Friday, August 12, 2005


The WaPo editorialized yesterday about the teacher problem. That is, there aren't enough of them. The solution they endorse:

The Teaching Commission -- a group whose board includes former IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and former first lady Barbara Bush -- concluded that rigid rules for teacher pay have failed to attract teachers to more difficult schools and more difficult subjects; that education schools needed higher standards; and that teacher licensing should be more rigorous.

Higher standards and tougher licensing guidelines won't bring more in. It'll keep more out. This isn't rocket science, people. If you want more teachers, you've got to pay them.

But then, they started to scratch the surface:

Last May the National Academy of Education issued a set of recommendations designed to deal with precisely the same problems: performance-linked teacher pay, incentives to teach in urban and poor rural schools, higher standards for teacher training, and more support for beginning teachers.

They're getting closer. Incentives to teach in poor and urban schools are important. But they've got to be high. Few teachers who could be hired in the suburbs will go to the inner city or to the sticks for a grand or two more. It'll take at least $5,000 more and even that, realistically, probably isn't enough.

But the big problem they miss is highlighted perfectly in the article I cited yesterday from the Austin Chronicle:

For one thing, there's the pay. AISD, like many districts, has addressed the issue of teacher shortage by recruiting new teachers through relatively high starting salaries. A beginning AISD teacher earns about $35,000 – not too shabby, especially if half your friends are still working in coffee shops. But in yet another vicious cycle – the phrase comes up a lot in retention discussions – the front-loading that convinces people to give teaching a try doesn't do much to convince them to stay. As teachers age, they find their salaries simply don't keep up with those of other professions. An AISD teacher with 20 years experience earns only $45,000.

There it is. $35K isn't bad fresh out of college. But once you hit that ripe ol' age of 30 -- I'm almost there myself -- it don't look so hot anymore. Inevitably, most people will start looking around for other work.

We've got to incentivize people at that 7-year mark (when that itch sets in), give them a bump, a bonus, something.

I do agree that performance pay is needed but it cannot be based solely on test scores. Things like parent and student satisfaction with the teacher are also important. And the extra time a teacher devotes to tutoring and mentoring. And efforts to design innovative curriculum. And so many other things that could fill hundreds of pages.

Teachers do more than test preparation. That must be acknowledged in any pay for performance package.

I'm glad there's so much talk lately about teacher retention. The fact is that it wasn't so long ago that women didn't have many career choices. Thus, our schools were blessed with an incredibly deep pool of talented, bright, dedicated teachers. Now women can enter any profession and they're leaving teaching in droves. At the same time, our population is booming: there are now 55,000,000 students in American schools.

We've got to attract teachers to the schools and keep them there. And sorry, small government conservatives, it's going to cost us. Plain and simple economics, here. Y'all claim to understand economics, right? Well, you get what you pay for. $45K for a 20th year teacher is an abomination. Very few make it to the 20th year. As the Chronicle pointed out:

Teachers come for personal reasons, and they go for personal reasons. The big three, though, are pay, administrative (or administrator) hassles, and classroom management issues. In a 2003 State Board for Educator Certification study of why teachers leave the profession, 61% cited salaries, 32% mentioned poor administrative support, and 24% referred to problems with student discipline.

61% cited low pay. This kind of math ain't complex. It's simple. Our schools need more money. Yes, it should be targeted for maximum efficiency, no doubt. But still the conclusion is unavoidable.

The schools -- and specifically the teachers -- need more money. So let's quit demonizing the teachers' groups and get on with the task at hand. It's time to make the substantial investment in schools that everyone knows we need to make.

Not later. Now.

The other dropout problem

Do not miss this article from the Austin Chronicle. It's a cover story on the dropout problem -- that is, the problem of teachers dropping out. In Austin, nearly half of new teachers will be gone within seven years. There aren't many career teachers left and it's important to understand why that is. The Chronicle does a great job getting to the crux of the issues.

Much ado about AYP

23% of Texas schools failed to make AYP this year. Many of them will have to provide, at their cost, transportation to students who want to transfer and tutoring. In other words, schools that are already struggling to make ends meet in an inequitable system, will have to struggle even more. Salaries and benefits will be squeezed even more. Good teachers and principals will leave even quicker than they already do.

This is bad policy.

Punishment rarely makes for a good remedy. This is no exception.

And, of course, we're still waiting for the Bush Administration to fully fund this thing. It's costing districts millions of dollars while $8 billion of promised cash remains undelivered.

It's like waiting for Godot.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Private funding for public schools

More and more these days, schools rely on private sources to pay for critical programs. The grant writing process requires school resources in the form of time and money but, increasingly, districts faced with rising costs and flat revenues are forced to go after them.

The Twin Falls Time-News ran an interesting piece yesterday featuring the efforts of Idaho districts to rustle up a little extra cash for things like reading and after-school programs.

The article doesn't touch on it, but it's important to note, that many private sources give for than charitable reasons. They have an agenda-- sometimes political, instructional, or both. And they are completely unaccountable to the public. By shortchanging our schools in this gilded age of low taxes, we are opening up public educational institutions to influences they -- and we -- don't fully understand.

It's a dangerous trend. And as the Idaho newspaper points out, where private grants used to be a source merely for funding extras, they're fast becoming necessary for basic operations.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Scopes Part 2

There were quite a few comments here when I posted about Bush's support for intelligent design, so I thought it would be worthwhile to post this article about an upcoming court battle over the subject in Dover, Pa. It's sure to get plenty of press coverage and debate when the trial starts next month:

On September 26, an event that the national media will surely depict as a new Scopes trial is scheduled to begin. Hearings will commence in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district over its decision to introduce “Intelligent Design,” or ID, into its biology curriculum. The analogy with the 1925 Tennessee “monkey trial” certainly has its merits. With a newly rejuvenated war against evolution now afoot in the United States, one being prosecuted by religious conservatives and their intellectual and political allies, it is virtually inevitable that the courts will once again serve as the ultimate arbiters of what biology teachers can and cannot present to their students in public schools.

The problem here is simple: Intelligent design should not, under any circumstances, be taught as part of a science curriculum. Even the main proponents of intelligent design, the Discovery Institute agree with that point:

Nevertheless, ID hawkers have crisscrossed the United States arguing that public schools should “teach the controversy” over evolution -- a controversy they themselves have manufactured. In Ohio, one state where they have enjoyed considerable success, the state board of education adopted a model lesson plan in early 2004 inviting students to “critically analyze five different aspects of evolutionary theory.” In fact, the lesson plan contains spurious critiques of evolution that scientific experts have rejected and that were explicitly opposed by the National Academy of Sciences. In the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, local anti-evolutionists have actually gone further and explicitly introduced intelligent design into science classes (a tack the Discovery Institute has come to oppose, probably because of its obvious unconstitutionality). So successful has the Discovery Institute been in popularizing ID, it may have lost control of how anti-evolutionists at the local level go about applying its ideas.

So there you have it. Even the Discovery Institute doesn't want ID taugh in science classes. Why? Because it's not science.

It's faith. I have it, too (I know it might be surprising to some of the regular readers of this blog). I've never felt convinced that the Big Bang was a satisfactory explanation for the beginning of the universe and I, too, have a hard time believing there isn't a Creator of some kind. But -- and this is the most important point -- my faith simply does not belong in a science curriculum.

Nor does anyone else's.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Where Ag and Ed meet

The Newsweek edition dated yesterday featured an article about a movement that is increasingly gaining steam: the movement to clean up school lunches. It's a worthwhile cause when you think about: How can we expect kids to focus if they're hopped up on lunches full of sugar?

The article's a good -- if short -- one, even though they identified the Education Commissioner of Texas as Susan Combs. She's actually the Ag Commissioner-- who's checking facts over there?

Monday, August 08, 2005

NAEP scores misleading?

Slate ran an interesting article today with a thesis that low scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are indicative of nothing. Why? The 17 year-olds who scored so poorly (and earned so much press for doing so) had no reason to try on the thing. They're seniors who have already been filling in bubbles for over a decade and now there's yet another test and it doesn't have any bearing on their future.

Slate education writer Alexandra Starr guesses that you'd skip it -- or at least not try very hard -- too. (Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link.)

More conflict of interest in the Ed Dept?

There could be another scandal blooming in the Bush Education Department. It appears that some inside the Department -- or at least with close ties to it -- have been representing Reading First, a controversial reading program that has received hundreds of millions in federal grants. The conflict of interest, if this is true, is obvious.

Check out the full story from USA Today, which by the way, also broke the Armstrong Williams scandal. They must have a pretty good source inside the Department.
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