February 8, 2007

Stop Pandering on Journalism

Proclaims Johnathan Alter in a seriously misguided and superficial Newsweek article "Stop Pandering on Education." I must have gotten spoiled reading Engelmann's latest book on what's wrong with education because Alter's article pales in comparison. Right off the bat Alter tells us he explicitly that he doesn't have an ounce of brains.

The crazy thing about the education debate in the United States is that anyone with an ounce of brains knows what must be done. Each political party is about half right. Republicans are right about the need for strict performance standards and wrong in believing that enduring change is possible without lots more money from Washington. Democrats are right about the need to pay teachers more but wrong to kiss up to teachers unions bent on preventing accountability.

It doesn't work that way. At all. None of these bromides is accurate. And, the break down on party affiliation is wrong to boot.

Yes, we need "strict performance standards" to measure school performance, but performance standards aren't going to force schools to do anything they don't want to. Schools don't want to change and if none of them change then they can all fail together. That effectively throws a wrench into the works. It's the ultimate loophole and schools know it well by now. This is the technique they're using to escape the provisions of NCLB. Put up a big stink, effect superficial changes, and tough it out until everyone fails. Then put up an even bigger stink until the political fallout becomes untenable.

Schools certainly don't need "lots more money from Washington." They have more than enough money already, especially big city school districts which are flush with five digit per pupil budgets already. Alter is, of course, a Democrat partisan masquerading as a neutral journalist and throwing more money at problems is the Democrat answer to everything. Too bad this gambit doesn't solve problems like it's supposed to since we currently throw enough money at our problems already to have solved all of them. Clearly we haven't--which to Democrats merely means we aren't spending enough. A nice little positive feedback system.

Teachers are paid handsomely already so there is no need to pay them more, though I'm you won't find teachers complaining. Teachers aren't saints because they teach children, they are merely workers providing a service like the rest of us. They are paid in line with the compensation paid to other professionals and there is no indication that we need to attract a better class of teachers to improve instruction. Our current crop of teachers is up to the task once someone trains them how to teach, something their ed schools failed to do.

And while I'm with Alter on the need for Democrats to stop "kiss[ing] up to teachers unions bent on preventing accountability," we're past that stage now. We have accountability measures in place and there's lots of parental and taxpayer support behind such measures. Union agitation notwithstanding, accountability is here to stay. Too much money is being sucked out of taxpayer pockets nowadays for people not to care if that money is being spent wisely. And, when taxpayers concede accountability, you can kiss government run public education goodbye.

[New York Governor Eliot] Spitzer seems game to fight his own party's instinct to pander. "The national Democratic Party has got to understand that real education reform is a central issue both politically and for our economic future," he told me last week. "We have to get our arms around the idea that if there's no performance, you must remove those responsible for the failure." It's a sad commentary on Democrats that they've allowed "educational accountability" to become a winning issue for the GOP.

But that failure is a failure of leadership and it is a total failure. Even if we fired all the underperforming principals and superintendents, who are we going to replace them with? The next batch of clueless educators waiting in the wings? Here's a good example of what I'm talking about:

In New York City—home to 1,400 schools, 80,000 teachers and 1.1 million students—Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a huge improvement over his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani) is showing what accountability means. First, he won mayoral control of the school system, a prerequisite for getting anything done in a big city. Now his tough-minded schools chancellor, Joel Klein (a Democrat), is moving forward on an important new plan to slash administrative layers and empower individual schools. The idea is to make each principal "the CEO of the school instead of an agent of the bureaucracy," Klein says. More than 300 New York principals are signing performance contracts that give them more control in exchange for being accountable. Klein means business: "If your school gets a D or an F, I'm gonna fire your ass."

Bloomberg brought in Klein, a business guy, to fix education in NYC. Klein, being a business guy, didn't know the first thing fixing education and did what business guys do, hire experts. But, there are precious few experts who know what they're talking about in education and Klein, being a business guy, didn't realize that he had hired a bunch of witch doctors as his experts. So now Klein is trying to transform the NYC school system into a well oiled business which just happens to be selling a failed product (constructivist education) recommended by his "experts." Klein hasn't yet realized this demonstrating that he really wasn't the business guru Bloomberg thought he was.

Alter concludes his article with an attack on teachers which he thinks are the cause of our education woes:

A big accountability problem nationwide is teacher tenure, which is almost automatically awarded whether a teacher is good or not. If he's not, he gets to commit educational malpractice for the next 40 years...

It's time to move from identifying failing schools to identifying failing teachers. That sounds obvious, but until now it hasn't happened in American education. "We need a management tool that can show whether Ms. Jones can teach long division," says Margaret Spellings, Bush's sensible secretary of Education. Too many educators are still caught in what Klein calls a "culture of excuses." The excuse du jour is that NCLB is "punitive."

There exist some bad apple teachers that shouldn't be teaching anything to anyone ever. There are always a few bad workers in any profession or occupation that aren't suited for the tasks of the job. So let's fire them. Now we are left with the competent ones. Almost all these teachers are capable of teaching children and are more than willing at today's salary structure. The only problem is that most of them don't know how to teach competently. Their schools of education didn't prepare them and they haven't received any effective in service training. Why point fingers at them? The failure is a failure of management. Teachers will teach what they are told to teach or what they are permitted to teach. The problem is that they aren't being told the right things to teach and the right way to teach. And, they certainly haven't been trained to teach properly. They do it the way it's always been done (at least superficially) and it just so happens that that way doesn't work well at all.

18 comments:

Michael said...

a Democrat partisan

That's "Democratic" partisan.

KDeRosa said...

See what happens when you rush

allen said...

If this is true:

More than 300 New York principals are signing performance contracts that give them more control in exchange for being accountable.

then part of the necessary foundation's been laid to reform public education.

One of the other necessities is rewarding excellence substantively. Not pats on the head and "Teacher of the week" nonsense but real money.

The final necessity is parental choice of course.

If the teacher isn't in charge of the classroom, the principal in charge of the school and the parent in charge of the child then the only thing that'll change is the arrangement of the deck chairs.

KDeRosa said...

I think that even with these ingredients in place you still aren't guaranteed a successful school.

Parentalcation said...

I agree with everything except the pay issue.

I think there needs to be some market reform of the pay system. K-5 teachers are probably paid appropriately, but middle school and HS teachers deserve more. At the very least, math and science teachers should be paid enough to attract talent.

Disclaimer: I am considering teaching as a career upon military retirement.

Dr. P. said...

Teachers are paid handsomely already so there is no need to pay them more, … there is no indication that we need to attract a better class of teachers to improve instruction.

I mostly agree for elementary (possibly excepting math). In fact, in some states, the sheer volume of properly credentialed applicants, for each open elementary position, argues strongly that they are overpaid.

In math, international studies show that U.S. elementary teachers have a substantial content knowledge deficit compared to teachers in other countries. For example, U.S. teachers have a poor understanding of fractions (see Zhou).

At the secondary level, in both the physical sciences and mathematics the shortage of well qualified teachers becomes apparent.

For example, about half the prospective mathematics teachers taking the Praxis II fail to achieve what the NCATE has benchmarked as the content knowledge to be expected of a beginning teacher. NCATE sets a 144 on this test as the benchmark, but some states set a cut-score for highly-qualified status that is less than half that (knowing only 20% of the content compared to the 50% implied by the benchmark). I provide more background and details in this blogpost.

Truly qualified teachers are very rare at the skill level needed to teach AP courses in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Less than 1% of prospective teachers taking the mathematics Praxis II score above 190. None of the four people I know that scored this high (including myself) are teaching. A major problem here is salary.

Kentucky is currently considering two bills, SB 1 and SB 2, that address this situation. Not surprisingly the teachers union objects (see here and here)

Unfortunately the ease with which a large majority of teachers, including secondary math and science teachers, are able to achieve highly-qualified status as defined by NCLB, masks this quality problem.

I am working on a major expansion of my blogpost for The Third Education Group, that will call attention to this quality problem.

SteveH said...

"The final necessity is parental choice of course."

I would quibble and say that it is the first necessity. This is still no guarantee, but nobody is looking for guarantees.

KDeRosa said...

SyeveH and Allen, by guarantee I mean I think there are more components to asuccessful school that need to be in place for success, mostly instructional and instructional related components.

Dr. P and Rory, I don't disagree that there is a teacher shortage in math and science; however, I'm not so sure it's caused by a compensation shortfall. According to Jay Greene and the Manhattan institute, teachers are paid as much as many engineers and science majors and I'm sure they're all sufficiently knowledgable. There are other reasons why these people don't want to teach, working for a quasi-governmental entity and woefully unprepared students to name two, besides money.

SteveH said...

"In fact, in some states, the sheer volume of properly credentialed applicants, for each open elementary position, argues strongly that they are overpaid."

It's a great position, especially the lower grades. Short hours, special needs assistants, little homework to correct, low content knowledge,.... and, of course, summers off.

This brings up the problems of union rules. Our public schools had to downsize a few times (many students are going off to other schools) so they had to lay off some teachers when the class sizes started to drop below 15 to 1 (before you even take into account the assistants). This set off a chain reaction of seniority-based teacher jumping. It's interesting to note that in most cases the senior teachers moved to lower grades. However, the real problem is that this causes a major disruption of continuity. Too many teachers are new to their grade and have to get up to speed. Parents HATE this, but the school can't do a thing about it.

Then, in our state, there are rules about transferring seniority from other states. Our school wanted to hire a good teacher from California for 7th grade math. He turned it down because he would have to start at the bottom of the seniority scale. This also put a limit on what the school could pay him.

As with any product, I don't want to care about whether the company has a union or not. I only care about quality and price. And choice.

Unfortunately, teachers can't have both unions and pay that is based on supply and demand. Does anyone know any field where the two work together?

SteveH said...

"...teachers are paid as much as many engineers and science majors and I'm sure they're all sufficiently knowledgable."

Sufficiently, I don't know, but the degree and knowledge requirements between the two are vastly different.


"There are other reasons why these people don't want to teach, working for a quasi-governmental entity and woefully unprepared students to name two, besides money."

I agree with this, but if schools want to see the shortage disappear overnight, then all they have to do is to eliminate the silly teaching credentials and pay these teachers based on their years of experience. Many older engineers and scientists would love to teach. The average pay in our state is over $50K a year with summers off.

I taught math and computer science at a private college for a number of years. The pay was not great, I had to develop every course, I had 25-30 kids in some classes, and I had no teaching assistant. It was not even close to the amount of work and pressure I had in my previous job. Not even close. There is absolutely no comparison.

The added nice thing about teaching is that you have your summers off. How many engineers and scientists would love to have their summers off even though they would not be paid? But they would get all of their full benefits.

The teacher shortage is union made. They could have great teachers and pay no more money than they do now.

You know what I thought the best benefit of teaching was? Everything stopped at the end of the school year. No more work. No more phone calls. No nothing. When you go back in the fall, there is nothing waiting for you to finish.

This is not the case in the real world. When you go off on vacation, nobody else is doing your job. The work piles up. You are on call. You have to "dial in". The emails back up. I remember seeing a cartoon showing people at the beach sunbathing, swimming, and surfing. They all had bubbles over their heads and they were calculating the number of emails they would have when they returned to work.

I remember teachers complaining loudly about all of the work they had to do - and go to committee meetings, like "Faculty Development". They had no clue because they never had a real job.

KDeRosa said...

[I]f schools want to see the shortage disappear overnight, then all they have to do is to eliminate the silly teaching credentials and pay these teachers based on their years of experience. Many older engineers and scientists would love to teach.

Exactly--which is not to say that all or most of them would have the right temperment/skills to teach but I would bet the percentages are the same for ed majors in general.

SteveH said...

".. all or most of them would have the right temperment/skills to teach but I would bet the percentages are the same for ed majors in general."

I was going to ask whether there are "temperment" courses in ed school. Some teachers are screamers. As for skills, we all know what they teach in ed schools.

Dr. P. said...

“I don't disagree that there is a teacher shortage in math and science; however, I'm not so sure it's caused by a compensation shortfall”

Greene’s data are averages. What this misses is the fact that if I am making X as an engineer and my teaching contemporary is also making X as a teacher, when I decide to switch to teaching I will not be offered X, but rather something like 0.5*X. There is no good data on what kind of chilling effect this has, but I believe it is substantial.

SteveH said...

" ... my teaching contemporary ..."

That's the problem. They aren't contemporaries in any sort of professional manner. Engineers know all about supply and demand. Teachers don't.

Union seniority rules define the problem. Not too many engineers get salaries over $100K per year, but the average salary for teachers in our state is nearing $60K, even for those teachers without a specialty. Take into account summers off and a lot less responsibility and pressure (compared to a $100K engineering salary) and you're nowhere near .5X. Union rules and certification have the chilling effect, not salary.

Parentalcation said...

Perhaps we can agree, that the biggest problem is that engineers will be promoted and get pay raises based on competence not just time. If you are an excellent engineer you will move up the salary scale a lot fasters.

No matter how good you are as a teacher, you will be paid the same as the mediocre english teacher next door who started at the same time as you.

allen said...

More elements to a successful school then those I mentioned? Sure. But I wasn't describing the formula for a successful school I was describing a division of responsibilities and authority that doesn't stand in the why of or is indifferent to successful schools.

One of the conundrums that seems to bedevil everyone who thinks much about the public education system is the failure of successful methodologies to displace unsuccessful methodologies. I read head-scratching comments in the blogs all the time about the failure of techniques that work to replace techniques that don't. It's practically a clichë.

Take the reading wars as an example. From what I've read, whole word reading instruction got started in the 1890's, was a bone of contention immediately and forever after and never displayed the outcomes that proponents hawk as the rationale for the technique to this very day. The record of whole word is uniform: where ever it's tried reading skill plummets.

When California mandated whole word it dropped to 49th in reading scores among the states. Putting the lie to whole word apologists explanation that California was beset by a flood of ESL kids, Illinois and Ohio, following California's lead by mandating whole word followed California's arc downward in reading scores. That factoid leaves us with one of two possibilities: either a similar proportion of ESL kids flooded into Illinois and Ohio coincident with the states passage of mandatory whole word or whole word sucks. Occam's Razor suggests the latter.

With a record of failure that public and that uniform you'd think whole word advocates would have a tough time of it. But all they have to do is slap a new coat of paint on the old jalopy, grudgingly add a few, a very few, elements of phonics and presto! change-o! it's ready to inflate egos and ruin lives anew.

The reason, in my humble opinion, for this phenomenon is that the authority to make decisions and the responsibility for the results of those decisions resides in the wrong hands. A school board member or superintendent, for instance, has the authority to decide on a teaching methodology or curriculum but doesn't have to accept responsibility for the results. So why not go with the breath-takingly cutting edge?

That situation doesn't preclude the making of choices likely to result in good educational outcomes but it doesn't punish lousy choices or reward good choices. Does that seem like a good way to structure an organization? It doesn't to me.

Michael said...

In fact, in some states, the sheer volume of properly credentialed applicants, for each open elementary position, argues strongly that they are overpaid.

Um, no, it doesn't. It argues that the position/work/salary/benefits/potential career are sufficient to attract a large number of applicants, of whom (given good administrators, which isn't a given at any salary structure) the best can be hired for the few spots available. Lower the salary/etc., and it will likely be the best who don't enter the field, leaving a smaller field of inferior candidates.

BTW, anyone who thinks teaching at a private college has the same pressures as teaching in an elementary school is, not to put too fine a point on it, a damn fool.

Dr. P. said...

Michael said: “…the best can be hired for the few spots available.”

It would be nice if the teacher hiring process worked that way, but there is little evidence of that and much evidence to the contrary (see, for example, Who Gets Hired to Teach?)

That is why past efforts to attract better quality teachers by raising the pay for all teachers don't pan out. Most of the increased salary benefits flow to veteran teachers or to swell the ranks of elementary teachers, while still being insufficient to attract many quality science and math teachers.