Accountability is way of life for Americans. In most of our jobs and endeavors, we receive rewards when we perform well. On the other hand, business owners fire or relegate employees to levels of less responsibility when their performance does not meet standards. This is true in almost every profession. For example, if a doctor or lawyer does not perform satisfactory, her clients will go elsewhere. Further, a construction worker will be fired if he does not show up on time or does not adequately complete assigned tasks. It is difficult to think of a profession where accountability is not a way of life. That is, except in public education.
Although I am a strong advocate for private education, the truth is, I have never attended a private school. I have attended government institutions for elementary, middle, and high schools, and have continued in public schools for my undergraduate and graduate education. Thus, I know that there are excellent teachers and administrators in the public school systems (even though I am of the opinion that in general, private schools offer better opportunities because of the inherent advantages they possess that public schools are currently unable to take advantage of). In fact, the vast majority of my teachers in K-12 were dedicated, hardworking, and effective educators. However, as in any profession, there were also highly ineffective employees who had no business teaching. But in contrast to most professions, where inadequate employees would have been fired or demoted, bad public school teachers remain on the job with no consequences.
The teachers’ unions are offended at this suggestion. They argue that all teachers are dedicated and effective. Moreover, according to the union’s argument, it is impossible to measure the performance of teachers. They argue that teachers have no control over how well children learn (it is true that outside factors, such as parents, have much influence on the performance of children, but it has been proven time and again that any child can learn if exposed to effective teaching methods by dedicated teachers). As a result, the unions support the current system where it is essentially impossible to fire tenured teachers (who, by the way, receive tenure after only 3 years of service in most states). Moreover, unions argue that teachers should be compensated based on how many education degrees they possess and how many years they have been teaching, as opposed to the quality of their teaching.
The unions look out for the lowest common denominator amongst teachers. Instead of encouraging innovation and hard work by creating competition, the current system labels competition a 4-letter word by arguing that the competition would create discord between teachers. The teachers’ unions’ views are at odds with the rich tradition of American innovation and excellence.
To that end, I offer two initial suggestions for improving the current system. First, we must set high standards for students, and have a system in place to objectively measure whether students are meeting those standards. Second, we must alter the compensation and personnel system for teachers and administrators, so that effective teachers and administrators (in my opinion, the majority of teachers and administrators are doing great jobs) are rewarded with higher pay, and that those educators who are not meeting standards be asked to find another line of work.
Regarding the first point, we must set high standards for all students. I suggest that all states implement a standardized test similar to the one Florida uses, the FCAT. Florida sets the Sunshine State Standards, which provides in plain English what children should learn in each grade. The FCAT is the means by which Florida measures whether its students are meeting those standards.
The unions put forth their same old argument that this type of system is ineffective because it forces teachers to “teach to the test.” This argument is ridiculous. The FCAT tests math, science, reading, and writing. It is impossible to “teach to the tests” in these subjects. Either a student knows how to read at a certain level, or he does not. The FCAT does not test specific facts. Instead, it tests knowledge of certain standards in the aforementioned subjects. The end goal, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has repeatedly said, is that “each child learn a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time.” The FCAT is the means by which Florida objectively measures whether students meet that goal.
However, it is not enough that we set high standards and then measure progress. We also must provide incentives and hold schools accountable for the results they produce. Again, Florida provides a great example of a successful system in action. There, schools receive grades from “A” through “F”. Part of the grade is determined by the percent of students who are performing at or above grade level. However, the other parts of the grade are determined by both the progress of all students in certain categories from the previous year, and the progress of underperforming students from the previous year. In other words, a school can still receive a good grade even if its students are not performing at grade level, assuming students have improved from the previous year. Florida measures progress simply by comparing each student’s current year test score to the test score of the student from the previous year.
The purpose of the grades is simple. Each school’s grade demonstrates whether it ( including individual teachers, administrators, and the school as a whole) are meeting expectations. The purpose of education is to effectively education children—the grades tell us whether each school and teacher is meeting that desired end. The grades serve as both a carrot and a stick. If a school earns an A or improves a letter grade, it receives money from the state to use on teacher bonuses, technology, etc. Those schools that do not receive A’s receive pressure to improve since the information is public. Moreover, in a perfect system, schools that are chronically underperforming would be put on probation, and its students allowed to attend other public schools or given a voucher to attend a private school (this was the system used in Florida, until the Florida Supreme Court ruled that this particular school choice program was unconstitutional based on an obscure provision of the Florida Constitution – I will examine school vouchers and charter schools in a future article). The grades in Florida are publicly discussed and well known, so the grades place pressure on teachers and administrators to improve.
Further, I contend that at least part of a teacher’s pay should be based on how well their students are learning. We should reward great teachers. Teachers should be partly compensated based on their students’ achievements and progression from the previous year, as measured by the standardized tests discussed above. In addition, we should look at the market for the teachers particular skills. For example, if there is a shortage of teachers for students with disabilities, we should pay more to those who teach in this area. We should also pay teachers more who are willing to teach in low-income areas. Finally, teachers who take on extra responsibility (for example, if they chair the homecoming committee or provide tutoring after school) should be compensated more than a teacher who does not.
In short, each state must set high standards and then create a system by which to objectively measure whether those standards are achieved. In addition, states should provide incentives to schools, administrators, and teachers to meet those objectives.
The teachers’ unions vigorously oppose these measures. However, it is important to remember that their sole goal is to represent teachers, not improve the quality of education. As the late Albert Shanker (former President of the American Federation of Teachers) once said, “I’ll start representing school children when school children start paying union dues.” Thus, we cannot rely on teachers’ unions to fight for quality education for children—that is up to all of us.
The unions’ stances are an insult to teachers. Most educators are good at their job—as a result, most educators would benefit from the policies stated above. But those teachers and administrators who are not performing well would be given more oversight, and if they are still unable to get up to speed, would be asked to find another line of work. These policy proposals simply introduce into the public school system what all of us face everyday: accountability. Teachers, children, and the public would benefit from the enactment of these policy proposals—for evidence of this fact, look to Florida as an example.