Sunday, March 27, 2005


To me, learning is one of the more exciting aspects of life. That interest has been a handicap because I have difficulty working with stiff, bureaucratic organizations and putting up with politically-afficted decisions. Unfortunately, almost all of American education is controlled by such organizations.

Last week, with my naivet‚ in hand and my skepticism on hold, I attended a meeting about charter schools. I guess that I had some blind hope that charter schools might have the freedom to be able to avoid the constrictions that teachers and students face in traditional public school systems. The session was organized by a non-profit group that acts as a paid consultant to help charter schools get organized, approved, and hopefully, become successful. Their consulting contract is available for about $100,000 over a 5-year period. I suspect their help is well worth that cost. They have a staff of people who are experienced in starting charter schools... people who have successfully navigated through the process. They assist about a half-dozen new schools each year. That there is such a consulting group, and that their guidance is worth $100K toward getting a charter school going is, in itself, pretty revealing...

Let me make my attitude very clear. Children are going to learn if they're given half a chance. They're going to learn from whatever they're exposed to, and they'll hunt for such exposure. Learning is as natural to kids as crawling, then walking, and then running. Learning is easy... education isn't.

Charter schools ARE public schools. They get federal financing and get paid like any other public school, and operate by much the same rules. They cannot choose their students, but must convince parents to move their kids from some other school. They have somewhat more autonomy in the way they run their school, but are still subject to the education bureaucracy.

One of the meeting participants seeking to start a charter school said that she had been home schooling her children. I asked her why she wanted to move from home schooling to opening a charter school. Her response was that other parents were asking her to teach their children too. Consider - this mother, teaching her own children, is deemed, by some other parents, to be an educator preferred over the public schools already paid for and available to them. She must be doing something right... something that is obvious to those who know her and her children. What a condemnation of our public schools... that an untrained parent can be preferred over the government schools that have been in full operation for decades, touting their expertise and caring professionalism. In case you're not aware, home schooling is growing rapidly, and with demonstrated success.....

Starting a charter school is NOT like starting a typical small business. It has most of the difficulties of a small business start-up, plus the bloating and constrictions typical of making something happen THROUGH government rather than AROUND it....

Minnesota had the first charter school legislation in the nation, and the first charter school, City Academy of St. Paul, is in its 12th year of operation. There are 104 Minnesota charter schools, with about 17,000 students. There are over 3,000 charter schools nationally. There is little doubt in my mind that the presence of charter schools is an improvement over having just traditional public schools. They add choices to the mixture. Unfortunately, charter schools also add to the monopoly of government-controlled schools. The growth of charter schools does prove one thing... there is no shortage of people who are dissatisfied with the current schools and are willing to start new schools to compete with them.

If the government education monopoly ever became courageous enough to be willing to compete with private schools on a level playing field, all of those inspired, determined people working hard now to open charter schools would be able to open private schools and really educate the way they WANT TO, without jumping through the governmental hoops. At that point, education might again become more synonymous with learning.

More here


It should surprise no one that Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to pay California teachers based on job performance. He has firsthand experience with merit pay, having earned millions for muscular box office appeal in his former career. Merit pay is a simple and sound idea. Reward people for teaching better, and you will have better teachers. It seems to work in other professions.

But public school teachers are the only professionals whose customers cannot leave without great effort. Certainly, they cannot take their education dollars with them. Measuring merit without a competitive market is like landing a plane in a snowstorm without instruments. What makes a teacher good, and who should decide? In the film industry, moviegoers decide which actors are entertaining. And when agents scout new talent, their choices are informed by recent successes. Clients decide which lawyers are effective. The strongest cases find their way to the best attorneys, who then hire associates and train them similarly.

But with parents' hands tied and checkbooks hijacked, public schools can't consult their preferences when they decide which teachers have merit. Political determinations of "merit" can easily go astray. Other states' experiments with teacher merit pay show how quickly such efforts may lose their bearings. Merit inflation is one common problem. Decades of union pay scales and job security have engendered an A-for-effort and cookies for everyone teaching culture. When Texas and Tennessee adopted merit pay, principals insisted that all their teachers were above average, which forced those states to shut down their programs as too expensive. On the other hand, capping awards would invite administrators to hand out the bonuses to their favorites. It would be ironic, but not unlikely, if merit pay became another opportunity for political patronage.

To avoid such pitfalls, the governor suggested tying merit pay to student performance on standardized tests. But this is both more complicated and less objective than it sounds. The system can't simply reward high scores. If it did, it would favor teachers in wealthy neighborhoods whose students came to school with excellent skills. Nor can the system reward only improvement. If it did, it would unfairly penalize teachers whose students were already scoring too well to post large gains. Moreover, any money for test results scheme will worsen the problem of teachers cheating on standardized tests to avoid the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers willing to erase wrong answers on exams to avoid having their school labeled "needing improvement" will also be tempted by the thought of a personal raise.

But the governor should not give up on merit pay. Instead, he should tie his merit pay proposal to the expansion of school choice in California. School choice and merit pay are the twin beacons of market-based reform. Schwarzenegger has already proposed expanding California's charter school system. If he wants his reforms to succeed, these two proposals should not be separated. Merit pay will prod teachers toward excellence, and parents, through their choices, will show school administrators what merit should mean. A school voucher program would be even better for this purpose. "The governor feels that unless you hold people accountable in the public sector the way you did in the private sector, you're not going to get very far," Education Secretary Richard Riordan has said.

The governor is right. But merit pay works in the private sector because companies are accountable to their customers. If parents remain consigned to tourist class, a new merit pay system in public schooling may do little to smooth a bumpy ride.

More here

Idealistic Berkeley teachers: "Berkeley teachers, demanding a pay raise after two years without one, are refusing to work any more hours than their contract requires, and the impact is being felt throughout the school district. Kids within the Berkeley Unified School District are not being assigned written homework because teachers won't grade papers on their own time. A black history event was canceled Friday evening. And parents had to staff a middle-school science fair one recent night. 'I find it depressing,' said Rachel Baker, whose 5-year-old son attends kindergarten at Emerson Elementary School. 'Teachers do a lot with a little. All of a sudden, a lot of things that they do are just gone. It's demoralizing.' Baker said her son's teacher stopped sending home reading assignments and notes to parents. Last week, Emerson canceled its black history month celebration. Teachers said it is difficult to give less to their students."


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

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