layoffs be carried out strictly according to seniority, without any consideration of teachers' value. Thus, when budget cuts arrive, schools not only face staff reductions; they often lose their best young teachers. And since pay is based on seniority, the schools are simultaneously dismissing their least expensive teachers."

(3) Local Control and the Freedom to Act Locally is Essential

"A final flaw . . . is (to blame the lack of) school spending under the current system, when it is precisely that system's structure that leads to widespread inefficiency. Perhaps public schools don't have adequate resources to succeed under the terrible rules governing their allocation of dollars. The answer to that problem isn't to give even more money to them; it's to change the system and find ways to allocate dollars more productively.

Schools don't need more funds; they need the freedom to use their funds as they see best. That can happen only if the restrictions of the current system no longer bind them. A better system—one that the United States should begin moving toward—would be a taxpayer-funded one of relatively autonomous schools. Every school would become, in effect, a charter school. Districts would still have a role in this kind of system, imposing performance standards that schools would have to meet to keep their doors open. But it would be each school's responsibility to adopt sound policies and use its resources wisely.

Such a system of autonomous schools isn't as far-fetched as it once seemed. In some places, the charter sector (and voucher programs) is beginning to rival the traditional public school system....

As more students use public dollars to attend schools outside the traditional public school sector, student achievement will probably improve, and expenditures will certainly decline. That's an outcome that should interest lawmakers in these fiscally troubled times."

My Take

In public education we absolutely need to stop spending more and accepting less for what we're spending.

This entire educational issue needs to be approached with the unwavering goal of the U.S. once again having the world's best informed, trained and competitive work force.

So all of us must stop looking the other way or making excuses for many of our public school systems' failures.

And let's quit playing the blame game, too.

If we start insisting on results, transparency, accountability and local autonomy, our problems will be solved. It's as easy as 1-2-3.

(1) Our students deserve the very best from us as they prepare to enter the global competitive race.

(2) By so doing, we'll all end up being happy campers ---- including the tens of thousands of our hard working, caring and highly qualified teachers. And in addition to helping make the high performing teachers happy campers, we will be able to afford to pay them more, too.

(3) And save the taxpayers lots of currently wasted money at the same time.

Thanks. Bob.

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