Opponents of school reform often critique reform advocates by saying that schools are not like businesses. But that misunderstands the nature of business. Businesses don’t exist to make money; they exist to solve problems and help people, and in the process of doing that they will make money. It is vitally important for our country’s future that we get the most effective and efficient education system possible.
We often hear that the problem is that we as a country are not devoted enough to education. We don’t spend enough money on education, and that explains all the problems we’re having. The answer, then, is simple: just open the coffers and spend more money!
But this story does not fit with reality. Since 1970, we have spent more and more on education. Adjusting for inflation, we have increased per-student spending nearly 150 percent—while test scores are flat or even down. The problem is not how much money we spend; the problem is how we spend it. We could triple the money we spend on education, but if we don’t spend smarter, then it will just be wasted.
In the last two decades, we’ve heard a lot about how we need to spend more on facilities—“crumbling schools.” As a result, we’ve increased per-student, inflation-adjusted spending on facilities more than 150 percent since 1989. The results? Nothing.
Common sense not only says that we’re not getting a return on our investment, but more importantly it also says that our current approach is not solving the problem of increasing student achievement. That is the main goal of education policy: helping students. If what we are doing is not helping students, then it should not be part of the plan.
And our approach to instruction has likewise failed in our primary objective of helping students learn. The almost universal system, adopted in both states with teachers unions and those without, puts heavy restrictions on teacher evaluation, grants tenure after just a few years, and rewards teachers for seniority and degrees rather than performance. Each of these is a mistake.
The evaluation system used around the country is often based on an observer sitting in a classroom for 20 minutes with a checklist, and then moving on. In some states, advance warning must be given and the process itself is often automatic. Bill Gates, one of the biggest advocates of education reform in this country, believes that the reason other countries have jumped ahead of us in education is that they have strong evaluation systems. He believes we can develop a better system that factors in student test scores, but also has the flexibility to watch what a teacher is doing. He’s been videotaping thousands of teachers around the country looking for links between teaching methods and student achievement. He’s looking for a better way to evaluate teachers. It’s no easy task, but it must be done!
The tenure system has not done our children any favors, either. In what other profession is your job guaranteed for life—except in the most extreme circumstances (and even then only after several years of review)—after just three years? Our best teachers don’t derive any benefit, because their job would be safe regardless thanks to their great results; the only ones benefiting are the small percentage of bad teachers who don’t belong in the profession. Most of our teachers are great—but common sense says that you have to be able to cut loose obvious non-performers who are not helping students learn. Then you can replace them with more great teachers, and constantly improve the education we provide our children.
Finally, the single salary schedule pay system means that a teacher’s salary is determined by a simple spreadsheet: just know how many years of experience a teacher has and how many degrees, and you can find the salary. That’s it. Effectiveness has no bearing whatsoever. Common sense says that this would discourage great teachers: they would receive no extra reward for standing out and being exemplary, so why waste the effort?
And data shows that the system doesn’t work, too. A paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that “having a graduate degree has little effect on student achievement.” But teachers who earn those degrees earn substantial pay bumps—and seek them out as a result. As Mr. Gates notes, that means “such raises have almost no impact on achievement, but every year they cost $15 billion that would help students more if spent in other ways.”
The seniority system is not much better. Mr. Gates again has the statistics, as “the United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority. It’s reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that’s not true. After the first few years, seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement.” What’s worse, the Center for Education Data and Research found that when the seniority system is used to determine teacher layoffs, student achievement actually declines compared to a system where the lowest-performing teachers are let go.
Public education is not a business. But it is supposed to solve problems—problems of student learning and achievement. Businesses are also in the problem-solving game, and the common sense thinking we use on Main Street needs to find its way into education policy. By all means, let's financially reward our teachers--especially our best, most effective teachers. But let's spend that money intelligently.
Nobody who advocates reform hates teachers. Nobody who advocates reform hates students. What we hate are bad results. It’s time to be honest with ourselves about our education problems, and work together to look for real answers instead of reflexively defending our own little fiefdoms.