Time to flip the curve in education

I ran across an interesting read in a WaPo article dated February 28th (H/T: Jamie).

Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.

To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve. For more than 30 years, spending has risen while performance stayed relatively flat. Now we need to raise performance without spending a lot more.

You read that, right? Our per-student spending has doubled, while student achievement has shown no marked increase. That’s sort of like paying for a super-sized value meal and only getting something off the $1 menu. The article goes on to say:

In K-12, we know more about what works.

We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.

Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.

To flip the curve, we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.

While I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of excellent teachers being the backbone of the education system, how do we identify and retain these gems?  The education system we have in place is laden with the polar opposite of that type of teacher.  Instead of “excellent” teachers, we seem to have far more contrasting that particular adjective.  This is not to say that all teachers fall into this category. But, the ones that do land in the not-so-excellent column, cast a very bad image on the rest of the profession as a whole.  And, many of those also fall in the tenured ranks of the profession. And, senior teachers are not necessarily better teachers, as one might think.

Our goal is a new approach to development and evaluation that teachers endorse and that helps all teachers improve.

The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions – farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professionals are more advanced than their predecessors – because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best.

The same advances haven’t been made in teaching because we haven’t built a system to measure and promote excellence. Instead, we have poured money into proxies, things we hoped would have an impact on student achievement. 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.

Too many people become teachers for the wrong reasons.  There are those really in it “for the children.”  However, there are others that went into teaching, because the idea of a ten month work year, summers off, Spring Break off, Christmas Break off, Fall Break off, etc., along with vacation days and sick days is pretty enticing. Doesn’t it just do your heart good to see a high school teacher sitting in front of a classroom reading a piece of literature to his/her students, day in and day out? No. Seriously. Every single day, without fail.  It’s one thing, if that was just one approach that he/she used, periodically, but they make no adjustment for varied learning styles amongst their students.  The non-auditory learners had just as well put their head down on the textbook and hope to learn it by osmosis as to sit and listen to dry recitation by the teacher. Does it make you feel better to know that he/she is tenured and doesn’t worry about his/her students’ gains or declines on standardized tests much?

All the while collective bargaining has been calling for increased pay and benefits for every teacher in Tennessee and across the nation, “excellent” and otherwise. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen some of the recent headlines about collective bargaining, unions, etc. in the news as of late.

“Oh, it’s not that teachers don’t care and aren’t good at their job,” some say. “It’s that class sizes are too big and we need smaller classes.” Really?

Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

The article also addresses advanced degrees and the associated bumps in pay for possessing such. While the article downplays any associated advances in achievement to correspond with the advanced degrees, I believe it could be something that could help show marked gains. However, the curriculum at the colleges/universities providing the instruction would have to change, dramatically even.  Too much of the instuction now is rooted in loose theory that doesn’t transfer to the real-life classroom for the teacher.  While professors espousing theory in a lecture hall sounds impressive, having little to no basis in reality does no good for a teacher in actually teaching and improving student performance.

I’m all for the idea of rewarding excellent teachers. Let the cream rise to the top, acknowledge that it is cream and try to produce more. If that acknowledgement is performance pay incentives, do it. By all means, do it!  You will get more bang for the taxpayers’ dollars than what we’ve been doing in our nation’s laissez-faire system.

Don’t misunderstand this post as a slam on teachers, insinuating that they are the only thing that going to fix the education system. We, as parents, and our children, as students, must do our parts too. There has to be accountability across the board to realize true educational reform in our state and nation.  If students do not do their part and fail, they need to be retained, instead of advancing, as they know will be done with them now. As parents, we need to make sure our children are doing their work and behaving accordingly in class.  Just because they are away from the house at school, does not mean they are not our child and we should be hands-off about what happens at school. Do you expect them to behave when they go stay the night at a friend’s home? Probably so. So, what’s the difference in one place that they are away from home and the other?

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One Comment on “Time to flip the curve in education”


  1. […] time to flip the curve in education and implement some real education reform, something that is really about the children, not the […]


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