Monday, May 11, 2009

Plan from John Munger & Lisa Graham Keegan for education

By John F. Munger and Lisa Graham Keegan

In Arizona's traditional K-12 education system, low test scores, dropout rates and other statistics make it clear that too many of Arizona's schools are failing.
Some education interests frame the issue of educational reform as throwing more money at Arizona's education model. However, even if we stipulate that Arizona schools are at the low end of national expenditures, investing more money in a bad model makes little sense.

The number of dollars spent does not correlate to educational results and achievement for our children. If it did, Washington, D.C, New Jersey and other notoriously bad school systems would show the best results in the country. In Arizona, for example, per pupil spending has increased from an inflation-adjusted $1,214 in 1945 to $9,707 today. But test scores have not improved.

Charter schools spend $7,800 per pupil. Of the top 15 high schools in Arizona, 14 are charter schools and one is a traditional K-12 school. Charter schools do have fewer restrictions than traditional schools. However, that does not account for the fact that 14 of our top 15 schools are charter schools.

America's overall inflation-adjusted education spending has increased 73 percent since 1980, student/teacher ratios fell by 18 percent, class sizes were the smallest ever, but student assessment scores did not improve. More money alone does not correlate to improved education. Our state's classrooms

The $9,707 is an "all-in" figure that includes buildings, capital costs and some separately accounted for programs. With facilities costs separated, Arizona spends about 58 cents of its education dollar directly in the classroom and operations. Teachers are paid about $2,000 of the almost $7,000 the state spends per student.

Where is the other $5,000 going? Certainly not to teachers.

Yet the most important factor that influences improvement in student achievement is quality of instruction.

Arizona's teachers historically have been selected from among the bottom third of high school applicants to college. They must earn a degree in education, where they are required to learn little substance of the subjects they will teach. Their education is primarily in pedagogy, the raw process of teaching.

Elementary teachers must pass professional and content-knowledge tests and high school teachers must have 24 hours of college credits or pass content tests in the subjects they teach. No Child Left Behind requires teachers to be "highly qualified," which requires content testing and coursework. The subject competency tests, however, are at about the fifth-grade level, well below the college level.

Bill Gates could not teach our kids computer science without taking pedagogy tests and doing student teaching. Absurd. Great teachers, meager pay

Meanwhile, the great teachers are not paid well enough and too often are held back by seniority systems and Draconian contractual terms that reward longevity and not quality of service.

Quality teaching is not the priority under the current model. If that were the first concern, we would openly embrace young teachers who are excelling instead of handing them the first pink slips.

A designated teacher of the year was given a pink slip this year. Why? Because union contracts with some school boards dictate pay and preclude retention of teachers based on success with students. That is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, Arizona will not allow experts in their fields to teach because, while they have a degree or deep knowledge in substantive areas our kids need to learn, they do not have a university degree or training in raw pedagogy.

Graduates in the top echelons of America's most elite schools, experienced business executives and others are not fully certified for lack of an education degree.
We have wonderful sources for more great teachers in proven programs like Teach for America and the Teacher Advancement Program.

Some "fast-track" programs that teach the required pedagogy skills are available to experts in their fields; however, more are necessary to get these experts in front of our state's classrooms. Accountability counts.

In addition, our system does not require adequate accountability of principals and teachers. If Arizona were serious about school achievement, we would allow school leaders to hire and fire the staff at their schools and hold the principal accountable for student progress.

The district office determines who has seniority and teachers ask for schools based on seniority. The principal is given little discretion. Laws for teacher dismissal require that we work with failing teachers for about three years before they can be dismissed.

We believe:
• Teachers matter. Enormously.
• Quality instruction matters. Enormously.
• Clear and appropriate academic goals matter.
• Regular assessment of progress matters.
• Gauging teachers by the progress their students make is essential.
• Recruiting academically gifted teachers matters.
• Paying excellent teachers professional salaries and gradually increasing their control over the school environment is critical. Reform works.

We know such reforms work when we look at other states and countries that have focused on improving quality instruction and have revolutionized their educational system.

In 1998, for example, Florida spent about the same per student as Arizona. Floridians adopted a set of reforms similar to those outlined here that created revolutionary improvements in its schools.

Florida's poorest children (free-lunch eligible) alone outscore the statewide average for all Arizona kids, although the two states spend roughly the same amount per student. Florida spends less per dollar of personal income than Arizona.

Percentages of Florida students scoring basic or better on national assessment tests went from 53 percent to 70 percent while Arizona went from 51 percent to 56 percent.
Arizona can have a world-class educational system. But we must implement educational reform that focuses on quality instruction and the other factors outlined above.
We must flatten our educational administrative behemoth drastically to reduce costs and reallocate most power — the real power to hire, fire and budget — to principals, where it belongs; and then hold them accountable to parents.

To maximize availability of the very best teachers for our children, we must open up the teacher-certification processand actively recruit the very best qualified teachers we can find, who have real knowledge of the subject matter they are to teach.
If they do not have training in pedagogy, we should expand available training and mentoring.

And let's start spending more of our money to find, recruit, hire, highly reward and incentivize great teachers. Great teachers should be making six-figure salaries.
Money could be available by eliminating waste in our school administrations. Back to the $5,000 of each student's allocation not going to teachers.

Why not start by offering the very best teachers the chance to take on a few more students in return for that additional $5,000 per student; and the school gets the other $2,000 as its incentive. Take it slow and test it with each teacher, a few additional students at a time.

Giving more students to the best teachers, in return for "bonuses" of $5,000 per additional student, could incentivize the best teachers and open more enrollment in our best schools.

Finally, we can do many things that cost no money but that have been important factors of reform in Florida.

• End social promotions and hold students and parents responsible for disruption and student failure;
• Establish a student assessment system that would will allow us to judge performance of our schools and students, with real consequences for failure; and
• Encourage development of effective charter schools.

Throwing more money at a dysfunctional system is neither politically acceptable to the public nor smart. It is certainly a very hard sell.

We need reform. And Arizona's school leaders can do almost everything described here without new laws. But if school systems will not do it, then new laws might be needed to force reform.

Once the public regains confidence in the state's education system, in its ability to spend money correctly and in the ability to determine exactly what our state needs more money for and why, then the additional money will be much easier to get.

On StarNet: Ending social promotion is one of the reforms mentioned in the opinion piece by John F. Munger and Lisa Graham Keegan. The results of an Arizona Daily Star investigation, published last May, showed thousands of middle and high school students across Tucson are advancing to higher grade levels every year even though they flunk core subjects. Read the stories in the Star investigation and find a searchable database of area schools at

Quality teaching is not the priority under the current model. If that were the first concern, we would openly embrace young teachers who are excelling instead of handing them the first pink slips.

John F. Munger and Lisa Graham Keegan are members of ImagineArizona, developing innovative public policy. Write them at

No comments: