Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Public Schools: Jobs Factory or Something More

Many people believe, rightly so I think, that the recent tax compromise signed by President Obama will give the deficit hawks something to rally around. However, I hope that we can be certain that of all things, education funding is safe. After all, only the most callous among us would dare to compromise the future of our youth by stealing away the funds teachers need to shape young minds, right. Maintaining current funding levels for education is good, but I truly believe that our education system needs a fundamental overhaul in order to make the American Dream a reality for millions of children and safeguard the nation's economic future. This is an obvious political and social win-win. Education policy seem like it should be a last bastion of bipartisanship, and there are so many people who have great ideas about how to make our education system more like better-performing ones abroad. So why has there been so little progress in the past 50 years. We are stuck with a broken system which is propped up by people who use the rhetoric of unions, the holy grail of workers' rights, to argue that vast changes to the status quo would jeopardize the job security of teachers. This is nonsense. We are always going to need teachers. We just need to find a way to attract talented ones and help them do a better job.


Education policy has been in the news recently because of Mark Zuckerburg's 100 million dollar philanthropic donation to the Newark, New Jersey school system. Despite Governor Chris Christie's record education cuts in New Jersey, Zuckerburg says that he believes in the leadership of Christie and Corey Booker, the mayor of Newark and possibly a future presidential candidate. Hopefully this money will make a real difference in Newark, which is saddled with one of the most notoriously under-performing school systems in the United States. Of the 15 elementary schools, according to 2008 statistics, 11 were categorized as having 80% of students reading at least one year below grade level. Of the comprehensive high schools (not magnet schools), an average of 70% of 9th grade students test below the sixth grade level. Clearly this is an abominable record and views about how to turn around under performing school systems vary widely.


Much has been written about the success of charter schools in cities like Newark and especially New York. Essentially, advocates of charter schools are selling school choice. Charter schools are unhindered by what many argue are clunky and onerous policies mandated by teacher union contracts, allowing them to set more rigorous standards for teachers in terms of hours and student performance. Many charter schools in New York have extended hours and robust after-school programs. Charter schools are undeniably in demand, as evidenced by the waiting lists of over 6000 for Newark's successful charter schools. The lotteries used to admit students to New York's charter schools result in thousands of disappointed parents each time they are held. Critics of Charter schools contend that they benefit from parents who are passionate about education, fewer special education students and smaller class sizes. The point about class sizes is simply false. Most of New York's charter schools have class sizes equally as bloated as traditional public schools. Many factors may contribute to the success of charter schools, but the statistics paint a fairly obvious picture. A 2008 study by a EducationNext, a respected education journal, found clear gains in both reading and math scores for students enrolled in New York's charter schools as compared to students from traditional public schools.


As much as I wonder how critics of charter schools justify their vehement opposition to programs that have proven successful, I think that the debate about our nations public schools is a huge positive. Put simply, the United States does not have a good public school system. According to 2006 statistics, published by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, the graduation rate for U.S students is lower and is rising more slowly than the majority of developed countries. Rates of current participation suggest that even more countries are likely to catch up and surpass the United States graduation rates. Out of the 30 OECD countries taking part in PISA 2003 (Program for International Student assessment)2003, the average performance for the United States was statistically significantly higher only than that of five countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey) and statistically lower than that of 20 countries. I know these statistics are a bit outdated, but one could go on and on finding statistics that prove the same point.


The way public schools are organized has essentially stayed the same since World War II. Curriculum has been overhauled many times, but the system has generally remained stagnant. Teacher unions and school administrations essentially operate the same now as they did 50 years ago. This model was adopted from manufacturing; teacher unions and automotive worker unions share many common roots. The durability of the education system can't possibly arise from its success, but because the public is comfortable with it since it is what we grew up with. I think that one of the biggest problems is that we need to stop treating our teacher-development and pay-scale systems like the auto industry, or any industrial manufacturing industry does. Education is fundamentally different than manufacturing, so why do teacher union contracts contain details about how many minutes teachers are required to spend on each topic. I am very pro-union. Heck, my dad is the president of one, and I know how important it is for unions to fight for a favorable deal from out-of-touch administrations seem as though they'd like to run the organization into the ground if given the chance. But we need a system which protects the freedom of teachers within the classroom, but does not protect the jobs of teachers who put forth minimum effort. Teachers should be given incentives to be exceptional. I think that recent initiatives in Washington D.C which provides higher pay ceilings for teachers who opt out of the tenure track sound promising and should be studied carefully.


I went to an awesome public school, but even at my suburban, middle class Spackenkill High School which sends students to the Ivy League every year I saw the dead weight among the faculty. Some teachers were amazing and probably deserved more generous salaries than they received, but some were frankly awful. My brother has not written a full-length essay in his A.P English class this year. This is a class that is supposed to gain you college credit, but the class is just a joke. My friends and I used to joke that we were taught AP U.S History by Peter Jennings, the TV personality, because my teacher literally just put on documentaries narrated by him for the entire second semester of the year. The guy taught us nothing himself. Tenure exists on college campuses to give professors academic freedom, the assurance that no official is going to censure class material. But it seems to me that tenure is way to easy to achieve in public schools and creates dead weight among faculty.


If a politician, especially an urban one, so much as suggests tampering with the tenure system for teachers, he/she will face fierce, united opposition from the teachers unions. But I think we need to have an informed debate about the role that tenure plays for public school teachers. We need a real personnel-development system which seeks to do more than protect the jobs of teaching professionals but to motivate them to do their jobs better and to adopt proven methods.


In a place like Finland, which has a far superior public education system, money is invested in supporting teachers so that they can develop innovative teaching strategies and evaluating their methods, telling them what they are doing right and what needs to change. I know how evaluations worked in my school. An administrator would come in for about 20 minutes for only once a year because that was what was mandated by the union contract, and the teacher would soup up an invigorating lesson for those 20 minutes, pass his/her inspection, and then exclaim to the students how relieved the were that it was over. I understand that evaluations might be stressful, but I see nothing wrong with a system employed in many charter schools, where administrators are free to observe teachers on any day without notice, and use that privilege liberally. In a recent Newsweek interview, Bill Gates, who has invested millions in education said “They [Finland] actually run a personnel system, which is kind of an amazing thing. You have a review, and you’re told what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. If over a period of time you’re not improving, then you move to another profession. So, Finland, Korea, Singapore—they run teacher personnel systems. In the U.S. we have one of the most predictive personnel systems mankind ever invented—try to remember how many years you’ve worked, and you will know your salary.”


At this point, any changes to the teaching industry will stagnate as long as we don't have proven, widely accepted methods for evaluating teachers. This is the only way to avoid unfairness. An article in this morning's New York Times spoke about how the data used to evaluate New York teachers based upon their test scores has an extremely high margin of error and is full of errors. For example, many teachers are ranked for teaching subjects that they have never even taught. This is not efficient, and if we are ever going to make an honest effort to make teaching into a more merit-based profession, and offer incentives to bright, talented and motivated teachers, we need a better way to evaluate teachers and their methods. Its not enough to simply grade teachers according to how well they can teach students to pass watered-down standardized exams. After No Child Left Behind, teacher accountability is a dirty word. The truth is that it is not fair to judge teachers on how well they can teach students to pass a watered-down standardized exam. We need an evaluation system that incorporates holistic as well as statistical measures, and gives teachers a real idea of what they are doing right and wrong. Along with the refining of statistical models based upon test scores, I think that in-person evaluations conducted not by career administrators but by career teachers should be the centerpiece of this effort. Say that I'm a sheltered suburban kid who doesn't know a thing about the issues facing real struggling schools, and I might agree with you. But I know the huge disparity among my own public school teachers, and I truly believe that if some of my poorer teachers had been given advice by some of my exceptional ones, and had worked under a system that rewarded good teaching as opposed to passing tests, I would have had a more stimulating education.