Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Failure of American Schools

Here's Klein's full article.  You'd think after 22 years of involvement with this issue, I wouldn't be surprised/shocked so often, but it happens almost daily.  For example, while I'd seen this Shanker quote, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.", I'd never seen this one:


"We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product. . . . I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don't behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don't like it, but they're not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point."


I also had no idea that "after 10 years fewer than 1 percent of teachers leave the system, and after 15 years only about 0.1 percent leave."  Here's the excerpt about the insane system of teacher comp – it really makes clear that the real problem (contrary to assertions in the wrong-headed NYT op ed below) isn't the total amount we pay teachers, but HOW we pay teachers.  Some teachers are massively overpaid, while others are massively underpaid:


Next, consider the consequences of the ubiquitous practice of paying the same for math and physical-education teachers. Given the other job opportunities for talented mathematicians—but not for phys-ed teachers—the same salary will attract many more of the latter than the former. It's simple supply and demand. But when you're short of qualified math teachers—as virtually every major urban school district is—poor kids with the greatest needs invariably get cheated, because most teachers prefer to teach highly motivated kids who live in safe communities, and whose parents will contribute private money to the school. The result: too few effective math and science teachers in high-poverty schools.


Finally, coming on top of these other senseless policies is the remarkable way that benefits and seniority drive overall teacher compensation. It's possible for a teacher in New York City to retire at 55 and draw down an annual pension of more than $60,000, plus lifetime health benefits for herself and her family. The pension is not subject to New York State or local taxes and goes up with cost-of-living increases. The huge value of this lifetime stream of benefits is rarely mentioned when we talk about teachers' compensation, but the teachers are well aware of it and act rationally in response to it. What we end up with is both a form of lock-in for employees and an enormous long-term financial exposure for the taxpayers.


The impact of the lock-in shapes the entire compensation system, because the "big" money comes only after a certain number of years—in New York City, for example, many teachers get their full pension after working 25 years, and a far smaller pension if they work for only 24 years. As a result of backloaded policies like this, after 10 years fewer than 1 percent of teachers leave the system, and after 15 years only about 0.1 percent leave. Many have candidly told me they are burned out, but they can't afford to leave until their pension fully vests. So they go through the motions until they can retire with the total package.


Aggravating the perverse incentive of the benefit lock-in is the nature of almost all pay increases in public education, which are either automatic if you stay another year or so, or take 30 college credits; or across-the-board percentage raises—for example, 10 percent over three years, meaning that every veteran teacher making $80,000 gets an $8,000 increase, while every beginning teacher making $40,000 gets a $4,000 increase.


None of these pay increases makes sense. Why pay someone more for simply working another year or for taking a few courses? Starting last year, Mayor Bloomberg refused to give teachers in New York a raise, because he was facing budget cuts. But the overall pay for teachers still went up nearly 3.5 percent automatically, simply for longevity and college credits. (According to a Department of Education internal analysis, the average NYC teacher works fewer than seven hours a day for 185 days and costs the city $110,000—$71,000 in salary, $23,000 in pensions, and $16,000 in health and other benefits.) And why give all teachers making $80,000, or more, a 10 percent raise? They're not going to leave, since they're close to vesting their lifetime pensions. By contrast, increasing starting salaries by $8,000 (rather than $4,000) would help attract and retain better new teachers. But because of seniority, we can't do it that way.


The Failure of American Schools

Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft? But in his eight years as chancellor of New York City's school system, the nation's largest, Klein learned a few painful lessons of his own—about feckless politicians, recalcitrant unions, mediocre teachers, and other enduring obstacles to school reform.

By Joel Klein, The Atlantic

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