Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The US Education Industry

By Bill Holmes

The public education of our children is now an industry.  What was once an obligation and a public service is now run like many other for profit big corporations.  The goal may not be improving stock price and options but rather job preservation, empire growth and power.  School systems now have a board of directors (school board),  a CEO (superintendent) and multiple vice presidents, directors, managers, supervisors, vendors, consultants and unionized workers.  They may be called assistant or deputy superintendents, chiefs, principals, assistant principals, deans or department heads.  But it's basically the same structure of a large corporation.  There are legal, purchasing, HR, real estate and communication departments plus many others that have little to do with actually teaching children in the classroom.  Of course all these departments need several layers of management, office space, training, supplies and equipment.  Many of the top administrators are paid like top corporate management.  This has changed dramatically over the years as school systems have become more top heavy.

Full disclosure: I'm an old guy who was educated in Catholic schools.  My grade school went from K through 8th grade.  There were two classes for each grade with 25 or so kids per class.  That means we had approximately 400 students.  Our entire administration consisted of a principal and her secretary.  The principal was also the designated substitute teacher.  I guess the parish pastor was officially in charge but he only came by a few times a year for ceremonies.  He knew better than to interfere.  My high school (9 through 12) had about 1,200 students.  That administration consisted of a president and vice president (one a pastor the other a parish priest who were both part-time) a full-time principal and I think two secretaries.  Although we had the same text books, not every class progressed at the same pace or emphasized the same points.  Somehow we managed to get educated and more than 95% of us went on to college.  The public schools weren't quite as frugal but they weren't far off.  I also raised several children from the 70's to the 00's and was once married to a teacher, so I've had some first-hand experience with our education system.

I know that the bare bones level of administration like we had at my school is not possible now but the current bloated level is way too much.  Elementary schools have full-time assistant principals; high schools have several assistant principals, deans and an attendance secretary.  They also now have counselors, department heads and coaches who do not teach a full load if teach at all.    

In my opinion bloated overhead, unionization, political interference and social promotion is at the core of our declining education system.  This blog could be full of statistics about eroding student rankings of the US vs. other countries, expenditures per student, dropout rates and many other numbers, but I'm not inclined to do that much detailed research and document it.   Can we agree that while some top achievers are much smarter than my generation, many of our publicly educated students are lacking in basic skills?  The sad fact that most colleges have remedial reading and math courses should be a clue.  Another troubling fact that the US is not number one in every academic measurement (when we once were) shows our decline.   Don't ask your teenage kids a geography question or how to spell any word with more than a few simple letters.  Try not to be completely aghast when watching a TV game show (not Jeopardy), interview, reality show or a “Jay Walking” segment on the Tonight Show.  Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? What two large countries border the continental US? These are tough questions for some of our kids today.

Just a couple of snapshot facts to give my rant some credence:  The Fort Worth school system has approximately 80,000 students, a budget of $588 million and only 50% of their employees are teachers  (Ft. Worth ISD profile).  I don't pretend to understand the breakdown of the budget dollars and staff.  Something look a little suspicious to me.  What's really administration, overhead and teaching?  The organization chart for Ft. Worth ISD would do any Fortune 500 company proud.  I'm not picking on Fort Worth ISD, as I'm sure the numbers are worse in many other school districts, it's just a good size district that is close by and I get to read about them often in my local paper.  They have a highly paid professional superintendent, bloated administrative staff and a political and meddlesome board.  A perfect combination for not being successful in teaching our kids.  I'm afraid to research the NYC or Chicago schools.  I might get sick. 

So, here is my plan.  I would be to cut the administrative staff drastically, to 20% or less.  Principals, asst. principals, counselors, and school nurses count as administration.  If you're not in the classroom teaching kids, you're overhead.  With those vast savings in salary and overhead we can raise the teachers' pay.  Then treat the teachers like professionals.  No useless paperwork to be sent to make-work administrators.  No useless meetings and seminars planned and conducted by other useless administrators.  No micro-managing lesson plans.  Each principal is the ruler of their school.  Each teacher is the ruler of their classroom with only minimum direction from the feds, state, school district and principals.  They can set guidelines and objectives but the teachers get to decide the methods and path to meet them.  I always found in my business career that it was much more effective to tell the staff what we needed to accomplish and not how to do it.  They felt more empowered and often came up with a much better way to do it than I ever would have.  Fewer specific instructions and fewer rules, more positive results, always help and guidance when asked for.  We could probably raise the teacher/student ratios if we have all-star teachers.  More savings, more money for teachers salary.

Hopefully, no teaching (coaching) to the test.  Just teach the appropriate material.  I never had an SAT or Florida Boards (the TAKS, or whatever it's called now equivalent) prep class.  Our teachers just taught the material, told us to get a good nights sleep, don't panic and you'll be fine.  Guess what? Except for the good night sleep part (the tests were usually on Saturday morning after party Friday night) we did fine.  Teach kids to think and reason, not regurgitate facts.

There is a big downside for some teachers if this were implemented.  If you don't educate your students you get fired.  No tenure or seniority that lets a bad teacher keep their job.  You are now a professional with no long-term contract.  The higher salary and more job freedom should attract better teachers.     Maybe someone who majored in math or science might become a teacher instead of someone who majored in elementary education.  Maybe a retired professional who wants to give back a little would decide to teach.  They often make the best teachers.  The new teachers might not be as creative designing the bulletin board or planning the school carnival but they will know the subject.

One more tough point.  The schools and teachers must to be able to enforce discipline in the classroom and on campus.  Disruptive students must be eliminated from the learning zone.  If alternative schools or classrooms for the disruptive kids are required so be it.  Give them help, guidance and counseling but don't let one kid disrupt and sabotage a classroom of 20 other students who want to learn.  If we hurt someone or their parents feelings that's too bad.  “No child left behind” needs to be modified to “No child (or parent) who cares and tries will be left behind”.  

This will not be easy.  There will be resistance from both embedded administrators and the teacher unions.  Administrators want to keep their jobs and expand their empires.  Unions want to expand their numbers, increase pay (and dues) and reduce the actual amount of work.  Competent and honest  people must evaluate the teachers to decide who stays and who gets fired.  Colleges must overhaul their “Education” departments and produce teachers who know their subjects and not how to decorate a bulletin board.  Maybe “Education” should only be a college minor and not a major.  The mind shift comes when we recognize teachers as professionals rather than caretakers.  Professionals are expected to get the job done with little supervision.  Succeed and get rewarded, fail and find a new career.  If we started on this path today it would take at least a generation to implement. Even more reason to get started now. New subject expert teachers must be trained.  New evaluation criteria needs to be implemented.  New college curriculum must be developed and taught. It can't work any worse than our current situation. 

Let's pay the teachers $75,000 to $100,000 and maybe eliminate the Deputy Superintendent of Community Affairs and/or a couple of lawyers and accountants.  Education should be about students and teachers not administrators.  I've always been a believer that half as many proficient, dedicated people are far better than twice as many average people that just "show up".

Competent, dedicated teachers and sparse administrations worked successfully for a long time to educate our youth.  What we're doing now doesn't seem to be quite as successful.  Sometimes a step backward is the best way to move forward.  Remedial math in colleges for high school graduates who passed algebra should piss you off.  Let's demand much more from our teachers and students.  My guess is that given the right environment they will both respond.  I'm not as optimistic about the administrators and politicians.

So, pay competent teachers like professionals, eliminate most administrative overhead, have discipline in the schools, and most importantly, educate our children.  Simple.


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