teaching and choice

booklet_for_schools_534px_wSo we’ve gone some rounds in the teaching/education debate – with Will, Freddie, John, Conor, Sonny and myself all chiming in to one degree or another – and I’d like to follow up a bit on Will’s post on Michelle Rhee.  What I think bothers me often in these schooling debates is that a lot of people think (or seem to think) we should dive headfirst into reforms, when in fact it seems that smaller steps are safer.  I think some conservatives really do have it out for the public school system.  Some voucher proponents would love to see the end of public schools as we know them.  Others don’t.

I don’t think John S. wants to see public schools fail for instance, and I think he’s guided by a sense that school choice and vouchers will create a competitive environment which will make all schools function better, and will eventually lead to better schools and opportunities for more kids.  Our goals, in many senses, are identical.  I disagree mainly due to my perception of the problems facing our schools, (and thus on the actual benefits competition would provide) but I think that local districts should obviously be allowed to give it a shot.  They should just do this with caution, and they also need to maintain some sort of oversight of the schools they are, essentially, subsidizing.  Same with charters. 

But back to Michelle Rhee.  The reason I like what she’s doing is her two-track approach.  You see, I’m not in favor of abolishing tenure flat out in favor of pay incentives, but I am very much in favor of allowing teachers to choose to opt out of tenure and take a possibly more lucrative pay-for-performance path.  It does bring up some questions – like, what about teachers whose performance is impossible (or very hard) to measure via tests?  It’s one thing to measure math in this matter – and so pretty easy, all things told, to pay a math teacher for exemplary math test scores.  But what about an art teacher?  Or a theatre teacher?  It’s not an easy answer.  None of this is.

Teachers make a huge difference.  I think it’s important to pay them well, and to give them an incentive to stick around.  It’s also important to treat them like professionals; to properly accredit them (but also to make that process easier for professionals in other fields); and to give them options that make their teaching careers better on the whole.  So teacher choice, I’d say, ranks right up there with school choice in terms of things we should be thinking about in the education debates.  Michelle Rhee seems to be on to something with her “green vs red” tracks.  We’ll see how it plays out.

P.S. Alongside “school” and “teacher” choice, we should have academic choice for students.  One more time I’m going to beat the trade-school drum.  It’s worth looking into and I havne’t heard much lately on the subject.  Kids not academically inclined should have available to them apprenticeship-like programs designed to teach them useful trades.  I think this could have a profound effect on graduation rates.

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21 thoughts on “teaching and choice

  1. While I think the conservative impulse is to beat up on the teachers (or at least the unions that represent them) and that impulse needs to be reined back in…I also think there’s a tendency in other circles to make a lot of excuses.

    Yes, judging teacher’s performance is hard to measure, but so is a lot of other jobs. For example, in my job if we lose profits there are dozens of variables that can play a factor, many of which I have no control over. My boss doesn’t want to hear excuses when our profits fall. He wants it taken care of. Teachers should be accountable for the product they deliver.

    I worry that their somewhat unique role means teachers think they should get a pass on basic job success.

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  2. “One more time I’m going to beat the trade-school drum.”

    This is a great drum upon which to beat.

    20% of students are in the bottom quintile and I am pretty sure that a university prep education will not serve them (or anybody, really) to anywhere *NEAR* the degree that a decent trade education would.

    There are (at least) two dynamics opposing this, though. The first is the idea that saying that these kids ought to learn a trade is somehow equivalent to saying that they don’t deserve or aren’t worthy of going to college. It’s not that at all. The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, etc.

    The second (and this one is really pernicious) is that tools and equipment cost money to buy, store, and maintain. 25 copies of Watership Down cost a hell of a lot less… and if you think that not every student would benefit from an analysis of Watership Down, what are you? Some sort of jerk that thinks that not every student deserves a university prep education???

    Good essay discussing a tough problem.

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  3. Jaybird:

    The second (and this one is really pernicious) is that tools and equipment cost money to buy, store, and maintain. 25 copies of Watership Down cost a hell of a lot less… and if you think that not every student would benefit from an analysis of Watership Down, what are you? Some sort of jerk that thinks that not every student deserves a university prep education???

    Watership Down is a great book. The cartoon scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I hadn’t honestly considered the equipment costs. There must be some creative solution around that, of course, but it’s a great point….

    Mike – nobody’s arguing that. It’s the difference between two teachers at the same school that raises concerns. If it’s much easier to evaluate math over art, where does that leave principals (etc) making the pay decisions?

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  4. In my area (central MA), in more rural parts, trade schools are regional. Not sure how they’re funded, but they serve students from several surrounding towns. I think the town from which the student comes from pays a fee for that student to attend the trade school.

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  5. E.D. – My company employees thousands of people in hundreds of different roles. Somehow we calculate how to give merit raises to all of them yearly. There are what, maybe a dozen different possible sujects a highschool teacher could teach. We can’t come up with 12 different assesment tools?

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  6. I am generally pro-union but some unions deserve criticism. The problem, as has happens in these discussions, is that unions or teacher merit pay/ assessment becomes the entire discussion of how to improve schools. Which ends up with ideological arguments instead of looking as all the issues schools/ teachers face and how to correct them.

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  7. “It does bring up some questions – like, what about teachers whose performance is impossible (or very hard) to measure via tests? It’s one thing to measure math in this matter – and so pretty easy, all things told, to pay a math teacher for exemplary math test scores.”

    Agreed! So some form of standardized test — be it national, or, even better, state-by-state — would be a great way of testing the effectiveness of various teachers, right? That’s all I was saying in that last back and forth. I’m terribly fond of public schools (I’ve attended nothing but state-supported institutions) and I’d love to see the quality of teachers staffing them measured and, eventually, improved. Raw scores might not be the best way of measuring teacher success, but there are certain metrics — student improvement/regression year-by-year, say — that are easily measured and important indicators of teacher success.

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  8. Right, Sonny – but in certain subjects this becomes far more difficult. And thus it will be much easier for those teachers to adopt this incentivized pay-scale and so forth than for art or theatre teachers and so forth. That’s a problem that needs to be figured out. And balance must be maintained so that the focus is not solely on the tests even in those subjects. So it’s tricky….

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  9. I’m sure we could come up with something…I’m thinking of those ads you’ll see occasionally for an “art institute” in which they send a brochure and tell you to draw the cartoons/still lifes you see on said brochure and judge your fitness for art school.
    /tongue in cheek
    No, I see your point. But I do think the government has an interest in focusing on competency in core curriculum (reading/writing/math/history/government) than on some of the enlightening but decidedly peripheral courses (PE/art/music).

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  10. “That’s where a national curriculum would be a very good thing.”
    Wow, I’m surprised by the national scope. Why would national standards be better than state or local?

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  11. I don’t think they are better per se but I think from a logisitical perspective they make a lot more sense. As someone who helped write teaching programs for several historic sites and museums, I can tell you that under the current standards you really can’t appeal much to school systems outside of your immediate area because it’s too difficult to keep up with everyone’s curriculum. With a national curriculum a museum in Nebraska could host online tours for kids in Deleware and know they were meeting specific components of their curriculum. A shared curriculum would make inter-state collaborations between teachers and classrooms much easier. With the level of communication and technology we have in this country it’s actually kind of ridiculous not to go this route and take advantage of the possibilities.

    There’s also the possibility of a blessed side-effect where ID is killed for good.

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  12. “There’s also the possibility of a blessed side-effect where ID is killed for good.”

    If we are having a problem of “kids graduating who don’t know how to read”, isn’t worrying about ID sort of worrying about something way, way secondary?

    It might even be worth asking “Do kids who are taught ID have similar illiteracy rates with kids taught sticker-free Darwinian Evolution?”

    If the answer is “no”, might there be even more interesting follow-up questions to ask?

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  13. Mike:

    No thanks. With a shared curriculum already spelled out, any interesting collaboration is lost. I’ll take competition over an administrative group project.

    No child left behind is bad enough. It’s just as likely that I.D. would get into the national curriculum. At the very least you’d have to compromise between the meritocratic areas and the anti-intellectual. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

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  14. With a district level curriculum you pretty much ensure kids are rarely exposed to anything outside of that district and that includes cultural institutions as well as kids in other places. It creates a very myoptic view of the world.

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  15. “With a district level curriculum you pretty much ensure kids are rarely exposed to anything outside of that district and that includes cultural institutions as well as kids in other places.”
    Sorry to get lost so early. How does local decision on curriculum isolate oneself (without localvorism)? It would seem just as likely that we would get a USdayToday mish mash that would eliminate plenty of cultural institutions (if what you’re meaning is museums and not churches and the like). Wouldn’t an open market support more not fewer institutions?

    Would having a globally agreed upon curriculum broaden our views? Would it be the best way to educate our young?

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  16. I get the feeling that what is wanted is not a globally agreed upon curriculum.

    What is wanted is a global curriculum.

    This curriculum will, of course, be picked by the right people. This time.

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  17. It’s also important to treat them like professionals; to properly accredit them (but also to make that process easier for professionals in other fields)

    So it should be hard for teachers but easy for non-teachers?

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  18. Here’s the thing, Michael. It’s one thing if you are getting a bachelor’s degree and want to become a teacher. It’s another thing if you’re a thirty-five year old – say, businessman or lawyer – and you want to teach. There is a lot to be said for fast-track programs for professionals who are at very different places in their lives typically than college kids. That’s all.

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