Marc Tucker, in his recent report, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” made some strident observations about education reform in the United States, and after spending some time with it, I’d like to explore some of his proposals over the next few blog posts.
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to read the entire report, the Chalkboard team offered a summary in their recent Research Update. In short, Tucker is the head of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and crafted this report after a summit of various education ministers from around the globe. Commissioned by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the summit sought to investigate what the “best” nations were doing well in order to learn how to improve our beleaguered education system in the U.S.
This particular document drew some interesting conclusions—in fact, I found myself startled at some of Tucker’s claims. One was the ineffectiveness of charter schools as a means of true reform. Tucker feels that the gains made by charters are too sporadic and, ultimately, these schools are more prone to fail than succeed. I appreciated the insight since two of my children are educated in Portland charter schools.
What I surmised from Tucker’s observation is that charter advocates need to convince successful programs to replicate. A good charter school that has innovative curriculum does the world little service if it remains one school serving students via lottery. If it is a strong program, then it needs to be shared in educational circles to be replicated elsewhere, even in the traditional public school setting.
Also, advocates need to consider that every charter idea doesn’t necessarily equate to a better choice than the local public school. The educational reform community gets upset when a district doesn’t grant a charter to someone, but in earnest, I am glad they don’t. Having read several rejected proposals, I think Tucker’s admonition is sound—we need more caution before we turn anyone’s kids over to a program that has not been thoroughly vetted and may fail shortly after opening.
Another insight that I thought Tucker drove home effectively is that teachers need to accept a market presence in their compensation. Teachers have to get comfortable with the notion that certain instructors, because they get results, are going to get paid more. In my experience, one of the most deflating things about working in the public school system is when results don’t equate to better pay. If your students earn 4s and 5s on an AP exam, or your ELL student advances to mainstream classes, you barely get acknowledged. Tucker challenges the present conception of merit pay (both what is offered by reformers and by unions), essentially saying that those systems offer too little to draw in the best personnel. I think he’s correct—if you want the best people in this profession, you are going to have put greater financial incentives into the system than what is usually offered.
Whenever I have observed the merit pay conversation, it tends to get bogged down by two particular issues. On the one hand, unions typically want merit pay tied not to in-class success, but to teacher activities like additional student supervision or efforts to pursue professional development. This type of plan should be a non-starter, because the goal of merit pay is to reward performance with students, and heading to a weekend workshop should not cut it. But I have also seen some of the incentives that reformers want to offer for teaching some of the more challenging classes, and to be honest, small increments of $1,000 or $2,000 is not going to be enough to merit even very good teachers’ being willing to tackle some of the hardest classrooms. That amount is going to have to increase to really warrant teacher attention.
Which is where we face American problems: Hasn’t recent press derided teachers for having “gold-plated” benefits and salaries? In our political climate, is it realistic to expect that the nation will tolerate increased teacher pay? We are not Finland (a primary example Tucker uses), and the American public will not support tax rates at Finnish levels. To his credit, Tucker tries to explain how performance pay more aligned with the market will balance out budgets, in that with some teachers being paid more or less, the budget will “essentially” be the same. But I had trouble buying that argument, and I think that skeptics and unions alike will as well.
I’m curious to get your take on either angle presented above: Does it surprise you that Tucker came out as critical of the charter movement? Would our teaching population be able to accept major fluctuations in what teachers in the same building got paid? Would the public be okay with a six-figure teacher salary if they knew that teacher consistently succeeded with students?