With the federal government disengaged from K-12 education, reform efforts can occur at the local and state level. Most innovation in this area has come from the states anyway. The first area that must be explored is greater school choices for parents. The fact is that many public schools are failing in their task of educating our children for the challenges they face in the future. When looking into this subject, I was surprised o find that many states still disallow the creation of charter schools. While it is true that the chances of success of a charter school is about 50%, one needs to look at the good ones and what they do to succeed. One thing that stands out is that charter schools built around a particular “subject matter” tend to succeed probably because the student body comes from a common vision of their future. Those commonalities could be science, math, or performing arts. In New Jersey, Governor Christie recently allowed for cross district registration of students. That is, if a parent wants to send their child to a school outside their district, they apply to the new, better district and the student is granted admission on a lottery basis. From a personal standpoint, my daughter goes to a regional high school here in New Jersey that is somewhat substandard. Conversely, due to declining enrollment, a better school nearby- also a regional high school- accepts students on a lottery basis. Hence, I as a parent has choice in where I can send my child to school. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, some schools have been privatized.
Related to the subject of school choice is the controversial voucher issue. Say this word to any public school teacher and they will go ballistic. I find it ironic since these same teachers will generally also bitch about the size of their classes. Assuming a school district spends $11,000 per pupil, I do not understand why a voucher, based upon economic need, up to that amount for private education is not cost-effective. If anything, it is a sum-zero proposition at worst and a potential cost saver to the public school district at best. Naturally, the NEA and their liberal allies will claim that money is being diverted from public to private and/or parochial schools, but then their solution is just more money all the time anyway.
When picking apart some programs, there is one area that almost guarantees student success at school and that is parental involvement. Studies have shown that the children of parents who are actively involved in their child’s education- be it keeping in contact with teachers, PTA involvement, etc.- perform better in school. It is important that parents remain involved in their child’s education beyond the mandatory signing of the first report card or the occasional help with homework.
Third, in order to increase student performance, schools must attract qualified teachers. Here, the hypocrisy of the NEA is striking. One way to attract teachers is through merit pay, yet the NEA is against this concept claiming (1) it does not work and (2) it disrupts teacher unity. First, the purpose of the teaching profession is to teach, not to strengthen the ranks of the NEA. Second, while they claim that merit pay does not work, they nevertheless call for effective across the board merit pay increases by virtue of the title of “teacher.” In New Jersey, the NJEA has a stated policy that the starting salary of a teacher be $50,000 a year. That is $50,000 for stepping out of college and having a teaching certificate with absolutely no classroom experience. That is ludicrous. If they are going to make the argument that merit pay is ineffective, then they will have to make the argument that pay in general is ineffective in increasing student performance.
In a general sense, this latter view actually has some basis in fact. I compared student performance between the ten highest states in terms of average teacher pay against those of the ten lowest average teacher pay. In terms of student performance, in only one area- SAT reading scores- did the high states outperform the low states by a significant degree. In fact, among the 10 lowest paid states, the graduation rate was actually higher. When looking at the ten states with the greatest increases in teacher pay over the past decade against those with the lowest rate of pay increases, the same results were demonstrated.
As regards merit pay, some studies have shown that those programs based on individual, rather than school-wide or no programs, have better results with student performance. Also, some studies have demonstrated that merit pay systems are generally short-lived. But isn’t even a short-lived improvement better than no improvement at all? Some states have become innovative here by rearranging the chairs. At one time, this country used the ill-advised method of busing children involuntarily in order to achieve equality in education. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a financial carrot to “bus” good teachers to underperforming schools within a district?
Related to this issue is pay differentials based upon needs of a school district. Since school districts are generally short on qualified math, science, special education and ESL teachers, wouldn’t it make sense to pay them more from the outset to lure them to the profession rather than paying them the same as the gym or art teacher? Nothing against physical education or art, but when less than half of our math teachers have a major or minor in math, I would say we have a problem here. The reason is that the teaching profession, as it stands now thanks to the NEA, cannot attract the math majors because they cannot compete with the private sector. Hence, after the expiration of existing collective bargaining agreements, differential pay systems need to be instituted that reward (1) those in high-need areas, (2) those who transfer to low performing schools, and (3) those teachers designated as highly effective. Currently raises are across-the-board, which goes against the grain of most pay increase systems. Instead of guaranteed 4% annual raises, make that the ceiling with increases based upon performance reviews. Teachers will argue against this because they claim there are too many variables. However, as Tim Pawlenty proved in Minnesota and Jeb Bush in Florida, if the local union is involved in the process of developing that appraisal, they are more accepting. What Pawlenty proved is that this innovation actually works.
And speaking of attracting qualified people to the teaching profession, the NEA has constructed barriers to entry that are tantamount to restrictions. Specifically, teacher certification programs need to be reformed that stress less theory and more classroom experience. One idea is called “alternate route certification” where people with a college degree, but not a teaching certificate, can get that endorsement. However, in my home state of New Jersey, for example, before one can even get to that point, they first have to take “X” amount of college course credits in educational theory and such. I am all for making sure that just any Tom, Dick and Harry are not teaching our children, but many of these certification programs have nothing to do with classroom experience. Furthermore, private schools and parochial schools, which generally show better student performance, often use people with no certifications and they do just fine. In fact, Robert Rubin at the Brookings Institute (he is no conservative) stated that teacher certification has absolutely nothing to do with teacher effectiveness. In the Hamilton Project, he demonstrated that if 25% of the lowest performing teachers in the Los Angeles district were to be replaced by people with no certification, student test scores would increase an average of 14 points by graduation.
Like Florida, all states should adopt the policy of ceasing social promotion of students after the third grade. This is the practice of simply passing along students to the next grade not based upon their academic performance, but for social reasons, mainly their age. It should be noted that at this age- age 8- children should have developed the necessary skills to help insure future academic success. If not, it is a disservice to those students who do perform to mix the under-performers with the performers.
Finally, teacher tenure laws need to be changed. This philosophy started in higher education to facilitate academic freedom and protect professors who engaged in politically unpopular lines of research. How mush academic freedom is there in the K-12 curriculum? For the past 50 years, colleges have been reforming tenure by using adjunct or part time professors. Why? Because colleges realized that stringent tenure rules failed to address staffing inflexibility, decreased teacher efficiencies and worker motivation. That is, once one received tenure, performance dropped. I am all for job security, but when it takes more than $750,000 in legal fees to remove a poor performing teacher, the decision of the district takes no brains- it is cheaper to keep that teacher. In 2002, the Los Angeles School Board attempted to remove 400 of 35,000 teachers. In the end, they managed to remove only THREE (and two of those removals were overturned on appeal). In New York City, with over 72,000 teachers, only three were removed in a 2-year period. Assuming it costs an average of $400,000 to remove a low performing teacher who happens to have tenure and assuming 10% of the nation’s 450,000 teachers are not that great, it would cost $1.8 billion to remove 45,000 teachers nationally- a cost prohibitively expensive to most school districts. This is probably why private schools- which generally frown upon tenure rules- perform better because the teacher, if they wish to keep their job, is motivated to continue a high level of performance.
I will summarize the this all in part 3.