Thursday, August 9, 2007

We Don't Need No Education

Every year Hollywood rolls out another “Tough Love Teacher” cliché where all it takes is someone with guts to fix a school. Too bad it’s not that simple. According to a 2006 PDK/Gallup Poll, 68% of Americans gave our nation’s schools a grade of C or worse. The problems are systemic and we need a new direction. Student behavior is bad, leaders do not embrace change, and the best teachers are burning out.

The answer is School Choice with charter schools and vouchers. A charter school receives school district funds based on the number of students enrolled. They have more freedom in their approach, but cannot charge tuition, teach religion, nor choose students based on ability (often using a lottery). A voucher allows private schools to receive public funds to educate a child, but does not bind them by the rules above.

School choice improves behavior because these schools can require parents to sign covenants outlining discipline methods. Our public schools have little real consequences for bad behavior because they are plagued by feel good intentions and fear of lawsuits. An independent school can expel unruly kids and the covenant makes it harder to sue. Parents are unlikely to endure many expulsions before working on bad behavior at home. Vouchers can take discipline a step further because they can teach morals and values.

In public schools, there are too many decision makers. Parents, school boards, teachers, state officials, national officials and teachers’ unions (in most states) all have a say in the curriculum and format. Pleasing more groups means compromises water down change. A charter school has fewer decision makers and a private school has even less. Both rely on market forces for feedback. They have to provide the results that parents want or face losing their jobs. Public schools do not face this pressure because they have a geographic monopoly.

According to a study done by Met Life, the Top 3 reasons cited for teachers burning out and leaving the profession were low pay, lack of respect from society, and disorderly student behavior. In most public schools, Harvard 4.0s make the same salary as a local city college 2.0. The school choice system is more competitive so the best teachers could command much higher salaries as their skills go to the highest bidder. Some would be able to start their own schools and reap the benefits. Increased pay, improved discipline, and being in demand should help these teachers feel more respected.

The standard-bearer for charter schools is KIPP academy, a nationwide system that caters to low-income students. KIPP academy requires every student and parent to sign a covenant that states the rules of behavior, extra workload and expected parental involvement. KIPP Academy generally pays its teachers about 20% more than the local school district according to the Houston Chronicle. Recently, a small group of donors, including Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, gave $100 million to their cause. While KIPP gets state money for operations, they need donations to build schools.

According to a recent study comparing students at charter schools and public schools in New York City performed by Dr. Caroline M. Hoxby, economics professor at Harvard:

A charter student in grades 3-8 is gaining about an extra 12 percent of a [grade] level in math each year over the comparison group, the study says. In reading, the growth is approximately an extra 3.5 percent each year. “This means that a charter school student whom we would have expected to be failing if he had stayed in the traditional public schools would be, at the end of 13 years of charter school education (K-12), above proficient in math.”

I know a school board member angry about a second charter school opening in his abysmal school district because the waiting list for the first was so long. He toed the line that “It takes money away from public schools”. Of course it does, that’s the whole point! Schools will have to put in effort to attract students and resources. If fewer students attend a school why spend as much money? The only way it cuts classroom budgets is when leaders fund too many non-classroom activities. If there is a long waiting list to leave his schools, is there even a debate about which schools are better? Better schools deserve the money.

Why are a number of people in the educational establishment against charter schools and vouchers? There are a few reasons, but primarily its fear of change. This is understandable, but not justifiable. If one has a stable job guaranteed for life, why choose a new system? The other big reason is loss of control. Many do not like the idea that the government would lose its ability to “enlighten” students whose dim parents have ideas that go against “the truth”. Some editorializing is unavoidable for teaching subjects like history, but it becomes propaganda when parents have no choice as to whether their children listen.

The evidence is clear that students perform better, behave better, and teachers are rewarded better with school choice. The preferences of a few should not stand in the way of improvement, especially amongst low-income students. Thankfully, victory for charter schools in major urban areas looks to be inevitable. Already 15% of Houston students and a majority of post-Katrina students in New Orleans attend publicly financed non-traditional schools. Vouchers are making progress, but they face more fierce opposition. However, Utah recently passed statewide vouchers. When Americans get used to charter schools running the show, the public will be more open to this next step in freeing our students, teachers, and parents.

Schools in the nation Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll
Leaving the profession
Houston Chronicle Articles on KIPP Academy


WMS said...

Just an idea!
It cost about $550 dollars per student in most school districts per year. The majority of students who fail a year is the result of poor parental influence. Why not hold a school board hearing on all students who fail a year. If it is obvious that lack of parental involvement was the reason for failure make the parent pay a $500 re-enrollement fee to repeat the grade. This way parents will have consequences for not taking action in the home. Lets face it, all discipline has been taken away from the schools and the teachers can't follow you home and make sure you study and do homework. The parents must be held accountable. This is a waste of education dollars.

Brian Shelley said...

Interesting idea, but for most states education is a state constitutional right. To force a re-enrollment fee might not have much teeth if the child is guaranteed by law to get an education.

Also: According the Census Bureau the average school district in the U.S. spends $8,287 per student.