July 25, 2007
Some Children Left Behind
I'm going to preface this by saying that i am not, nor will ever be, a teacher. It's not that I don't think it's a noble profession, I just lack the patience and skills with children to be a good teacher. I do, however, get to talk to my sister while she talks about being a teacher (and a damn good one at that). Therefore, I claim some knowledge in the area, but I have no practical experience. In other words, I'm an economist.
No Child Left Behind does not work. If you have ears, I'm sure you've been told this at least a dozen times. The question, then, is why doesn't it work? After all, the theory isn't all that bad: Get a list of things a student should know, then test them on those things. If the students are not achieving an acceptable level of competency, then after a warning period, punish the administration by taking funding away from the school.
However, This falls short in practice. A loss of funding does not punish the teachers, because their salaries are pre-determined by a union contract. It only punishes the students when funding must be taken from other areas, or it punishes parents when the district engineers an increase in property taxes to make up the difference. The result is an even worse school. Now, I hear you mister one of the few NCLB supporters, "but if the school's that bad, the parents can get vouchers to take their kids to another school." But riddle me this, if both parents work, how does the kid get to another school that doesn't have buses coming down your street? Also, how do the good schools stay good with an influx of students from other districts?
From a more ideological standpoint, who determines what the students should know? First of all, the tests are written at the state level, so their is no national test to compare state to state. Second, all too often the people writing the tests are not teachers, and if they were, they haven't taught in some time because positions on the State/National School Board are full-time jobs.
There are just a few of the complaints levied against NCLB, but the fact remains that the public school system in America before Bush came into office was already flawed. Thus, our goal needs to be to find a better way of doing things instead of simply complaining about the status quo.
In that vein, I ask a seemingly simple question: What should the purpose of the American public-school system be? The first, and most obvious, answer is to educate our young people. Unfortunately, such vague answers are not very useful. What do you mean by educate? Is it to teach a little of everything? Is it to teach in depth in a few subjects? Is there anything that everyone can agree is essential to prosper in today's society? Additionally, what is meant by young people? Should we devote time and resources to raising the 10% of students with disabilities to the "average" level, or should we focus on taking the other 90% even higher? Do we ignore the top 10% that are having their potential wasted by only being asked to perform at an "average" level? Once we answer these and other very ideological questions, then we can proceed to build a system to meet those goals.
In the meantime, I have a few suggestions to improve the system in general, without too many plans at the micro-level. I don't know if Illinois is the only state that uses property taxes within the district to fund the school, but this is not a good system. The result is that rich neighborhoods, with high-value property and big houses have, you guessed it, rich schools. At the same time, poor neighborhoods with low property values and small homes have poor schools.
I think property taxes are a viable way to fund schools, but a majority of the proceeds need to be collected at the state or national level and then redistributed based on enrollment. This would insure that all schools have, at least, the same baseline budget per student. Not only would this allow for all schools to have more or less equal footing to educate, it would make the teachers and administration more accountable. Since all schools have a similar amount of funding, it is easier to compare personnel across districts.
My second idea is to pay good teachers more, preferably a lot more, than they are making now. Teachers are among the most important figures in shaping hte future of America, and yet they are paid much less than other professions that do not contribute nearly as much. There is something to be said about not paying teachers as much as other professions: Only people that truly want to teach are going to teach. There will be no people trying to teach simply because they think they can profit personally. This is why we can't just increase the salary of every teacher. We need a way to reward good teachers without rewarding bad ones.
The problem is that I don't know how to do this without creating conflicts. If you base it on test scores, then the teacher has an incentive to focus exclusively on the test or inflate the scores (i.e. cheat). If you base it on parent and administrative reviews, you run into problems of personalities. Someone can be an amazing teacher, and yet clash personally with a student's parents or the principal. The criteria must be objective, reflect year-long activity, and take into account the characteristics of the student body. The answer is probably a combination of things, but I'm leery about any reward system that's too complicated (tax law, anyone?)
My final suggestion, is to allow parents to influence the school if it does not educate to the parent's standard. I don't know if that means school vouchers, but that's about the most viable option I can think of. With an enrollment based funding system, schools will be in essence competing for students because more students means more money. Perhaps we can set aside a portion of the funding as a bonus for the teachers and administrators. If a school loses students due to performance, then the teachers and administrators lose money in the form of a smaller bonus.
I don't know if any of this would actually work, but I've done some thinking, and these are the best ideas I can come up with. The fact remains that America's school system is not reflective of our status as the richest nation in the world. Further, lower quality education allows other nations to grow more quickly, while America's growth is stagnating. If we are going to hold our position in the world order, than the education system needs to change.