Sunday, June 03, 2012

But We Won't Be Paying Teachers More Money

Matt Miller offers a well-intentioned thoughts on how to improve teacher quality:
What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)?
Do we also have a shortage of principals? I recall hearing that suggestion a decade or so ago, but I've not heard anything lately. Or is the thinking here that principals have to be paid considerably more than the teachers in their schools, even if we have sufficient qualified candidates to fill open positions at present salaries?

What Miller is proposing is a massive increase in teacher salaries. If Miller looks at what the Republican Party is attempting to accomplish through its persistent attacks on teachers unions, as well as teacher compensation and benefits, he will find that his argument for increased teacher salaries is likely at best to be supported by only the Democratic Party. But if he looks at what his happening across the board, red state or blue, he will find that due to budget constraints teacher salaries aren't going up, teacher benefits are going down, and class sizes are getting larger. Even if we assume the necessary political will to increase teacher salaries, and even if we assume that there is a way to get the Republican Party on board, where will the money come from?

By way of example, Joanne Jacobs likes to post graphs from right-wing "school reformers" to argue that we've had massive increases in education costs over the pat four decades with only slight increases in student performance. While the argument she attempts to shorthand with the graphs is inherently (and I think intentionally) misleading, the fact is that education costs have risen significantly, and that the biggest part of that increase is in the form of increased teacher compensation - salary, benefits, and payment of pensions.

The early years are skewed by something Miller identifies, "Up through the 1970s, the quality of the teacher corps in the United States was, in effect, subsidized by discrimination", and part of the increase is attributable to teacher salaries rebounding from a prior decade of very low growth. But if the political right is already engaging in demagoguery over schools costing "too much", teacher salaries being "too high", and the like, does Miller truly believe they're going to get on board with a reform that is going to immediately add 20-30% to the cost of an average pupil's education? And can we admit up front, particularly if we don't change the scale for the Y-axis (change that scale and you can make that near flat line look like it's rocketing upward), the increased salary is not going to have a material effect on the ostensible graph of improvement in student performance?

The worst part is, I agree with Miller that present teacher salaries are not sufficient to draw additional, highly qualified students to the profession. The students currently entering teaching schools, and currently graduating from them, are the students who are attracted to the profession at present levels of compensation. I just don't see that there's any chance of significantly increasing teacher compensation in the present political or economic climate.
And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done?
Our nation has a lot of teacher colleges, many of which are state schools. For all of their faults, what would the federal government be bringing to the table? Is Miller speaking of stand-alone teaching schools and, if so, won't that in fact deprive student teachers of the opportunity to take challenging classes in the disciplines in which they intend to teach? If not, other than "more federal money", what will these "West Points" offer that other teaching schools do not? What secrets will the federal government uncover that are presently not known by teachers and teaching schools?

That is to say, this is an interesting proposed experiment, but I seen no reason to believe that it would be a wise or productive use of money.
And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs?
If Miller looks at the dollars, he will find that his concept of inner city schools "doomed" by low local property taxes are, for the most part, funded as well as their suburban counterparts, in some cases better. He will find that inner city schools that receive funding that far outstrips the national average still significantly underperform. He will find that the major differences are not in salary, but in administrative competence, quality of school facility, quality of teaching peers, and the nature of the student body - and let's not forget, unless you want to live in the inner city community you serve, more commute time - are all factors that will deter students from applying for or staying with inner city schools.

It's reasonable to point out that some highly qualified teachers choose to take a financial hit in order to teach at private schools because they find the work environment more attractive. There are teachers who choose to work in inner city schools, because they feel that's where they can make the biggest difference, and that's great. But unless you make inner city schools an attractive place to work, you're going to have to find a lot more money to attract teachers from better working environments, and even with higher salaries you may continue to struggle. Don't take it from me - take it from a recovering idealist.
And shrinking today’s 15,000 unwieldy, archaic local school districts (where we’re also an international outlier) to, say, a more manageable 60 — one in each state plus 10 big urban districts, as former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner has suggested?
Consolidating school districts into larger units, or even statewide districts, is an interesting idea. It clashes with some of the deeply rooted concepts of what issues should be handled at a local level, as opposed to the state or federal level, but the amount of top-down interference with public schools is forcing a certain uniformity so the change might not be as jarring as one might think. But if you look at school districts like Detroit's, it's difficult to see how management by the state is going to have a significant impact on its problems. The state financial takeover of the schools has not transformed them, nor have the many years of additional per pupil funding pumped in by the state. I'm not going to argue that the school board from which the state assumed control was at all impressive, but at a certain level we risk doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But, no... it's not going to happen. Why not? Because wealthy, well-connected parents in quality school districts are not going to go along with a realignment of their districts into statewide districts with equal funding and resources. They're not going to go along with having their children's teachers transferred to other parts of the state where there is "greater need". And if you somehow force through the change, they're going to create local charters, lobby incredibly hard for vouchers, and lobby for changes in property taxes - if that money can't go to better local schools they'll want it to go to other local needs, or to have it stay in their pockets. You can call me cynical if you want but, go ahead, convince me that I'm wrong.

Let's also not forget something that is lurking in the background: the persistent attacks on teaching as a profession, and the persistent intrusion of "teach to the test" even in good school districts, is demoralizing. If a good student is inspired to consider teaching by virtue of a salary increase that makes the classroom more attractive, that student is still going to choose a different profession if they see that they will not have any professional autonomy or discretion as teachers. Good teachers are already leaving the profession, and leaving behind a population of teachers that is less competent, less involved, less engaged. It's difficult to see how anybody wins, even the demagogues.

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