Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I Don't Believe in the Trinity

No, not THAT Trinity silly (I certainly do believe in that one). I mean the unholy trinity, or perhaps better said, the unholy triumvirate that holds our public school hostage to mediocrity -- that is, the triumvirate of the teachers unions, the university programs that oversee teacher certification, and the legislature that keep reform from being possible.

I got to thinking about this while reading the Time Magazine cover story about Michelle Rhee, the federally appointed superintendent of the Washington DC schools.

I have heretofore figured that our public school system is beyond reform, irredeemable, and hopeless. Its mediocrity is felt worse in places that need excellence the most – in our inner cities and areas of socio-economic decline. Why we don’t offer the poorest people the opportunity to escape the system and attend charter, magnet, or private schools is beyond my understanding.

The sentence that most got my attention in the Time Magazine article was this:

“Rhee is convinced that the answer to the U.S.’s education disaster is talent, in the form of outstanding teachers and principals.”

I agree. Don’t misunderstand me. There are a lot of talented and superb teachers in the system, despite low pay, chronic discipline issues, and little regard or professional respect by the general public. As the saying goes, “Those who can, do, those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach others to teach."

It doesn’t help matters to have salaries printed every year in one of our local papers, as if to prove how overly paid our teachers are. This is just ridiculous. Putting it in perspective, the highest paid teacher in Guilford County has a Ph.D., thirty five years experience, and National Board certification, and she makes less money than my daughter will make coming out of PA school, and much less money than the average bright twenty five year old person makes coming out of a quality MBA program.

Michelle Rhee wants to make the teachers in Washington DC the highest paid teachers in the nation, and in the process get rid of the weakest teachers. I would like to see the same right here in Guilford County.

Until we offer financial incentives by way of higher starting salary and higher top salaries, teaching will continue to attract the less talented and less bright college students. We need to grease the wheels for lateral entry to enable talented people who have worked in other industries for 20 years not to have to take a 50 percent or more pay cut in order o be a teacher.

And we need a way to weed out the teachers who just don’t cut it, or who have quit caring. The problem in the current system is that whereas it is very hard work being a good teacher, it is all to easy to be a bad teacher. That is not an easy matter to fix because it is hard to objectify the evaluation process. Interestingly however, principles and fellow teachers tend to know who the poor teachers are. Unfortunately, the reality of local school politics makes it difficult to weed out the poorest teachers by subjective observation alone. Plus many of the best teachers are mavericks who aren’t terribly submissive, and who don’t always cooperate with the mountain of administrative work heaped upon them. And sometimes the best teachers are a threat to the worst teachers.

Somehow we have to find a formula that includes objective criteria (improvement in student competence), and subjective opinion, the views of principles, students, and even parents. I think I could come up with a workable system, but the union would never allow it.

Despite all the usual excuses for bad school performance, I believe that with well paid motivated teachers and principals we could turn things around and give the next generation a fighting chance. We don’t have to consign our poorest families to our poorest schools.

There are three things I would voluntarily pay higher taxes for - 1) hiring more policemen and firemen and EMS type workers, 2) maintaining our public spaces such as parks and greenways and such, and 3) paying our teachers more - a LOT more. I would gladly see my taxes DOUBLE for these purposes.

Let’s stop business a usual. As was said by someone in the recent campaign, let’s made education the Marshall Plan for the 21st century, or least for its first quarter century (the green revolution won’t happen unless we have enough people, taught and rained to carry it out).

Mr. Green, look to Michelle Rhee.

That’s where I’m coming from.

Joel Gillespie


Anonymous said...

My wife's a veteran high school teacher (I'd like to think she's one of the best; her students and stats seem to bear that belief out).

You've pretty well hit the nail on the head.

I'm curious about your daughter's PA school experience (where is she and what has her experience been?); my daughter's early in pursuing the same path.

Joel said...

My second daughter Heather graduated in May from Chapel Hill (undergrad) and is working at a medical clinic near Chapel Hill and applying to PA schools to start summer or fall of 2009.

Anonymous said...

Joel, thanks for a very thoughtful post.

Yes, good teachers are underpaid. The problem is that the system is public. When you have a public system with so many employees, it virtually assures that a "poverty cycle" will afflict wage levels (unless the teachers' union is permitted to enter into collective bargaining).

Taxpayers will naturally resist paying higher taxes because they distrust that the product will be truly improved with the current institutional forces in place-- which you call, correctly, the "unholy triumvirate". And they will resist higher taxation when they see that a better educational product is available in other areas at the same or lower levels of taxation.

Joe Guarino