Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Elite pay for math and science teachers needed

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international test of fourth- and eighth-grade student achievement, recently released its latest results. As in prior years, the mean U.S. scores were roughly on par with those in most developed nations in Europe, though well below those in Asia. But students in other developed nations far outpaced U.S. students in top-level science scores. For instance, only 10 percent of American eighth-graders performed at the highest level in science, placing the U.S. 11th among the tested nations and well behind countries such as England (17 percent), Japan (17 percent), and Singapore (an astounding 32 percent).

It's no surprise, then, that the U.S. also lags the world in the proportion of students earning a college degree in technical fields. According to the National Science Foundation, only about 17 percent of U.S. college graduates earned a degree in subjects related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM for short). That's well below the world average of 26 percent. We trail not only economic competitors such as China (52 percent), India (24 percent), Japan (64 percent), and Russia (33 percent), but even Mexico (25 percent) and the nations of the Middle East (24 percent). These figures become even more disturbing when we consider that American colleges grant many of their STEM-related degrees to foreign students, the majority of whom go back home.

American schools simply don't produce the scientists and engineers whom we need to remain competitive in a technology-driven world. In their excellent recent book The Race Between Education and Technology, Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz convincingly show that the economic and political dominance of the U.S. throughout the twentieth century was based on its better-educated workforce, which could create and swiftly adapt to new technologies. But we've been losing that edge since our educational attainment began to stagnate in the mid-1970s--and as more nations surpass us in education, they also chip away at our economic dominance.

The troubles in STEM education mirror the broader problems of American K-12 education. The primary issue--and our best chance to make improvements--concerns teacher quality. A wide body of research has consistently identified teacher quality as the most important means within a school's control to improve student learning. That likely goes double for STEM subjects, which require instructors not only to be knowledgeable but also to be able to convey difficult technical information in a graspable way. Attracting such people to STEM teaching requires a compensation system that recognizes their talents. Unfortunately, though, the way we pay public-school teachers today--based exclusively on seniority and number of advanced degrees held--doesn't work.

Research consistently finds that these two attributes have little or nothing to do with teachers' actual ability to improve student learning. Paying the same salaries to teachers of widely varying effectiveness is inefficient, to say the least. But another big problem with the current pay system, especially when it comes to STEM teaching, is that it compensates teachers in different subjects equally, too, and this ignores labor-market realities. With the same number of years in the classroom and the same number of advanced degrees, a high school gym teacher earns the same salary as a high school chemistry teacher.

A better system would pay STEM teachers more than their counterparts. After all, the skills required to teach STEM subjects are often more valuable in the broader labor market than those required to teach most other subjects. Of course, not every good math teacher would make a good engineer, and vice versa. But an individual with math and technology skills has more attractive job opportunities than, say, someone with the skills to teach elementary-level reading. The bottom line: public schools must dig deeper into the labor skill pool, hiring STEM teachers of lower quality than teachers in other subjects.

A system of differential teacher pay, on the other hand, could not only attract new teachers from the outside labor market, but also encourage the current crop of teacher talent to move into STEM subjects, which they're currently shunning for understandable reasons--the coursework required to become a teacher in a non-technical subject is much less demanding than what's necessary for STEM subjects. We need to give these people a financial motive to take the more difficult STEM path. Teachers' unions support increasing the pay of STEM teachers--so long as the pay of all other teachers goes up as well. But spreading dollars around equally means giving small increases to all teachers instead of large pay increases to those we most need.

We can still ensure that this century will be as much an American Century as the last--but only if we address our students' performance gap in math and science. And the best way to do that is to incentivize more teachers to master the hard stuff.


British bureaucracy to destroy popular school

Destroying success is what they are best at -- witness all the vanished Grammar Schools

Sometimes, government promises and proclamations can sound a little hollow. When it comes to schools, Ed Balls talks often of parental choice. Hearing this, many parents shake their heads as they know that it's a promise which hasn't been fulfilled for them. But in Stoke-On-Trent, many parents are doing more than shake their heads. They are campaigning vigorously. And this is not because they don't have a choice of good school to send their children to; it's because they feel their choice is being taken away for no good reason. This may be a "local" story, but it has a much larger resonance.

Julian Teed is a father of two from Stoke. His son is set to start at Trentham High School, a local community school which is under the auspices of the LEA, this coming September. In the new league tables and GCSE results, it's the top performing non-selective school in the city. And Louis Teed is going to start there, even though the school is under threat of closure. It, and another local school, Blurton, are set to be amalgamated and turned into an Academy. That Academy will be opening in September 2010. "Trentham is a well loved and respected school in the centre of our community," says Teed. "Every child can walk or cycle there, it is perfect."

Two years ago, Trentham High went into special measures. A new head, Sue Chesterton, was brought in and she appears to have turned the school around. It came out of special measures a year later, the day after parents were told at a consultation evening that the school would be closing. Trentham High is now second only to St Joseph's, a grammar school and 57 percent of the children just received 5 A-C grades in their recent GCSEs, including maths and English. The head is convinced that this will continue, indeed improve, if the school is given a chance. "I've always argued that it is potentially one of the highest performing schools in this city" says Ms Chesterton. "And parents are delighted with the progress we've made. Academies are normally for failing schools, but neither Blurton or Trentham are failing. It's very strange."

It certainly is strange, but for parents, it is horribly real. They feel that change is imminent, and that the government's fondness for Academies and reluctance for be drawn into local battles, means they are fighting a losing battle. I'm afraid they are right; but I don't know why. Sue Chesterton feels that parents have fought a very long and hard battle over this. "They feel very let down," she says. "They feel betrayed by the council...the community is centred around the school."

Trentham - which caters for 11-16 year olds - is not a huge school. It lost some pupils when it went into special measures and has just under 600 pupils at present. But it is part of a community, open every evening for community activities and with sports facilities which are heavily used by local residents. With all this local involvement, the school appears to be behaving exactly as the government wants its schools to. But it is still in danger.

The current situation began because of Stoke's involvement in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF)programme. This has the specified aim of "Placing the school at the heart of the community", an aim which may well sound more than a little hollow to local parents. Stoke on Trent council has had problems with its schools for a few years now (that's a understatement: it was named the third worst local authority for education in the country). It brought in a private company, Serco, to assess what should happen next as part of the BSF programme and Serco decided that various schools should be closed down or amalgamated. Parents at another school, St Joseph's College, are also up in arms.

Julian Teed, who is part of the Save Trentham High campaign, says that he and other parents don't want a huge school (the new Academy would be aimed at 900-1200 pupils, which seems too small:if you add the current pupils from Trentham and Blurton together, it comes to over 1400). The council claims that birth rates are falling, and that is partly why some schools need to be closed, but parents dispute that. They also claim there are major safety issues with the changes. The only way to the new school (which will be located on the Blurton site) is down a very busy main road. "It's a travesty" he says.

Parents are also unhappy that the choice of sponsor for the Academy is the Ormiston Trust, which at least according to its website, is set up to help disadvantaged children. They have been campaigning for over a year, but feel that they are simply not being listened to. Ed Balls has said that he's happy for parents to get stuck into their schools and set up smaller secondaries. But the Save Trentham parents, who feel that this is exactly what they want to do, are not finding that it's possible. And this is despite the fact that no new school would save the council an awful lot of money!

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, talked about this last November, but parents won't be thrilled by what he said (you can see his comments here; he seems to take all the councils' assertions as correct).

No story is one-sided, and a spokesman for the council says that parents' views and opinions have been "taken into account throughout the consultation process." He adds. "We do understand their concerns. The Building Schools for the Future programme is ongoing and we will continue to consult and draw opinions from parents and all those who who have an interest in the education of children in Stoke-on-Trent."

Parents are expecting the council to make its decision on January 21st, but I'm afraid that it has already been taken. The report, which you can see here (dated January 21st) clearly states: "That the Council approves the publication of the statutory notices proposing the closure of Brownhills, James Brindley, Berry Hill, St. Peter's CE, Mitchell, Edensor, Blurton and Trentham High Schools to enable the establishment of five replacement academies in accordance with the timetable outlined in section 7." This is despite the fact that the report contains a litany of concerns from parents. How depressing - and yet not surprising at all.


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