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.