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News Section: Opinion

Florida Merit Pay Battle Might Spark Needed Debate on Educational System

Published Thursday, March 24, 2011 2:30 am
Many of the bullet-point friendly, red meat statements that educational "reformers" routinely make have a tendency to sound sensible on the surface. "Incentivize performance," make it easier to get rid of "bad teachers", etc. These seem like universal components of any productive and accountable system.

The problem arises when we actually start exploring the nitty-gritty of proposals that claim to do just those things. We find it's not very easy to quantify something like a teacher's role in educational success and learn quickly that  superficial, one-size-fits-all measures designed by people outside of the field tend to be myopic and in some cases run counter to the actual goals.

But this debate is on the teaching "profession" and my hope is that it may lead to real and genuine re-evaluation of the educational system. That is an important distinction to be made. Legislation being rushed through Florida and many other states is being heralded as education reform, when it is really just an attempt to change the way we compensate teachers, while asserting that since we are going to make some sort of quantifiable "result" the basis for what is inherently a budgetary fix, we are then inherently "reforming" education.

Clearly, when looked at from this non-idealogical or merely logical perspective, one doesn't necessarily have anything to do with another. Though the way we compensate teachers can indeed impact the quality of teachers we get, improving just the quality will still not fix what is essentially a fundamentally flawed system. What's more, most of the proposed changes are more likely to decrease the number of high-quality applicants to the profession and be a disincentive for the best teachers choosing to go where they are needed most the least successful schools. Let's look at the main components at issue in terms of compensation.

First, starting salaries for teachers are low compared to other fields with a four-year degree. That reduces the financial incentive for entering the field and heightens reliance on idealistic incentives. This is not the only field where such is the case. Social workers, law enforcement, artists and many other professionals (newspaper reporters, uh um) choose their paths knowing that the opportunity to earn a lot of money is very unlikely compared to other options the number of which is usually greater for the most talented prospects.

So, personal sacrifice seems a must, but as a society, we demand a certain level of success in education because we all benefit form its results and we have to be willing to accept that below a certain ability to earn a reasonable compensation in terms of wages, security and benefits, we are going to greatly shrink that pool and lower the odds of such success. It should also be noted that the last decade has seen the retirement of a final wave of female teachers who disproportionately skewed the talent pool because of their lack of opportunities.

There was a time in this country when a woman who was valedictorian of her class was almost definitely going to teacher's college, while her male counterparts went off to law, business or medical school. Since women have won more equality, an unanticipated side-effect to that otherwise healthy reform has been less of our brightest high school students going into teaching and more of them going into boardrooms, becoming surgeons and joining law practices where they can earn much more.

In terms of salary, much of the misconception about teacher pay is owed to the higher pay at the top that brings the "average pay" up, and it should be noted that an investment in additional, post-graduate education is almost always required to reach such a point again putting compensation far below average for master's degree workers.

There is almost always a chance for tenure and while opponents of reform argue that there are systems in place to remove a "bad teacher," the simple truth is that it is much, much more simple to oust a young and inexperienced one with more room for growth, than someone marginal or worse that's been there a while. I think that by and large most teachers are committed professionals, but I also had some lazy, untalented and/or burned out teachers, many of whom are still teaching in my district in Pennsylvania decades later. Tenure does make it harder to get rid of marginal teachers and replace them with much more productive ones the way a manager can in the private sector, but it also provides a degree of security to the profession and an important protection for quality, experienced  teachers that shields them from the whims of administrators they may disagree with.

I would say that all things considered, from kindergarten to college, I was less than impressed with at least half of my instructors. I think we all can agree that if we are to elevate our educational system, this needs to change and perhaps reforming tenure should be looked at as one possible way to address it. However, my intuition tells me that putting more of the money we spend into teacher's starting pay would draw more top graduates into the field, promoting more competition among schools for their services and I think getting more intelligent, creative and dynamic people into the field every year will make an obvious and immediate impact that we will not be so desperate to quantify, and it's quantifying results that seems to be the real challenge.

Now, we're into reforming the system rather than reforming the profession and this is where the two meet. What are we looking for? I think most people agree that standardized tests are not the answer. As Americans, we are conditioned to look for that key statistic that creates a black and white comparison among us, but who amongst us hasn't been reduced down to single score at some point in our life an SAT result, an IQ test, a credit rating, a batting average, a talent contest judge... whatever, and known that it don't come close to telling the whole story.

When the stakes are sky high because school funding, promotions, grade advancement and teacher firings are all tied to a test, it redefines the educational system and not in a good way. Teachers are forced to "teach the test" rather than the essence of the curriculum, students learn rote memorization that is lost to "data dumps" once they've finished and worst of all, no teacher in their right mind wants to teach in a school with underprivileged kids who are much more likely to score poorly and cause them to miss a much needed raise or even get fired.

This is where the conversation needs to lead. What do we expect from taxpayer-financed public education a high graduation rate, a high percentage of students who go on to secondary schooling, a greater percentage of students who have the skills to enter the workforce competently right from high school? Or do we just want to deliver something minimal for the lowest possible cost to the taxpayer and reserved better education for those with the resources to pay for it privately? It concerns me that we are not discussing this more openly when we are clearly falling behind year after year in terms of producing the best results by any of these metrics. Our once progressive primary-education system remains in many ways entrenched in producing people for either college (where most of them won't go) or a place that no longer exists a world of clerks, book keepers and secretaries.

Rather than rush into populist "reform" that addresses only the profession, I'd rather see us look at the whole system at the point where they intersect. What do we demand from it, who will be best suited to deliver that (and how do we get them into the profession), what is the best curriculum for achieving it, then finally what is a comprehensive and holistic measure of how we are stacking up. Taking away tenure and promising some unfunded incentives for potentially hard to quantify "improvements" is not a solution.

If you want a statistic I'll give you one. America ranks 18 out of 36 developed nations in the world in terms of educational success. I see nothing in the current proposals likely to reverse that. Optimism for economic recovery is always tied to America being a leader in new markets for emerging technology. But without an extremely well-educated workforce to capture those markets, that's pie in the sky and all the "American Exceptionalism" in the world won't keep China, India and South Korea from eating our lunch.

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The biggest problem with education in Florida is the fact that there is absolutely no accountability for local school districts. Statute is such that local school districts have what amounts to a waiver to not only the sunshine law but other laws as well. In northwest Florida, the best teachers are sometimes let go because they are paid too much and elected superintendents pander to Tea Party organizations and others with self interests. For example, Walton county's superintendent of education received thousands of dollars from former house speaker Ray Sansom's chief benefactor, Jay Odom. But the average voter doesn't bother to look at public records so this kind of thing goes unnoticed.
Posted by andrew kratzer on October 23, 2011

Your ranking of American vs. other developed nations in terms of education is misleading because most other developed nations to not educated 100% of their population for "free". Also, standardized tests only test students on what they have learned this far in their education (comprehension, math, etc)... so to teach to the test is to teach basic educational principles.
Posted by Jason Carmichael on March 24, 2011

At last, a well thought out article that goes beyond the usual sound bites when discussing the dynamics of the American education system. We need to teach thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and the like, not memorization. A test-driven curriculum will mostly produce students who regurgitate "facts". Linking teacher pay to test scores will not bring significant improvement in student performance in the real world nor will it produce better teachers. Thanks for this article. I hope readers are truly listening.
Posted by W Fred Hart on March 24, 2011

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