20 May 2010

Put Teachers In Charge

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:44 am

I’ve been posting quite a bit about teaching lately, much of it critical. It’s not that I dislike teachers (though I do, kind of, but let’s not get into that). Rather, I’ve been trying to decide whether I really believe that teachers rather than the government should make the decisions about educational policy and implementation. Facing tighter budgets, school administrators are making at-times draconian cuts to teacher salaries and staffing. Teachers and professors believe that they aren’t being adequately represented in the decision-making process, that the MBA types who run the show are more concerned about the bottom line and pleasing big-business constituents than about excellence in education. I’m inclined to side with the teachers. On the other hand, managers and pedagogical specialists and evaluators are workers too. Just because they don’t provide their services directly to the students doesn’t mean they’re the teachers’ enemies or that their expertise is useless to the educational mission. The point is to use the taxpayers’ money to educate students as effectively as possible. All the educational workers are competing for fewer resources these days; it’s not their fault that property values have sunk and unemployment has skyrocketed, cutting the two primary sources of school funding.

A brief organizational recap: In the US, primary and high school teachers typically work for the local School District, which is a form of local government. There are over 13 thousand independent school districts in America. The local School District finances education via tax revenues, typically a combination of local property tax and state income tax. Each school district is administered by a Board of Education, elected by the citizenry served by the district. The Board sets the overall educational policy and budget for the district, usually in collaboration with the state government’s Department of Education. The School Board hires a Superintendent to function as chief executive for the School District. The Superintendent need not be an educator; many are a professional administrators hired from the private sector. Typically the School Board defers to the Superintendent on overall District management, pedagogy, finances, hiring/firing, etc. In most School Districts the teachers are unionized, though union membership is not mandatory in all Districts and unionization may be banned by charter in selected publicly-financed schools.

Let’s say the economy sputters and the tax revenues decline at both the state and local levels. The School Board, representing the community at large, looks to the Superintendent to cut expenses. The Superintendent, typically a non-educator MBA type officed in a separate admin building, gathers pertinent info from admin staff and school prinicipals, then makes a decision. The teachers, two or three degrees of separation from the Superintendent, feel disenfranchised and out of the loop. They see teaching budgets being slashed while administrative overhead seems to have survived relatively unscathed. The Teachers’ Union makes an appeal directly to the School Board, but the Board defers to the Superintendent whom they hired for making just these sorts of decisions. Resentment and alienation builds among the teachers.

My inclination is to support a reorg of the educational system in which School Districts are run directly by the teachers as independent non-profit organizations rather than by the governmental School Boards. That way the teachers themselves can decide how to make the best use of the tax revenues allocated for education, rather than having government bureaucrats imposing these decisions on them. Let the teachers hire their administrators rather than vice versa; let them decide what sorts of evaluators and experts they need. The teachers can still make public pleas for more funding, but at least in hard times they’re collectively making their own decisions about salary cuts and which employees to let go.

My main concern about teacher-run school districts is that the teachers would be more concerned with preserving their profession and their own jobs than with doing the best, most cost-effective job of educating the students.

I’m not a teacher, so I’m not directly affected by the current turmoil in the schools. I do have a kid who attends the local public high school, though. From my kid’s perspective, I say the more teachers the better — whatever helps my Special Snowflake maximize her potential. But I’m also a local resident and so a contributor of tax revenues to the local School District. US public primary and secondary schools spend an average of over $10,000 per student. That seems like a lot to me, especially given the paucity of evidence linking money spent to educational effectiveness.

Teachers tend to resist systematic teacher evaluations, usually on the grounds that none of the evaluation tools adequately assesses the value of what teachers really do. But there are empirically validated, if admittedly imperfect, methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness, based both on student learning results and on observation of teaching process. Teachers’ unions protect existing jobs, even if it means keeping crappy teachers at the high end of the pay range just because they have seniority. But new laws in many states are mandating teacher evaluations, with financial penalties imposed on school districts that fail to act on the findings, which may require dismissing underperforming teachers. And that means union-busting.

I read about online schooling ideas and I think that maybe they’re a good way to reduce costs per student without adversely affecting learning. Local teachers typically resist online schooling, which creates an opportunity for investors to set up for-profit companies. These companies meet students’ and parents’ demand for low-cost online courses, charging prices equal to or higher than traditional brick-and-mortar schools, while paying their teachers less (non-union, on contract rather than salaried, fewer benefits). Then these schools collect their pro-rata share of tax revenues to pay for their services, with investors reaping profits at the taxpayers’ and public schools’ expense.

It seems that there ought to be a way for public schools to get lighter on their feet, more open to pedagogical innovation, more willing to change practices in light of research findings, with less antagonism between administrators and teachers, and with more support from the local citizenry. It would involve some sort of cooperative model built on a shared commitment among teachers, students, parents, and taxpayers to achieving the best and most efficient education for the most kids. And if the teachers’ unions want to protect less-effective teachers’ jobs, then the schools and the teachers will collectively have to figure out how best to compensate for these teachers’ failings so that the students don’t have to pay the price.

Despite the teachers’ resistance to change, I’d still prefer that they run the School District rather than political appointees. It’s the teachers who can make the best use of pedagogical innovations generated by researchers and by other schools around the country. The money to pay for the schools still comes from the taxpayers, and so the State Department of Education and the local School Board will still function as the citizens’ advocates, deciding how much money is available to the schools and evaluating how wisely that money is being spent in educating the community’s kids. That should include conducting meaningful evaluations of teaching practices and student outcomes. But the citizens and the governments would have to be willing to let the teachers figure out how best to make use of the evaluation data in order to do a better job.



  1. K: US public primary and secondary schools spend an average of over $10,000 per student.

    Yikes! That sounds like a high price tag. In general, though, this is a clear trend in the States: spend big, get small results. We put massive amounts of money into healthcare, but our system doesn’t seem to deliver the results, comparative to other nations. We spend 20,000 to 40,000 a year incarcerating people, but our prison systems do not reform or rehabilitate, nor do they work as a warning/caution against would-be criminals.

    But surely this seems counter-intuitive. In the U.S., we have a focus on the bottom line like no other. We run everything according to balance sheets and income statements. We are capitalists above all.

    I wonder if there is something underlying all of the above-listed sectors that is common to them all….perhaps it is the very fact that we are so fixated on profit concerns that we, ironically, fail to be efficient and profitable.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 21 May 2010 @ 3:23 pm

  2. It appears on a quick look through some of the data sites that, while cost/student in the US is $10K, in Britain, France, and Germany it’s more like $6K or $7K. If scores on standardized tests are a proxy for educational effectiveness, then the results in the US certainly aren’t any better than what these other countries experience. However, I don’t think teacher salaries are much different across countries. Does the US have lower student/teacher ratios, higher building costs, higher overhead expenses? Surely the data are there somewhere. By the same token, what would you rather have money spent on than education? And how many teachers could the founder of the for-profit Phoenix University pay for?

    The discrepancy on healthcare is even worse: per capita, the US spends more than twice what the UK, France, and Germany spend, with less access to care and poorer health status.

    The US has a higher per-capita incarceration rate than any country in the world except Russia, which is only slightly higher. Plus as you say the cost/inmate is high with crap outcomes. Decriminalize drugs!


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 May 2010 @ 5:22 pm

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