December 21, 2014

OPINION: Honesty necessary in discussion about public education

Danedri Thompson

dthompson@gardnernews.com

The time for an honest discussion about the state of American public schools has been ripe for quite some time – even President Barack Obama has noticed.

He spoke on Monday  to NBC’s Today Show expounding on his belief that the school year should be longer and poorly performing teachers should get out.
He told viewers that American students attend school an average of 180 days per year compared to 196-197 days per year in countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and New Zealand.

“That month makes a difference. It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer,” he said.

I’ve always believed a wiser model for public schools would be year-round school with an extended month-long vacation in summer, a nearly month-long vacation between Thanksgiving and the New Year and 10-day breaks in the spring and in the fall.

That limts the amount of time for student brain drain that the president worries about.

He said the summer break is especially severe for “…poorer kids who may not see as many books in the house during the summer,” and who “..aren’t getting as many educational opportunities.”

Almost everyone can get behind the President’s idea that bad teachers need to go, except some of Obama’s biggest supporters – the teachers unions.

My worry is that teachers unions will take the default position that more spending is the answer to what ails us when in fact, that’s hardly the case.

According to research conducted by the Kansas Policy Institute, in Kansas, school funding has jumped  more than 42 percent since 2003 while proficiency in student achievement on national assessment tests has remained stagnant.

“Scores have improved slightly over the years, but we still have unacceptable levels of proficiency.  We must do more than throw more money at the problem.  Spending has doubled while achievement has largely stayed flat.  That’s a pretty clear indication that we can’t spend our way to success,” Kansas education researcher John LaPlante said.

And yet, teachers unions are already demanding that if the school year is extended, teacher pay must expand as well.

The median salary for high school teachers in the United States is more than $43,311 for approximately 180 days of work. For an elementary school teacher, the median income is $40,464 for 180 days of work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average personal income in the U.S. in 2006 was $39,336.

It can be argued that the average U.S. worker isn’t as highly educated as most teachers, but that should be balanced against the fact that the average U.S. worker doesn’t get two months off in the summer, two weeks off at Christmas, two weeks of vacation and a spring break. And the average worker runs the risk of being fired when they’re incompetent.

Short of a sex or dead puppy scandal, it’s nearly impossible to fire an ineffective teacher. It’s more likely to be struck by lightening, while being attacked by sharks as you are delivering sextuplets than to be fired for being a bad teacher. Thanks teachers unions.

Just like there are no penalties for bad teachers there are no rewards for doing the job well. Not only will unions not allow bad teachers to be canned, they also refuse to allow higher pay for better performing teachers. It’s one-stop incentive killer in the public schools.

And Mr. Obama – who stumped for teacher stimulus plans for all teachers, not just the good ones – knows this.

He sends his daughters to Sidwell Friends, a lush, private school in Washington, D.C. with $31,000-per-year tuition. The tuition isn’t too far from per-pupil spending in the Washington, D.C. public schools. During the 2008-2009 school year, the District of Columbia spent $28, 348 per pupil. In 2007, 8 percent of eighth graders in that public school system tested at an eighth-grade math level.

One difference between Sidwell and the public schools: At Sidwell, bad teachers get canned and good teachers get rewarded.

In the meantime, the President waylaid a D.C.-school voucher program as soon as he was swept into office denying poor children some of the same advantages his daughters enjoy.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship provided up to $7,500 in vouchers to low-income children for private school tuition. It’s a far cry from the $31,ooo required to purchase a Sidwell education, but at least its something.

Created in 2004, the wildly popular voucher program allowed mostly minority children in D.C. to attend private schools. Once he was in office, the President shuttered the program for new students, but grandfathered those in the program through their high school graduation.

The good news is, thanks to a new documentary about American education – Waiting for Superman – and the President’s willingness to address the issue, we may just have a discussion about our faltering system.

But it’s worthless to have the debate without an honest assessment of the situation. That will require use of the terms, “vouchers” and “merit pay.”  Here’s hoping that occurs.

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