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Fix the schools, fix the teaching profession

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 6, 2011 at 7:52 pm with 11 Comments »
January 6, 2011 4:10 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Credit Gov. Chris Gregoire with out-of-the-box thinking for her plan to restructure the bureaucracy of education in this state. We just wish she’d thought a lot further out of the box.

Gregoire’s idea is intriguing, as far as it goes. She wants to lend some coherence to the collection of fiefdoms that reputedly oversees education at the state level.

Under her proposal, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Board of Education, Higher Education Coordinating Board, State Board for Technical & Community Colleges and other entities would all get folded into a new state Department of Education.

Gregoire is very right about one thing: Public education in Washington ought to be a seamless whole, from preschool through technical or academic higher education. The system is inexcusably fragmented, more to protect turf than to serve students.

The lack of coordination is appallingly evident in the abundance of discouraged college students mired in remedial education, studying what they should have learned in high school, and the abundance of high school students doing college-level work without earning college credits for it.

If redrawing the organizational chart promises better results, the Legislature ought to follow the results, not the entrenched interests bent on clinging to control and funding. It would arguably be better to centralize accountability in one elected official, the governor, rather spread it among six different entities, some of which answer to no one obvious.

If we were inventing an educational system from scratch, we’d certainly come up with something better than what we’ve got now.

What we’ve got doesn’t deliver a genuine high school education to most of the students in the state, if the number of unqualified graduates is added to the number of dropouts. Blacks and Latinos fall by the wayside at catastrophic rates.

What we’ve got makes it prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to fire ineffective teachers. What we’ve got produces one of the nation’s lower rates of graduation from four-year colleges.

But bureaucratic reforms, by themselves, will never solve the problems on the classroom level. That will require a wholesale change in the culture of public education.

We should acknowledge, for example that the trade-union model of teaching is broken and must be replaced with a professional model that links high pay to high performance.

As things stand, compensation is far too often linked to factors – such as longevity, graduation from (often mediocre) education schools and the accumulation of graduate credits – that can have precious little connection to success in the classroom. Seniority, not effectiveness, typically dictates job security and pay.

When public education starts drawing more young teachers from the upper quartile of college achievers and fewer from the lower half, the state will be making real progress.

The Legislature ought to give the governor’s plan a fair hearing. But if lawmakers are serious about fixing the schools, they won’t stop there.

Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. Alison7613 says:

    How does one evaluate a teacher’s performance when so much depends on parents, administrators, and funding? If we start blaming teachers even more than we already do, they will just begin to leave the profession entirely. I have never had a job where there was so much pressure from so many different people. It is a thankless fairly low paying profession. If it is indeed a profession, why don’t we compenstate teachers like we should?

  2. mr_sandman says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Alison. Some people will disagree of course. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Teachers are undervalued, underappreciated and underpaid. They cannot be expected to raise children. But some some people think they are. Kids should get to school on time, properly dressed, a good meal in their stomach and ready to learn.

  3. Teachers aren’t any better or worse then parents of the children they teach. If SAT scores are any indication, teachers are exactly like the parents they complain about, run of the mill middle of the road people. Some smarter and more knowledgeable, most not. The only thing that sets teachers apart is a piece of paper from a teacher’s college that caterers to that class of people.

    Until the teaching profession gets the best and brightest we’re stuck here. More money and a challenging curriculum might draw them in, might not. But more money for run of the mill results, I don’t think so.

  4. This is a shameful piece.

    Public Education will “start drawing more young teachers from the upper quartile of college achievers” when we start compensating and respecting them as the professionals they already are, rather than blaming them for the societal and funding problems they can’t solve.

    The Tribune’s editorial board consistently insults people who work hard for a living. I openly question how much time any of them have actually spent anywhere near a classroom in our communities. Furthermore, the vague, unsupported negativism (“abundance of discouraged college students mired in remedial education”) is intellectually dishonest.

    My kids are in public schools and have caring teachers and great opportunities.

    I wish the Tribune would find something positive to suggest instead of incessantly attacking people who are trying to help others.

  5. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Alison, tbaier

    To move this beyond the ad hominem:

    1. I have spent years tutoring in public schools and so have many others from the TNT, including our editorial board.

    2. Of the most impressive people I’ve ever met in my life, probably more than half have been teachers.

    3. Those impressive and very professional teachers will never get the pay and status they deserve until we stop lumping them together with the less-than-impressive minority we all know are in the schools.

    Trade union model: seniority is paramount, pay scales apply across the board, the last hired is the first laid off. Firing the ineffective is all but impossible. In Morton, a history teacher continues to collect pay a year and a half after a fourth-degree assault conviction involving students – despite the combined efforts of the district and SPI Randy Dorn to get rid of him.

    Professional model: Performance is paramount, compensation follows performance, failure to perform is express ticket into another line of work.

    Yes, the biggest problem is parents, but that’s beyond your ability to control and mine. What we can control is the quality of instruction.

    You want the pay, you’ve got to take the accountability.

  6. jackbauer says:

    I thought this was pretty fair take on the state of education in Washington until I read, “When public education starts drawing more young teachers from the upper quartile of college achievers and fewer from the lower half, the state will be making real progress.” Is that a shoot-from-the-hip assumption there or does the writer have actual statistics to back the statement? Secondly, I’m assuming the writer would agree that the upper quartile of college achievers would be those with the highest GPA in colleges around the state? I would like to challenge the writer to give me an idea of how a person with a high college GPA translates into a person who is more capable of teaching people.

    I think we ought to be careful when we make these blanket judgements on which quartile teachers are drawn from in regards to college achievement simply because I challenge the relevance of the statement. I know as many people in the upper quartile of college achievers who have no business working with children as I do in the lower quartile. What’s the point? Does college achievement directly correlate to great teaching?

  7. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Here’s one take on the quartile business:

    Google the issue and you’ll find a lot of discussion about it.

    I guess I’m wondering why academic achievement wouldn’t be relevant to helping kids achieve in academics. An academic achiever knows what academic achievement looks like and has at least one road map (his or her own) on how to get there. Educational success seems as important to education as it does to law, engineering, medicine, etc., since that’s what the enterprise is all about.

    This might not be so true of coaching, technical education and a few other specialties, but it can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be true of teaching reading, literature, calculus, history with the level of pedagogy and psychology needed to get these things across to daydreaming kids.

    I had a few teachers who were really nice guys but weak on their grasp of physics, math, etc., and I didn’t learn a thing in their classrooms.

  8. Mr. O’Callaghan, if you had STARTED “beyond the ad hominem” we probably wouldn’t be having the conversation at all. If the original piece had stuck to facts instead of broad, negative generalizations, your credibility wouldn’t have come under fire.

    For instance, upon what possible basis can you assert that Washington’s public education professionals are not providing a “genuine high school education to most of the students in the state”? That’s hyperbole and you know it.

    I’ve noticed that when the TNT talks about unions, they focus exclusively on exceptional cases rather than on the basic rights of all citizens to collective bargaining and due process. Do you honestly want Principals to be able to arbitrarily deprive schoolteacher families of their livelihoods? Upon what basis would this “performance” panacea of yours be based? How to you propose to quantify “quality” when assessing something as complex as human development?

    There is ample scholarly research to suggest that simplistic “value added” models are not useful.

    Do you honestly think that developing and administering a whole new system to define “quality teaching” is going to be cheap and easy?

  9. Patrick O'Callahan says:


    I respect your passion and point of view. There are no odds in arguing with a machine gun, so I’ll sign off after this one.

    Criticism of a system is not “ad hominem.” My claim that most state students don’t get a genuine high school education may be debatable, but I didn’t pull it out of thin air.

    Roughly 25 percent of Washington students drop out. According to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, 33 percent of high school graduates who enroll in post-secondary education require remedial education, mostly in math.

    My assumption is that graduates who go no further than high school are no better educated than those who do; in my experience, most of them are considerably worse off.

    Given the disappearance of jobs that require no more than high school, I would define a genuine high school education as one that prepares a graduate for advanced technical training, community college or a four-year degree. That definition can be argued, but it’s the basis for my “hyperbole.”

    The overall averages mask a far worse problem with blacks and Hispanics; in some areas, half or more of them wind up with nothing resembling a usable education. That’s unconscionable, and I think it’s an unanswerable indictment of the status quo.

    I and others cite “exceptional” cases like the one in Morton for a reason. If districts have to battle for upwards of a year to get rid of disastrous teachers, they sure won’t find it easier to get rid of merely ineffective ones.

    The Obama administration and other people who want fundamental change believe there are metrics that can help – along with observation, etc. – measure the effectiveness of teachers. You’re arguing with a lot of serious reformers, not just me.

    A last point: The public will never support high salaries for educators as long as their unions pretend there are no mediocre teachers and fight like wildcats on their behalf.

    I’d like to see teachers pulling in as much as lawyers, on average. That’s not going to happen if they insist on a system of compensation and job-protection designed for factory workers.

  10. David1964 says:

    “More money and a challenging curriculum might draw them in, might not.”

    Lack of respect from the public, and disprespectful students and parents are not conditions the cream of the crop would choose for their career. Why would they bother with these things and the low starting pay when they can pick and choose?

  11. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll offer a couple more observations.

    First, I’ll happily note but take no offense that it meant so little to Mr. O’Callaghan to correctly spell my name when replying directly to me. I have no idea what he means by the “machine gun” label.

    Alleged “serious reformers” and editorial writers are by no stretch “Education Professionals” or “Education Researchers”. THOSE experts – whose life’s work deserves our respect – have repeatedly concluded that the “reforms” being currently being proposed and imposed by those outside the classroom are ineffectual, at best.

    Here’s some ACTUAL research:

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