What Schools Really Need

It is hard to recall a day when our public schools were not in the midst of a funding crisis and desperate for more money. No matter how much money the taxpayers have shelled out “for the kids”, it has never been even close to enough. Schools today with their never ending proclamations of “crisis” are worse than the little boy who cried, “Wolf!”

What is most ironic about their incessant demands for more money is that more money would not improve the system in any meaningful way. In fact, if some benevolent billionaire dumped a truck load of $100 bills on the doorstep of every public school in town, most if not all of the real problems plaguing those schools would still be there a year later. Why? Because their problem is not a shortage of money.

I recall a ruling by a liberal judge some years ago, I believe it was in Kansas City, where the judge ordered that the failing local school district be given whatever amount of money was necessary to succeed. As I recall, spending per student skyrocketed to something in the neighborhood of $40,000 per student. Everything was first class. Everything money could buy a school was set before the kids.

The result: Grades dropped even lower and the drop out rate increased. Yet, in spite of this case, which proved once and for all that money is not the answer, the education bureaucracy across America continues to demand more money “for the kids”, and naïve voters continue to shell out the dough. And all for naught.

Following are just a few suggestions of things schools could do to make the public education system work far better than it is today. Judge for yourself whether these suggestions make more sense than giving schools more money. And feel free to give me your feedback by writing to me at [email protected]

Suggestion 1. Pay teachers based on their performance as teachers, not based on how long they have been there. Currently, approximately 95 percent of a teacher’s pay is based on their seniority. The other five percent or so is based on their educational credentials beyond their basic degree. Almost nowhere in America are public school teachers paid based on the quality of the service they provide as teachers.

Suggestion 2. Require that teachers be assigned only to subjects in which they have demonstrated expertise. Did you know that in most cases, when there is a reduction in teaching staff, schools keep the teachers with the most seniority and lay off the newer teachers, even if they are the best teachers in the school. Sometimes that results in the school laying off its Advanced Algebra teacher, because he or she has lacks seniority. The Algebra teacher is replaced by the English Literature teacher, who happened to have failed Algebra as a student, but will now teach Algebra because of seniority and n doing so waste an entire year in the education of hundreds of students.

This is not as uncommon a scenario as you might think and shows how seriously off-based the current system is, putting the seniority of teachers before the education of our children.

Suggestion 3. Authorize school administrators to pay higher salaries to high school math and science teachers than they do to first grade teachers, who teach kids to color and spell simple words like “cat”. Don’t get me wrong. First grade teachers are just as important as high school Trigonometry teachers. However, there are a lot more people with the skills to teach the first grade than there are those capable of teaching higher level high school math and science classes. Thus the salaries of those teaching the more technical subject ought to be high enough to attract people with those rarer skills to the teaching profession.

There is a reason why U.S. students are lagging behind much of the industrialized nations of the world in math and science scores. Regardless of what the teachers union wants, you can’t pay math and science teachers the same as P.E. instructors and attract enough highly qualified teachers to fill the positions. The teachers unions demand that all teachers of all subjects be paid essentially the same salaries, but continuing to do so is not only illogical, but in the end will destroy Americas ability to compete in a global economy.

Suggestion 4. Don’t allow a high school drop out to get a drivers license until age 18. Want to drive? Stay in school at least through the 12th grade. Drop out and you lose your license to drive a car, something most teenagers value greatly.

Suggestion 5. Immerse all immigrant students in English. Don’t teach them first to be proficient in their native language, as most districts do. First teach them to be proficient in English. Then teach them in English and only in English. It is common for non-English speaking students to be taught English one-half an hour per day and then be taught the rest of the day in English. This policy sidetracks immigrant students and prevents their being assimilated into society as Americans. Schools employ their current methods for various misguided reasons, one of which is the fact that they receive close to $3,000 in extra funding each year for each student they keep in their English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Suggestion 6. Authorize schools to administer the level of discipline necessary to maintain order in the classroom and thus allow teachers to create a classroom environment where learning can take place. Students or outsiders who sell drugs or bring truly dangerous weapons to school, should go to jail. The state and local school districts should abolish any requirement that schools provide expensive, private tutoring to kids who are kicked out for any behavior that warrants dismissal or suspension.

Suggestion 7. Dismiss teachers who are incompetent. I have known many great teachers, who are worth their weight in gold. But I have also known many teachers who were a complete and utter joke. They became teachers because education is one of the easiest majors in college and the major a lot of people gravitate to when they are unable to cut it in tougher, higher paying fields. Until schools are willing to buck the teachers union and remove the dead wood, (the dead wood that everyone from the janitors to the students to fellow teachers to the superintendent knows is dead wood), they should have no credibility to ask for one more dime from the taxpayers than they receive already.

Suggestion 8. Give the principal or superintendent of every school complete authority to make the hiring and firing decisions he or she believes are necessary to make their school excel. Then hold those administrators accountable for the failure or success of their school. Give them bonuses for success or fire them, if they fail. Corporations figured this out a long time ago. The man or woman at the top sets the pace, and if given the authority can right a sinking ship. To be effective, a good administrator cannot be tied down by union contracts that are not designed to help the kids, but to protect teachers.

The current system is not about results. Results are rarely rewarded and failure is rarely penalized in our schools today. In fact, the current system exhibits all of the classic signs of a socialist system where everyone is paid the same and creativity and performance are not rewarded, which is exactly the way the teachers unions demand things remain.

Many have complained that schools spend too much on administration and not enough on teachers. That notion is true and not true. Administrators today are often paid high salaries to manage, but then not given the authority to manage. It would be better to pay good administrators well enough that we attract more of them, give them the authority to make the decisions necessary to turn their schools around, and then reward, dock their pay, or fire them based on the results they achieve.

The end result of teachers unions has been to hamstring and neuter school administrators, making no one ultimately responsible for the failure of our schools.

Suggestion 9. Based on my previous comments, you have probably been expecting this one: Get rid of the teachers unions. Even one of the foremost national leaders of the movement back in the fifties and sixties to unionize the teaching profession has repented and announced publicly that the experiment he helped promulgate has been a dismal failure.

Teachers unions do not improve the quality of teachers. They do not improve the quality of education. Instead, they dramatically increase the cost of public education and lower the quality by opposing any reform that holds teachers accountable or instills competition into the system. There can be no reform until teachers unions are eliminated.

Suggestion 10. If teachers unions are to remain, at least stop collecting their union dues and union political funds for them via the public payroll system. Make them collect their own money. If unions had to collect their dues and political “contributions” from teachers directly, eight to ninety percent of teachers would not pay up, electing rather to have nothing to do with their unions.

It should be obvious to even a casual observer that teachers unions are highly motivated to give campaign contributions to candidates for those public offices that control the purse strings of the schools. Those contributions have a very corrupting effect on public education, increasing the cost and eliminating accountability.

Suggestion 11. Do not allow teachers unions or any other union to donate money to the campaigns of any candidate running for an office that sets school policy, votes on collective bargaining agreements, or the budgets from which those contracts are funded. If a private sector union official was caught giving money to a member of management with which the union negotiates, that union official would likely end up in prison. Knowing that, we continue to allow teachers unions to “purchase” the other side of the bargaining table with their campaign contributions and then wonder why the cost of education is going up at the same time the quality is going down.

Suggestion 12. Let parents send their kids to any school they choose and let the money follow them. If we allow true school choice on an even playing field, competition between public schools and other public schools and competition between public schools and private schools would revolutionize public education within five to ten years, as schools compete for the kids and the dollars that follow them.

Nothing improves the quality of a product or service while lowering the cost like competition. Public schools are full of innovative people who would rise to the task in a truly competitive world, if we would just create that world.

My list of suggestions for turning our schools around could go on and on. Can you imagine what would happen to public education if just these twelve suggestions were put into place? Kids would learn from talented teachers in a safe environment. Schools would be staffed with the best employees. Taxpayers would get their money’s worth and be happy to shell out even more, if they knew the money was not going into a bottomless pit, but into quality schools that everyday are preparing America’s children to compete toe to toe in a global economy.

What I suggest here may seem like a pipedream to some, but I have little doubt that the fulfillment of what today seems like a mere dream would be right before us, if we simply had the courage to make a few critical, systemic changes in the way we approach public education. The system is not failing for lack of talent, but because the system itself is broken. It is designed to fail. Fix a few basic problems, make a few systemic changes, and the entire system would right itself.

In conclusion, public education today is about the following things in the following order: (1) Obtaining more money from the taxpayers; (2) Enhancing the salaries and benefits of school employees; and (3) Teaching kids. Until parents start demanding that school boards and state legislatures put the kids first, the system will continue its downward spiral and all of the money in the world can’t change that.

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Posted by at 07:50 | Posted in Measure 37 | 19 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • John Fairplay

    All excellent points that have no chance of becoming reality, I’m sorry to say. Teachers aspire to be treated as professionals – like doctors or lawyers – and yet are really no different than any other blue-collar union employees like garbage haulers or auto assembly line workers.

  • eagle eye

    Basically, Sizemore wants to end the public schools and replace them with a voucher system of publicly subsidized private schools. This may or may not be a good idea, but it was soundly thrashed by Oregon voters, about 2-1, when they had a chance to go for it a few years ago. Apparently Oregonians are not that unhappy with the public schools. Voucers have about as much chance of winning an election as Sizemore has of becoming governor.

  • English immersion is my priority because School growth is over 100% Hispanic of which 70-80% cannot speak English. Putting them in a failing ESL Class for 5-7 years is wasting over $300 Million /yr. with a 50% drop out rate.

    If the “Healthy Kids” passes and the expanded Head Start passes and “Free” Health Insurance for ALL kids passes, then we will be more of a magnet for Illegal Aliens & hundreds of thousands more will move to this Sanctuary State.

    Immersion cost California $35/yr. & an 80% success rate instead of the Salem-Keizer 80% Failure rate.

  • believeitornot

    Research has shown the greatest predictor of school success is the socio-economic status of the child’s family. Performance pay has been researched to death and has proven there is NO correlation between teaching better and pay. Teacher unions formed because of the lack of equity in pay, harsh working conditions, and unequal treatment by administrators and school boards. The unions can be a pain, if they were not needed, they would not exist. Same ol’ song Bill. Time to find a new tune.

    • eagle eye

      If you really believe that — wouldn’t it make sense to pay the teachers zero? Or if not zero, how much? Half? A quarter?

  • Steve Plunk

    Far from being an end to public schools these proposals would end “union” schools. A good idea but unfortunately, like John F. says, no chance of becoming reality. Most school boards are more sympathetic to teachers unions than they are concerned about education reform.

    A focused strategy to strengthen citizen control over schools could shift the power balance back in the direction it should go. What that strategy is, I don’t know. Perhaps annual election of school board members?

  • Bob Clark

    I believe in School Choice, or suggestion 12. However, the statistics suggest motivated children are going to study and do well whether in a mediocre public school or a stellar private school. This was studied by Steven Levit and Stephen Dubner, and reported in their book _FREAKONOMICS_, pages 143 to 145. This book did not study the secondary impact of increasing competition in lowering the cost of education. I also wonder about the less motivated child. I know from personal experience sending my daughter to an all girls private school helped her graduate on-time.

    I think school choice does not necessarily have to come through a voucher system. Charter schools and internet schooling may be softly sold to Oregonians. Somehow, maybe, school choice can break out from traditional public schools.

  • Keen Observer

    PERS is the culprit 100%

  • Devietro

    I like almost all of these, they are all great ideas but there are two key flaws. 1. We cant propose these all at once becuase they will get thrown out all at once, we need to decide on our priorities and work one at a time.

    2. Sorry to say it but any idea proposed by Bill gets added heat. Even though your ideas may be totally valid you have a certain status in Oregon that is almost unique to you.

    • Sakaki O.

      Of all of these, the first two would be the most important. Getting rid of tenure on the K-12 level would be the first thing. Then, after this, equating pay on merit. It’s a natural follow-through.

      • eagle eye

        Question for you: How would merit be determined?

  • Harry

    The ChalkBoard project is doing a pilot on teacher pay.

    Hey Eagle, why doncha fly on over there and check it out?

    • eagle eye

      Took a quick look at their website — nothing about teacher pay popped readily into view. Do you have a link?

      My impression is they have completely skirted the issue of the overall level of teacher compensation in Oregon (very high).

      Are they doing something on merit pay?

  • Sakaki O.

    Same way as done in a job. Standard to start, and incremental increases as time goes by. If teachers do their best, they get better raises. If they do worse, get lazy, or teach on subjects outside of their realm, then they don’t get a raise.

    Periodic and surprise inspections and shadowing in classrooms, as well as pass/fail rates for test scores, would be two criteria. If a teacher knows his/her stuff, but has a hard class to manage, it will be noted on the inspections.

    You have to treat education like a business in this aspect. Or, as my father always said, “They need to do the inspections to weed the morons out (at his job).”

    • eagle eye

      Sounds like hard to do and fraught with unintended consequences. “Teach on subjects outside their realm”? Happens all the time — physics teacher with no background in physics. Do you think most people like being assigned to do this?

      Pass/fail rates. Sounds like a prescription to motivate teachers to only try to get classes with the bright students in good schools.

      I’m not saying merit pay is necessarily a bad idea — only that it is a very tricky subject in this kind of endeavor (education).

      Ditto with health care, in spades.

  • KISS

    And stop corporations from funding campaign chests. Or is that unfair…only Unions should be penalized?

  • Jerry

    These are excellent suggestions that would help students in each case.
    No one in the unions cares about the students, as evidenced by their failures in putting students first.
    Sad, sad indeed.

  • Jerry

    As Ann Coulter put it so well, “You will find the exact same problems anyplace market forces have been artificially removed by the government and there is a total absence of incentives, competition, effective oversight, cost controls and so on.”

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