May 23 2010

“Freeing up teachers’ futures”

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:17 am

One of the best theories I’ve heard for improving the state of education in America is Improving schools by paying teachers to leave:

I read about a school principal who disliked saying she was firing staff. She preferred the phrase “freeing up teachers’ futures.” That is sort of what Hoover Institution economist Eric A. Hanushek is saying we should do with any new school bailout: use it to pay severance packages for ineffective teachers so they can find their true calling elsewhere.

That is one of several provocative suggestions made by Hanushek on Education Week’s [bias alert-I am on their board] latest back page commentary, “Cry Wolf! This Budget Crunch Is for Real.”

Hanushek is good at being constructively outrageous, like many scholars strolling among the eucalyptus trees in the shadow of Hoover Tower. I gave a rave review last year to his great book with a terrible title, “Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses.” This new piece continues his habit of waving uncomfortable realities in our faces, even as we face the prospect of major teacher layoffs.

He summarizes his plan for turning school budget cuts and more federal bailout funds into an opportunity to improve the teaching ranks: “The first-best solution, based on several decades of consistent research findings, is to lay off ineffective teachers selectively while letting class sizes drift up a bit,” he writes. “When the bailout ends, schools would be in a stronger financial position because the permanent teacher workforce would be reduced by the slightly larger class sizes, and this workforce would be of higher quality.”

Hanushek puts his ideas together in a more elegant way than I have, but you get the idea. My first problem with his solution, as he recognizes, is that we are not really sure which teachers are effective and which are not. Most districts have no dependable way to find out.

That’s very true. Further, things aren’t much different in colleges and universities. Yes, there are all kinds of “assessment” systems, ranging from student evaluations compared with national norms to assessments by colleagues and administrators, sometimes even including “objective” measures of student learning with pre-tests and post-tests, “authentic” assessment based on portfolios of student work, scholarly or creative activity of the faculty, etc.  But little of this seems to produce much discernible outcome in the ability to say who is or is not teaching well.  No evaluation systems has yet been devised that cannot be gamed, and a part of the professional development of any faculty member is learning how to do so.

I think the problem of “fixing” education, especially public K-12 education, is akin to the problem of “fixing” the ailing automotive industry in the USA.  That is, no one is smart enough to do it, from the position of a top-down mandate, some new policy directive, or set of directives, that will do the job.   The problems involve too many competing interests, too many misplaced incentives, and too many political forces and special interests, chief among which are the unions and the edu-lobby.

So here is the fix I have in mind.  Don’t fix it.  In fact, stop trying to make it better nationally, via national policy.  The drop in educational effectiveness in the USA is pretty well mapped with the rise of the federal education bureaucracy, if one were to plot a curve of each.  It is an inverse relationship: that is, the more federal dollars have been spent, with federal strings attached, the worse education has become, on average.

So, my humble recommendation, for what it’s worth: repeal every federal education law.  Every single one.  The only exception would be the laws that forbid forced segregation of schools.  Then get rid of the federal Department of Education.  Turn it all back to the states.  Whatever money the feds have been sending to the states should be cut off.  If the states need more money, they can solve it on a state by state basis.  Let the states have control of what they spend, and how they spend it.  I’m guessing that with federal mandates removed, many states will discover that they have enough money to do what they choose to do, since federal money is only about 10% of the national education budget, and since the federal mandates, mostly “unfunded”, amount to a higher percentage than that of state spending.

States might want to consider repealing many of their own education laws, and letting counties and school districts manage things locally.  I have the feeling that a great many counties could solve more of their education problems if they had more room in which to maneuver, unhampered by federal and state mandates, policies, restrictions and assorted impositions.

Yes, if we do this, things won’t be “equal” from state to state, or district to district.  But things aren’t “equal” now anyway, and we are so deep in the muck of disincentives to excellence that it’s impossible to see a way out.

The problem is similar to the comparison of central economic planning to free market capitalism.  As Hayek pointed out, no one is smart enough to do the planning, because no one, individual or central committee, can ever know enough to do it.  This is true for our education mess.

If states and districts had more freedom, they could experiment with various ways of “freeing up teacher’s futures.”

In the meantime, the number of public school teachers who either homeschool their own kids, or send them to private schools, continues to grow.  There is a reason, and it is clear they know something about the reality on the ground.