Friday, February 08, 2008

Improving Education Requires Refining The Teacher Workforce

What is it that we can do to improve our public schools? I would submit that every great organization is made great in part by its people. It doesn't matter whether its a corporation, a non-profit, the government, or I would say even a school. You can have new textbooks, laptops for every student, many standardized tests or no standardized tests, and on and on, but without good teachers you won't get the results you want.

I believe that if we truly want to improve public education we have to make it easier to fire underperforming teachers. In the business world if you consistently fail to perform you're fired. But this is not the case in our schools. You pratically have to be caught having an affair with a student or abusing a child to be fired. Results don't matter. We hold our teachers to a standard so low its absolutely disgraceful. I think the majority of our teachers are more capable than that. And I think our students deserve better. They deserve better than the standard being not breaking the law. That doesn't cut it in the business world, and it shouldn't cut it in schools. Public schools, after all, are suppose to benefit the students, not provide jobs you can never get fired from for grown adults. Unless we are willing to fire underperforming teachers we won't have significant improvements in education. If we don't, then there will be individual students are stuck with these bad teachers, who will suffer because of it. It is important to remember our educational policy affects individuals kids, its not just theoretical. I'm not out to hurt teachers but to help students, who should be the focus of education.

I should point out that I'm not for firing teachers out of the blue. They deserve to know their standing, whether they are doing an exceptionally good job, and average job, or are underperforming. They deserve a second chance to improve, to put forth the effort if they've grown apathetic under the current culture of mediocracy. They deserve honest feedback. They deserve to respond to criticism, to set the facts straight if they fail their evaluations are incorrect. To fire them without such a chance would be cruel and ineffective. I imagine many teachers would do better knowing that they could get fired for underperforming and rewarded for good work. After all, honestly, how hard would you try at your job if you were set for life? The underperformers should be offered help to improve if they choose. For that matter all teachers should be given help to improve, No one reaches a point where there is nothing new to learn, no way to improve. New teachers should be mentored by more experienced teachers. Continuous improvement for everyone.

Politicians are always saying that teachers are underpaid, and should be paid more. But bad teachers are grossly overpaid. Good teachers are grossly underpaid. We need to get rid of bad teachers and pay good teachers more, a lot more. People will object saying that student test scores don't give an accurate picture of a teacher's performance. I would agree 100%. We can't rely entirely on a teacher's students' test scores, that is only a small component. We have to trust principals to evaluate their teachers. People again will say that's a hard thing to do. Yes it is. In the business world managers, executives, CEOs are always having to evaluate their employees and its almost never easy, except in cases of gross misconduct. Principal's can use a variety of ways to evaluate their teachers.Student test scores is a small component. Input from fellow teachers and students is another. Interviews with the teachers, having them write down and talk about their accomplishments from the past year and their development needs for the next year, is a third way. Again, this is not easy, but its as necessary as in business. If a principal finds it easy to fire then they should fired themselves, as they should if they can't make tough decisions. It goes without saying principals also have to be held to tough standards, not just the teachers.

I suggest that we hire mathematicians to develop algorithms to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. What do I mean here? I mean algorithms that would show how students improve or fall behind as they go from teacher to teacher, year to year. Right now if a student had a bad teacher they'd probably score lower not just that year, but the next year. But if the next year they had a good teacher, their score would likely improve, although it might still be below average. So through complicated statistical analysis like that, we could use test scores to provide a better view of how teachers are actually performing. Again, its not the whole picture, but it would be an aid in teacher evaluation. I could post a whole blog on student testing, so I'll save that for another time.

Rewarding good teachers is not just the right thing to do, its the best thing to do. It will get teachers to try harder, knowing that they will be rewarded. It will help attract more of the best and brightest of our society into the teaching profession. Its no secret that teachers don't make a lot of money. No one will ever go into teaching just for the money. But if you're a bright student with many options deciding on a career and actually interested in teaching, but realize you have to raise your family on a teacher's salary, you're going to be less likely to choose to teach. On the other hand, there are currently people in teaching because its a paycheck, you get a lot of vacation, and you don't really have to worry exereting yourself too much. Colleges of education generally attract many students who aren't the best students. If we reward good teachers we will both motivate teachers and attract generally more qualified people into the teaching career.

We also need to offer combat pay. Combat pay is where teachers are paid more to teach in challenging schools, i.e. schools in dangerous and poor areas. The goal is of course to attract good teachers there to turn the schools around. Combat pay has to be high enough that it makes up for the tough assignment and actually attracts good teachers who would otherwise take easier assignments that many better schools gladly offer them even though they're the ones who can do the most good at failing schools. Combat pay shouldn't just be student loan forgiveness but cold, hard cash. Otherwise what incentive will those who didn't take out student loans because their parents saved or more imporatantly because they were exceptionally good students and received scholarships do? And what happens after they're their long enough to have their loans forgiven, then there is no incentive to stay even if they are experienced by this time with working with underperforming students from tough neighborhoods? No, we have to pay them more money. The amount would have to be determined by a study to find out how much money it would take to make someone as likely to take a hard assignment.

We must encourage people from challenging technical fields to teach math and science by paying them more to teach, a proficiency of which is necessary for America's long-term succes in a globalized world. People who are skilled in the areas of math and science have a lot of higher paying job options before them than teaching. Wouldn't it be good to have math and science teachers who really know math and science, who are excited about the subjects, rather than have math and science teachers who never majored or worked in those areas. It would be great to have people with real world work experience, who can explain how can explain why the subjects matter, how the topics they're teaching are relevant and important to learn. To do that requires more competitive pay. It also requires allowing professionals who want to try teaching to get in the classrooms before they have to go back to the class themselves. If you have to get a masters in education before you can find out whether teaching is for you or not then you're going to be significantly less likely to try teaching.

Going along with encouraging more people to enter education, preferably enough so there is competition for teaching jobs, because competition breeds excellence, is a change to the current pension system. Most school districts or states probably have an old-school (pun intended) pension system in place, where you have to work so many years in the district or state before you are vested, and even then don't get full benefits unless you retire from working in that district or state. I suppose the goal is to encourage teachers to stay working there but in the end I would say it hurts more than it helps. First off, we shouldn't be encouraging bad teachers to stay. I'm sure there are teachers who realize teaching isn't a good profession for them but have to stay because they need the retirement benefits. But more importantly, I imagine it hurts encouraging people to enter teaching. Today, chances are you won't work for the same company your whole life, you'll likely change jobs many times. A company who now has a traditional pension plan instead of 401(k) would have a hard time attracting new employees who want job mobility. Chances are, most teachers are married to someone who brings in more money and whose job dictates where they live. People who otherwise would try teaching are less likely to since they offer traditional pensions which would hurt their retirement if they realize they aren't fit to be teachers and got out, or because they want to move. Not everyone who tries teaching is going to be good, so by offering 401(k)s instead of pensions the pool of applicants will increase, allowing schools to find good teachers and weed out the bad. So we need to phase out pension plans, of course keeping promises to current teachers but giving new teachers and current teachers who choose 401(k)s instead. Not only would this be to the benefit of education, but its to the benefit of local governments since 401(k)s don't tie their hands later on down the road with huge pension obligations when their revenues might be down because of a hurting economy, like today.

The teacher unions won't be wild about this plan, they would be pretty adamantly opposed to it. Which is unfortunate, because for the vast deal of teachers it will help them. So how do we pass it, since a plan that can't be passed is useless? Hook higher teacher pay, both rewards for great teachers and higher pay for teachers in general, to the ability to fire bad teachers. If a teacher union won't agree to eliminating underperforming teachers then the only pay increases their teachers get is an adjustment for inflation. This would put pressure on the teachers to encourage their union to agree. If we don't get rid off bad teachers and raise teacher pay then we're paying bad teachers more. For the first school districts or states to adopt such a plan, they would get the added benefit of attracting good teachers from other places with the rewarding pay. I truly believe that improving our public schools requires refining the teaching workforce more than different teaching methods or more money for schools besides what's necessary for competitive teacher pay.

1 Comments:

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