Thursday, July 29, 2010

A couple of notes on education reform

This fact is not getting a lot of attention in the press, but President Obama is openly taking on the teachers' unions. I don't believe he's going at them head-on, but make no mistake, he is standing up to them. And he's doing it in such a way that, if this issue ever gets more attention, it will make the opposition of the teachers' unions reflect very badly on the unions.

I personally think President Bush's heart was in the right place on this topic. NCLB was full of good intentions. But, he and his administration were such poor managers and executives that, at least in the short term, NCLB likely did more harm than good. Managerial incompetence is that administration's most enduring trait, but that's another post for another time.

Obama is taking the goals of NCLB and designing programs that encourage innovation at the local and state level. His script with the teacher's unions is basically: "We have the shared goal of improving education in this country, especially for the less fortunate. I know you guys can't do it all and too often you're not being provided adequate tools to do your job. But, too many of you just flat-out aren't doing your jobs and some of that is because we largely don't bother to look and see if you're doing your jobs. This must and will change." Then he throws out the carrot of potentially better pay and better working environments.

Me, personally, I think teacher pay is appropriate for the teacher population we currently have. There was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when teachers were underpaid. That time has gone. However, teachers are not currently paid enough to change the overall talent level of the people entering the profession. Simply put, we need to make it harder to become a teacher and also make the profession more attractive to more talented people. I believe Teach for America's success is explained, at least partially, by the fact that they are recruiting from a better talent pool. Simply put, we need to improve the talent level of our teacher corps, and that will undoubtedly require better pay. However, you can't just increase the talent level quickly. We are likely going to have to pay new teachers better than market rates for probably a decade. We can mitigate some of this waste by doing away with tenure, but the fact is, at a basic level, we have to "throw money" at this. Eventually, with higher pay, market pressures should improve overall teacher talent.

I personally know a few teachers and I have no doubt that they are highly effective. They also teach in districts where parents are very involved and, sometimes crassly, create an environment of teacher accountability. These places, in general, are not the problem. In my own school district, I know parents will organize very quickly to run off an ineffective teacher. This is not the best mechanism, but it works.

Conservatives will basically tell you that in communities where schools are failing, it's the fault of the communities. The parents are not involved enough and/or they subject their kids to such noisy lives that it's no wonder the schools are bad. Blah, blah, blah.

To that I say, "Do you really want to live in a society where your opportunity is determined primarily by the circumstances of your birth?" I'm personally interested in creating a society where individuals rise and fall by their own practiced virtue and where everyone has a reasonable chance to practice virtue. Of course, this is predicated on my own view that virtue is dependent on certain level of peace and quiet in the environment plus institutions that effectively impart the capability to live virtuously. But, that is a whole 'nother discussion.