Recently, the country has watched a governor who promised voters to get the state budget under control clash with union protestors and state legislators. While the protests will pass, the fundamental issues will not soon disappear. In Wisconsin, as in other states where resource quarrels are beginning to occur, education spending remains the biggest item in the state budget. It is clear that states can only start to live within their means by restraining growth in education expenditures. At a time when we realize that America’s children ought to be receiving a far better educational experience than they do, this reality is difficult to face.
The truth is that it’s possible to pursue higher standards for education and better educational outcomes for our children while reducing school budgets. How? By making courageous policy choices in education, and choosing policies proven by research and experience.
Fortunately, we know what these policies are. Many teachers and principals are bringing excellence to students in city and rural school districts alike, helping students – disadvantaged students most of all – reach new heights of achievement. Their efforts are backed by academic research which shows how new schooling methods can be deployed effectively even under financial austerity. Best of all, most of the reforms proven effective by these schools and teachers can be adopted by using the same resources, just differently.
We can identify the most productive teachers with new data systems that measure results. If every underachieving student in America could have an instructionally effective teacher three years in a row, we could come close to closing the achievement gap afflicting economically disadvantaged children. Equally important, however, is this fact: being taught by an ineffective teacher three years in a row places a student in substantial lifetime jeopardy.
We can drop expensive practices that don’t work, such as paying for teacher seniority and advanced academic degrees that are unrelated to student needs. Current school district incentive systems pay teachers annual increments for Masters Degrees unrelated to subject matter assignments. Hundreds of thousands of America’s teachers have administrative degrees, with little likelihood or interest of ever managing a school.
We can document how student learning is impaired when new, rather than ineffective, teachers are laid off. A new study shows that 36% of teachers in Seattle receiving layoff notices were estimated to be more effective than teachers whose jobs were not at risk. That same study illustrated that layoffs relying on teacher effectiveness, rather than seniority, resulted in 10% fewer jobs lost. Seeing as how under seniority-based systems students lose 2-4 months’ worth of learning in a year following layoffs, that’s a win-win for students and teachers.
We know that the quest for an “ideal” class size has absorbed hundreds of billions of dollars. We also know that there is no association (after 3rd grade) between small classes and student achievement. A change as simple as returning pupil teacher ratios to their 2000 nationwide level, 16 students to each educational professional (compared to the 2007 levels of 15:1), would save 25-30 billion dollars a year.
The status quo that some are fighting to protect has not shown any more effectiveness in delivering educational quality than it has delivered fiscal responsibility. In truth, the most responsible practices for fiscal management turn out to deliver the best educational result for our children. We don’t need to wait for a superman to make these changes – we just need to run schools in a way that manages resources efficiently and delivers the best outcome for every American student.