Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Rich School, Poor School

The Argus, a paper in Fremont, CA, reports on the teacher pay differential between schools serving poor student populations and those serving rich ones. They correctly cite that most teachers in affluent schools have more experience, having used seniority to get where they were. I differ with the Argus on the solution, though.

Here is the solution they present:

If money follows the child, it begs for education to have the flexibility to assign teachers where they're most needed. Such suggestions elicit strong objections from teachers and their unions. For schools to have latitude, unions must buy into it, contracts would have to change. It will take powerful incentives to get senior teachers to choose the neediest schools. Getting them to accept that is a monumental task, even though it might help make education more equitable. It's a civil rights issue when you consider that public education is supposed to provide students with equal educational opportunities. We obviously aren't doing so.
I think this solution is bound to fail, since it ignores the will of the teachers. While the Argus acknowledges that it would take powerful incentives to get senior teachers into disadvanatged schools, it hinges its argument on allowing districts to assign teachers to those schools. No teacher in his right mind would agree to that, and unions would (rightly) fight it. I propose, instead, allowing individual schools to determine how they spend their staff funds and how they structure their classes.

Notice I said schools, not districts. I believe that individual schools should employ teachers. This way, different schools can go recruit the teachers they need, rather than having teachers assigned to them, and taken away from them, by the district. The concept behind districts, of course, is economy of scale. They allow for resources like money and materials to be moved among schools within the district as needs change, as well as allowing for more specialized support staff. Teachers, however, should not be treated the same way. Teacher hiring should not be an economy of scale operation. Rather, individual schools should be able to negotiate and sign employment contracts with teachers. With that said, let us look at some more specific measures.

First, the current pay schedule has to go. Its inflexibility makes it impossible for schools that need to pay more to attract the same level of quality to do so. An affluent suburban school may have to pay $45,000 a year to get a teacher with a good deal of experience. An inner city school might have to pay $55,000 a year to overcome the disadvantages in working there. Now, the unions are going to fight this too, since it isn’t fair in their view. In my view, it is perfectly fair to pay someone more to get him to do something he otherwise would not.

Next, schools that are having trouble attracting experienced, qualified faculty should be able to get exemptions from California’s class-size reduction law. This law is another barrier to a school principal being able to allocate his resources in a way that serves his students best. What would be better, three classes of twenty kids with three inexperienced teachers making $35,000 a year or two classes of thirty kids with more experienced teachers making $52,500 a year? Offer principals the ability to do this along with adding $2,000 a year bonuses for teaching in a poor district, then you just might be able to get some better teachers in the classrooms.

Finally, once these schools have managed to attract these teachers with money, they need to offer them the support necessary to retain them. This means, most of all, standing behind academic and disciplinary decisions teachers make. Additionally, it means maintaining a clean, safe campus and providing a coherent curriculum that teachers can follow, among other things.

While this plan would not solve the problem overnight, I believe it would be far more successful than trying to force teachers into teaching assignments that they would not freely accept as the Argus suggests.

TOPIC: Education