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Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Works? Views From the NY Times

The NY Times this week had several articles that overlapped in their take on education. There seem to be a couple of different issues.

One article is a column by Nicholas D. Kristof, "Obama and the Our Schools". He first takes issue with education coming in 5th on Obama To Do list. (I'm thrilled it's even there at all.) He then had this startling piece of news:

"The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington."

Then he goes for his premise:

"The most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on. One recent study found that if American students did as well as those in several Asian countries in math and science, our economy would grow 20 percent faster."

And, of course, he's right. Invest in education and your country, your society reaps the benefits ten-fold. From better workers to better citizens to more informed parenting and on, a country gets back what it puts in.

He discusses a book he read (anybody read this one yet?):

"One of the most important books of the year is “The Race Between Education and Technology,” by two Harvard economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. They argue that the distinguishing feature of America for most of our history has been our global lead in education."

He details how the U.S. led in education goals until about the 1970s. The problem isn't that we don't have any good schools but that we have too many bad schools that leave kids behind.

Solutions?

"A study by the Hamilton Project, a public policy group at the Brookings Institution, outlines several steps to boost weak schools: end rigid requirements for teacher certification that impede hiring, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out after three years on the job and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas. If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we’re going to have to pay much more — and it would be a bargain."

I agree with the idea of making tenure more difficult to get rid of teachers who aren't doing well early on (or conversely, get them help early on so that can succeed). Which leads me to the next article, "A Superintendent Takes on Tenure, Stirring a Fight" about Michelle Rhee, the take-no-prisoners superintendent of Washington, D.C. From the article,

"Ms. Rhee has proposed spectacular raises of as much as $40,000, financed by private foundations, for teachers willing to give up tenure. Policy makers and educators nationwide are watching to see what happens to Ms. Rhee’s bold proposal. The 4,000-member Washington Teachers’ Union has divided over whether to embrace it, with many union members calling tenure a crucial protection against arbitrary firing."

This money would come from foundations who she says have already lined up behind her.

Her plan?

"Ms. Rhee has not proposed abolishing tenure outright. Under her proposal, each teacher would choose between two compensation plans, one called green and the other red. Pay for teachers in the green plan would rise spectacularly, nearly doubling by 2010. But they would need to give up tenure for a year, after which they would need a principal’s recommendation or face dismissal. Teachers who choose the red plan would also get big pay increases but would lose seniority rights that allow them to bump more-junior teachers if their school closes or undergoes an overhaul. If they were not hired by another school, their only options would be early retirement, a buyout or eventual dismissal."

On the other side?

“Fire all incompetent teachers — that makes a good sound bite,” said George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “But remember that not only teachers are to blame for the problems in this district.”

“Without tenure,” Dr. Mirel said, “teachers can still face arbitrary firing because of religious views, or simply because of the highly politicized nature of American society.”

Okay, so looking at these articles we see that teachers are at the crux of what we believe is important in learning. If we get rid of tenure and teachers are trying to get bonuses (not only from going to teach in challenging schools but also by getting results), will teachers teach to the test? Will they fear losing their jobs because of sexual orientation or religion or just because a parent complains about a grade? Maybe tenure is too far and no tenure isn't enough to make teaching a "safe" job.

But teachers are not the only thing and we can't just look at them as the whole package. There's curriculum, there's principals and most of all, there are parents.

Teachers? What is going to work? Parents, what do you think?

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