Jewish World Review March 2, 2005 / 21 Adar I 5765
On following ideas over a cliff
For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong. L. Mencken
A day-long conference here in Little Rock the other day on school reform should have been entitled: Education and Its Discontents.
The actual title of this confabulation of experts, critics, administrators and innocent bystanders was something about The Future of School Reform in the Era of "No Child Left Behind."
But the titles of conferences about education don't mean much. Their function is to cover a multitude of speakers. So each can saddle up his favorite hobbyhorse, ride it for a while and then trot off into the sunset. Listeners may be left confused, but on a much higher level.
Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford with some unorthodox ideas about education, got the show started with a keynote address. Among the things he said that struck a chord:
If you pay teachers more, you'll attract better teachers, but if you just give them across-the-board raises, you'll defeat your purpose if your purpose is to raise the quality of teaching instead of just providing employment.
Paying by seniority is a formula for achieving mediocrity. Or worse. Because the better teachers move on for higher pay and the worse ones stay. Result: Poor teachers are over-compensated, good ones leave.
Instead, says Professor Moe, teachers should be paid on the basis of performance. They should be judged not just by how well their students do on standardized tests, but subjectively by someone who knows good teaching like their principals.
It's a nice theory, but I could almost see eyebrows being raised all over the room. Just think of all those ex-coaches who are now principals judging the skill and effectiveness of math, science, English and history teachers.
Professor Moe pointed out that there's little or no evidence of any correlation between certification and quality when it comes to teachers. All those paper credentials and mickeymouse courses may have little to do with actual teaching.
Ken James, who's the new director of education here in Arkansas, kind of agreed, though in the vaguest way possible and only after he'd been pinned down which wasn't easy to do. He's a professional educator, and the purpose of all that professional jargon he's mastered is not so much to answer questions but evade them.
As I understand Dr. James' position, and I probably don't, it's that the state needs to require higher standards for new teachers but protect those who've been around for a while. And this can best be done by assuming that, to a great extent, Highly Qualified means Time Served.
In short, the consumer of education should not make the mistake of thinking that being a Highly Qualified teacher means being highly qualified.
This is what happens when education becomes about the job rights of teachers, not the education of children.
My own theory/hobbyhorse is that most of what's wrong with American education could be righted if we made the kids not just the top concern of the system but the only concern of the system.
Ideally, no child should have to endure a poor teacher. Or a system that's more concerned with any number of things providing employment for teachers, producing winning football teams, funneling tax dollars into the community, etc. than it is with teaching children.
The solution? Professor Moe would simply do away with teacher certification. ("Teacher training is a charade used by the teacher unions to keep bad teachers on the payroll.") The professor would let the schools hire anybody to teach who's got an undergraduate degree.
He figures the hiring pool would be so enlarged that the schools would pick the very best applicants for teaching jobs, try them out, keep the good ones and drop those that don't work out.
But I doubt it would work that simple way, considering all the politics of education. Besides, do we really want to use the kids as guinea pigs to test teachers?
Teachers shouldn't have to go through all the gobbledygook that screens out the most intelligent and easily bored candidates for the profession, but teachers certainly need training. A one-year apprenticeship as a teacher's aide an aide to a good teacher, that is is probably worth more than all the courses in educational theory now necessary to make teachers pseudo-professionals.
Some training is required even for us inky wretches in the press if not a journalism degree, then enough experience to know the basics. Should we require less of those entrusted with the education of our children?
At the end of the day, you leave a conference like this full of good ideas, but newly wary of following them over the nearest cliff.
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