The conventional wisdom that education reform needs to involve some combination of merit pay and an end to teacher tenure continues to be in vogue (http://www.economist.com/node/17148968). This could be a positive step under a certain set of conditions, that include: 1) Sufficient incentives for administrators to be more concerned with the quality of educational services than with the absence of “problems”, 2) sufficient increases in pay or other incentives offered to prospective new teachers to more than off-set the disincentive of decreased job-security, and 3) recognition that this remains a strategy which addresses a relatively superficial aspect of the failure of our educational system, without doing anything whatsoever to address the more fundamental problems where they reside.
All three of these conditions are absent in Colorado. There is no sufficient set of administrator-incentives in play to create a context in which improved educational services would actually take priority over the petty politics of large school districts. Teachers are currently as likely to receive poor evaluations, or be dismissed for poor performance, for being exceptional as for being sub-par, because exceptional teachers tend to rock the boat in a variety of ways (e.g., making other teachers jealous, pandering to anti-educational cultural forces less, being more inclined to challenge poor policies and the promotion-of-loyal-incompetence in place in their school and district).
In anti-tax-crazy Colorado, at least, the funds to off-set the diminished incentives created by ending tenure simply do not exist. There is ample research showing that smaller class size (and a higher adult-to-student ratio) is correlated to better performance, so reducing the number of teachers is not a viable option for positive educational reform. Given the large demand for teachers to satisfy existing need and the non-competitive salary for attracting the most talented college graduates, diminishing the incentives facing prospective new teachers promises to deteriorate rather than improve the overall quality of the teacher pool.
The poor teachers that are in our schools now are there because of supply and demand, not because of teacher tenure: There is a huge demand for teachers, and a limited supply, which means that some of that demand will be met with teachers of lower quality. Firing poorly performing teachers and paying high-performing ones a little more would be a great strategy if the goal were to reduce the teacher pool to a compact corps of highly proficient professionals. But that’s not the goal: We have to continue to put a teacher in every classroom, which means we can’t reduce the number of teachers to those that are most talented. And if we offer incentives to in-coming teachers that are in aggregate less appealing than the ones offered now, not only will we have no greater number of the most skilled teachers to off-set the removal of the least skilled ones, we will in fact have fewer of the most skilled teachers.
Some might argue that merit pay would be the increased incentive to the most talented college graduates to go into teaching. But without increased revenues, and due to various structural reasons (e.g., existing contracts, and the need to retain enough teachers to have one in each classroom), significant reductions in some teachers’ pay to fund significant augmentations in others’ is not a viable solution. In Colorado, at least, significantly increased revenues for merit pay just isn’t going to happen.
While it would certainly be nice to remove the least skilled teachers and replace them with more skilled teachers, aside from the difficulties to this plan posed by such obstacles as supply and demand (it doesn’t address the need to recruit more highly skilled teachers to replace the removed less skilled ones) and the sheer expense involved in doing it effectively (in a country whose current most robust political movement is an ideologically extremist anti-tax movement), it does not really get to the heart of the educational failure in America.
The overall quality of the teacher pool is surprisingly good, in fact. The more salient problems are what children are exposed to outside of the school building and school hours: Parents who often have neither the skills nor time to devote to effectively supporting and augmenting their children’s academic growth; communities populated by people who barely know each other and feel no real connection; an anti-intellectual culture that increasingly markets to our youth the idea that hard work and academic success are neither cool nor necessary; and a plethora of mindless and ubuquitous electronic distractions that have the essentially the same effect on kids as drugs do.
If we’re really serious about improving educational success in America, we’re going to have to take the mission of the schools to the streets, to the homes, to the corporate boardrooms, and turn America itself into a classroom. We’re going to have to reform our communities so that they become foundations of personal growth, assist parents in offering intellectual stimulation to their children, address the full range of unmet needs of the lowest performing students (e.g., social emotional development and behavioral health issues), and reach down into what is at root a cultural problem.
This may sound like an overly ambitious agenda, but there are some very easy and viable first steps to take. Improving school-community partnerships is highly cost-effective, because there are many community members who could be persuaded to volunteer their time to tutor and mentor kids (both increasing the all-important adult-to-student ratio, and explosing kids to a broader range and higher quantity of adult human capital), and to help parents who need it to learn better academic-support skills as well. There are an array of state and federal programs that offer various kinds of assistance to children and families in need that can partner with the schools to ensure that those needs are met. Efforts are currently under way to coordinate the missions of schools and health agencies and juvenile justice agencies in order to better accomplish these ends.
The current emphasis on getting rid of bad teachers merely kicks responsibility for deep structural problems down the hierarchy, to those who are least able to address those problems, and does nothing to actually produce and attract the increased number of the most highly skilled teachers that would be required to make it work. Let’s focus more on creating fertile soil for education in America, so that increasingly better students and eventually better teachers will be two of the benefits reaped, rather than pretending that the solution can be imposed by a quick fix oblivious to the systemic realities that that fix will inevitably run into.