Years and years of failed efforts and billions of dollars later, educational reforms- both liberal and conservative- have basically resulted in stagnation. The primary reason, in my estimation, is the top-down, Washington dictated policies which have solved very little. Despite massive federal spending, those federal dollars account for about 9% of any school board’s budget. With those dollars come regulations and mandates which eat up about 30% of those federal dollars. In fact, there is evidence which indicates that as the federal government became increasingly involved in K-12 education, stagnation occurred and in some cases the metrics have gone backwards. Most alarming is the gap between white and non-white academic achievement.
The extreme solution is to get rid of the federal Department of Education (DOE). Unlike many conservatives, I believe there is a role for a federal DOE, just not in K-12 education. Instead, it should be for higher education programs and for the many job training programs spread over several departments. While there may be a case for increasing the academic standards in K-12 education, that is better left to the states which seemed to be doing a better job before the federal government became involved.
The obvious starting point is the continued opposition to Common Core. This was a program devised by someone who never set a foot in an actual classroom. When formulated, a collection of teachers and educators had serious problems with several aspects, especially the fact that many of the academic requirements were not age-appropriate, especially at the early grade levels. For example, play has all but been eliminated in kindergarten and most of the “learning” is didactic. In effect, Common Core is a goofy, awkward and unnecessary attempt to recreate the wheel which did not require recreating.
Additionally, most teachers, if honest, will voice their disapproval of Common Core. It treats all children alike when everyone knows that all students are unique and progress at different rates. A one-size-fits-all policy and method of teaching does the student a serious disservice. It denies the teacher the opportunity to use tried-and-true methods that worked in the past. For centuries, multiplication was learned through rote learning of the tables. Today, it is a series of complicated problems with visual aids and grouping concepts. Unfortunately, because all students are not alike, the result is the opposite- a race to mediocrity. In many states, we reward our teachers who advance their education and professional development and then thwart ingenuity by adherence to the Common Core. If we are going to have standards, then they should be broad-based and age appropriate. Further, those standards should be established at the state and local levels, not in Washington DC and not by a bunch of academic eggheads in ivory towers. As part of that process, actual teachers should take a lead role in developing those standards.
In Indiana, that was the case. An independent study showed that the standards they developed along with state officials, local school boards and administrators actually exceeded those of Common Core. But to get those federal dollars, Common Core is now almost a requirement.
Likewise, we have unfortunately shifted the emphasis too heavily onto standardized testing. Most states already had such tests, but because of Common Core, they are being replaced by a new nationalized test. Again, this is predicated on the one-size-fits-all model of education. A good standardized test will gauge proficiency in key areas required in age-specific groups. My guess is that teachers along with administrators are more likely to come up with a better test than the fine folks at ETS in Princeton.
Another conservative idea which empowers teachers is merit pay. Unfortunately, this is fought against by unions. Standard across-the-board wage increases do not reward the good teachers. Likewise, some courses are more important than others- no offense to the music, art and health teachers out there. In New Jersey, the NJEA has a program called “50 by 15-” a $50,000 per year starting salary by 2015. That is $50,000 to a teacher setting foot in an actual classroom for the first time without supervision. I have nothing against any teacher making 6 figures…if they truly deserve it. The average salary of a teacher in New Jersey exceeds $50,000 annually and please do not insult my intelligence and tell me all teachers are deserving of a $50,000 salary.
That is why salary increases based upon performance measured by evaluations is empowering. Other than unionized positions, it is how most of the working world receives raises. It is amazing to witness the dichotomy in beliefs among teachers regarding this concept. For those who worked in a job before education, they are more accepting or understanding of this concept. For those inculcated in the educational establishment, they become like feral cats defending the existing system. Furthermore, having a master’s or PhD degree is no predictor of student academic achievement or teacher effectiveness, yet we treat advanced degrees as if they are the cure all for education. Towards these ends, teachers should be part of developing the evaluations.
Some argue that testing and student performance indicators are misleading. There are many great teachers who, for whatever reason, will have students who do not perform well on tests. Of course, student test scores should not be the be-all-end-all criteria in teacher evaluations. In Minnesota, teachers and their unions were intimately involved in the evaluation development process with great success, so much so that it was adopted out of its pilot status and other states have followed suit. If Minnesota can do it, every state can and should do it.
School choice is a reform opposed by teacher unions. But if we think of this logically, it makes no sense. Provided per-pupil spending in public schools is maintained and some kind of voucher system is enacted, it is a winning proposition all around. Assume a family opts for a private school through a voucher system. The government is going to spend X amount of money on that student regardless of where they go to school. Many private schools can adequately educate a student for a fraction of the cost of a public education thus saving the government money, making the parent happy, educating a student, and decreasing class size in public schools. Of course, the government should make sure that private education is at least meeting the standards they established.
Another area where I somewhat depart from my fellow conservatives is over the issue of tenure. I do believe there is a need for some form of teacher tenure. However, the standard three years is way too short a period to make an informed decision on a teacher’s performance. It should be a necessary guard against administration retaliation and nepotism which still pervades the process. With experience, teachers become better and better and learn new, unique methods of dealing with a variety of students. Perhaps, a probationary tenure at three years and full tenure at six is a good starting point. It would give the administrators ample time and an ample number of scenarios to determine a teacher’s overall effectiveness.
The final issue is that of the teacher unions. Unions exist for a reason and one cannot fault a teacher union for attempting to look out for their members. It is what a union is supposed to do. But in this case, we are talking about a more important third party- the student and, indirectly another third party- the taxpayer. One doubts that if your average teacher knew that a large portion of their dues is dedicated to political purposes such as endorsing candidates, they would be less union friendly. There is, however, a role for unions.
They could and should be included in the teacher evaluation development process along with individual teachers. They could help develop the pay scale increases based on those evaluations. Of course, they would handle and represent any teacher in disciplinary actions. There are a whole myriad of areas where teacher unions can be included in the process. In some ways, we should stop pushing them away and at least solicit their cooperation and hold their feet to the fire when they say they have the student’s interests at heart. The problem is their idea of “cooperation” is the status quo. Otherwise, they would be a little more willing to at least try some reforms. Ultimately the message must be the truth: conservatives have nothing against teachers, but their unions are another story.
The bottom line is that these conservative reforms actually empower teachers, not their unions. By returning K-12 education to local control, teachers would actually have a greater voice than they do now. Any teacher can easily attend and talk to a local school board, or even attend a state hearing on education than they can testify before Congress. In that latter instance, Congress listens to the unions, which have their own agenda, or academics with little or no classroom experience. Those are the two groups that we should not listen to any more. The conservative education reforms are designed to dis-empower not teachers, but the apparatus which is most resistant to real reforms. It is not anti-union; they can have a say and a role. But at the end, it is the student that must be kept in mind and the best group of people to achieve this, other than concerned and involved parents, are the teachers. Let’s give them the tools and the power to get the job done for which they were trained.