So 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.