The American School System

by Vince

Joel Kline has an excellent article on the current state of American schools. You cannot mention American schools without including it’s unions. He delves into that subject and exposes some hard truths that even I as a certified teacher am alarmed to hear.

As we all hear day in and day out, America is falling behind when it comes to equipping our upcoming generations with the skills they need to get quality jobs and ultimately compete in the global market (the part about the global market always makes me chuckle. Can you imagine this being ingrained into teachers heads as they work with elementary and middle school teachers?)

now our technological progress is advancing more rapidly than our educational attainment. From 1960 to 1980, our supply of college graduates increased at almost 4 percent a year; since then, the increase has been about half as fast. The net effect is that we’re rapidly moving toward two Americas—a wealthy elite, and an increasingly large underclass that lacks the skills to succeed.

This division tears at the very fabric of our society. Nevertheless, there’s little national urgency to fix its underlying causes. Unlike a bad economy, poor educational achievement creeps up on us. Right now, if you were running for office, would you be more concerned with unemployment or education? Also, unlike terrorism, an educational crisis has a different impact on the powerful than it does on most of society. Their children, who are in private schools or elite public schools, receive a decent education, so it’s hard to get them fully engaged in the broader national debate. Plus, unlike in health care, for example, where we perceive the quality of care to be good and worry instead about controlling costs and covering the uninsured, in education, despite massive increases in expenditure, we don’t see improved results. That leads too many people to suspect that poverty is destiny, that schools can make only a small difference, and that therefore we’re unable to fix this problem, regardless of its seriousness. So why try?

This, along with some other common gripes, Klein digs into.

One of the general threads in this article is the type of career many teachers want and how far removed their desires are from other normal jobs:

The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.

Now to the unions. The American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have roughly 4.7 million members. That is a lot of money and pull. As the union connects to their political counterparts, one of their goals is to keep the union members happy:

And what do the members want? Employees understandably want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits; for their part, the retirees want to make sure their benefits keep coming and grow through cost-of-living increases. The result: whether you work hard or don’t, get good results with kids or don’t, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more. Not bad for the adults.

Also worth noting, the legal process is equal to jumping through hundreds of hoops just to fire a teacher.

Klein also digs into the pension system that really hits many districts hard:

None of these pay increases makes sense. Why pay someone more for simply working another year or for taking a few courses? Starting last year, Mayor Bloomberg refused to give teachers in New York a raise, because he was facing budget cuts. But the overall pay for teachers still went up nearly 3.5 percent automatically, simply for longevity and college credits. (According to a Department of Education internal analysis, the average NYC teacher works fewer than seven hours a day for 185 days and costs the city $110,000—$71,000 in salary, $23,000 in pensions, and $16,000 in health and other benefits.) And why give all teachers making $80,000, or more, a 10 percent raise? They’re not going to leave, since they’re close to vesting their lifetime pensions. By contrast, increasing starting salaries by $8,000 (rather than $4,000) would help attract and retain better new teachers. But because of seniority, we can’t do it that way.

Consequently, elected officials have had every incentive to make extraordinarily optimistic assumptions about the pension plan—or to simply underfund it—so they can put as little as possible into the reserve. Unfortunately, but predictably, that’s exactly what has happened: most states “assumed” they would get an average 8 percent return on their pension reserves, when in fact they were getting significantly less. Over the past 10 years, for example, New York City’s pension funds earned an average of just 2.5 percent. Now virtually every pension plan in America that covers teachers has huge unfunded liabilities. A recent study by the Manhattan Institute estimated the total current shortfall at close to $1 trillion. There’s only one way to pay for that: take the money from current and future operating budgets, robbing today’s children to pay tomorrow’s pensions. In NYC, for example, the portion of the overall budget set aside for education pensions went from $455 million in 2002 to $2.6 billion in 2011, most of it for teachers. Not surprisingly, retirees remain politically vigilant, and vote at much higher levels than active teachers in union elections (50 percent versus 24 percent in New York’s last UFT election).

Klein also compares schools lack of incentive to make their product (education) better to their practical monopoly-like strangle hold on their niche (which also keeps many charter schools from starting up):

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands.

Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

Klein had a few good takeaway points:

…we unions talk reform, but firing incompetent teachers will never be a real part of that.

Change is possible. In New York City, it took a mayor willing to assume control over the system and risk significant political capital. It required time—Mayor Bloomberg and I had more than eight years together, while most urban superintendents serve for about three and a half years. It required taking risks, knowing that not every change will work out and that your critics will focus mercilessly on those that don’t. But most of all, it required building community and political support.

McKinsey estimates that the benefits of bringing our educational levels up to those of the highest-performing countries would have raised our gross domestic product by about $2 trillion in 2008.

Finally, Al Shanker spoke in 1993 about the school system:

 We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don’t behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don’t like it, but they’re not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point.

Paul Farhi offers a contrarian (but much shorter) opinion.

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