Great Teachers

Our National Report Card, the so-called National Assessment of Educational Progress, was released yesterday. Our kids are flunking and it is very serious. Nearly 40% of high-school seniors scored below basic level on the math test, and fewer than a quarter of 12th graders rate proficient.

A nation with broken schools is a nation in crisis. Every aspiration we hold for economic opportunity and mobility, a shared civic life, global economic competitiveness, and political freedom all require educated citizens. If we fail to educate ourselves, Americans will squander advantages that most nations can only dream about. We will become history’s fools.

Educating kids is a tough job made harder by crass, fact-free media, indifferent families, school bureaucracy, distracted students, and many other factors. Not everyone can be a school teacher (I can’t. I tried teaching grade school while I was in college and suspect that some of those kids have yet to recover).

Education is both very complicated and very simple. The simple part is that great teachers matter more than classrooms, books, technology, class size, parents, and even poverty. Everything you ever learned in school, you learned from a great teacher. No school has ever been better than its teachers. Great teachers are the foundation of our future. They matter enormously.

I have been the beneficiary of extraordinary teachers. Jack Knowlton was about 22 years old when he helped save me from a collapsing family. I was in fifth grade. At an ordinary high school, I was challenged by people whose names I only vaguely recall three decades later. Bob Crouch introduced me to Economics, Grace Villanova humbled me into speaking a bit of German, Linda Church drilled champion debaters, Gretchen Begalke and in a different way Dan Nay gave me a history habit that never wore off. I forget the guy who taught great books — a brainy dweeb with a bow tie and a sports car. Rumor was he was a millionaire who worked for free. My high school physics teacher went to Yale and wrote the textbook we used.

I quickly learned to select teachers, not courses. It mattered much less to me what I studied than who I studied it with. It’s a rule I’ve passed to my kids. I signed up for Oceanography because a young guy fresh out of grad school named Gary Griggs made the classroom so exciting you could smell the salt air. Nobby Brown’s psychobullshit neo-Freudian philosophy is a lot more interesting in seminars than in his books. Political theory with Jack Schaar or American history with Page Smith left even cynical students stunned and frequently moved classrooms to applaud when the lecture ended. I thought it was funny that my outstanding math teacher had the same name as folk singer Tom Lehrer; it took awhile to figure out that he was folk singer Tom Lehrer (regrettably, I dropped the class).

These teachers did not smile on lousy performance. I will never forget a polite former Jesuit priest named Barry McLaughlin telling college freshmen that we didn’t know how to write. We all researched and wrote three papers a week without search engines or word processing until we could more or less get it right. I was appropriately humbled, but my writing got a lot better. (I know, still not good enough.)

After college, I sought out Andy Fraknoi for night courses in astronomy because he could communicate complex ideas really well. In grad school, my teachers were unbelievably good at case method teaching, which I loved. Michael Porter, Jan Hammond, Michael Jensen, Robert Kaplan and many others at their best were breathtaking. We would arrive early for the best classes; as the class hit its stride, you could damned near levitate on the energy in the room.

Great teachers make all the difference, but many kids never encounter a single one. They might as well grow up without parents. The unpleasant fact is that today’s elementary and high school teachers are not on average nearly as good as they used to be. How do I know? Simple — once up on a time, talented women and in some cases talented minorities had far more limited career opportunities. Many became teachers because they had no other career choice open to them.

Boomers are the last generation to benefit from limited career opportunities for women. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother were all school teachers. My wife is a university dean. My daughter would be an F-14 pilot, a concert pianist, or a research scientist if I had a daughter — which regrettably I do not. Now that capable women can do anything they please, some choose to become school teachers — but just like men, most do other things. The average, measured any way you like, has declined.

Writing in The Atlantic four years ago, Matt Miller documented the challenge:

“Now people who might once have taught science or social studies become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Salaries that start, on average, at $29,000 simply can’t compete with the pay in other professions. In 1970 in New York City a lawyer starting out at a prestigious firm and a teacher going into public education had a difference in their salaries of about $2,000. Today that lawyer makes $145,000 (including bonus), whereas the teacher earns roughly $40,000.

Worse, Miller noted, baby-boomers are retiring — we need to recruit more than two million new teachers over the next decade. About a third of these teachers are needed in poor school districts, where half of new teachers quit within three years (and evidence suggests that it’s the smarter half).

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is quite open about the problem.

“You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people,” she told me. “We’re not getting in the same kinds of people. In some places it’s disastrous.”

Teacher quality, according to many researchers, contributes more than poverty or family conditions to the lousy outcomes in poor schools. Recruiting better teachers for poor schools is the biggest issue in education. It is also the next great frontier for those concerned with social justice.

Freedom for women has reduced teacher quality, but unions haven’t helped — and I conclude this reluctantly and with considerable personal pain. Steve Jobs put the case plainly in a presentation yesterday:

“…our schools in this nation is that they’ve become unionized in the worst possible way…This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

“Here’s the problem: what kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them, when they came in, they couldn’t get rid of people they thought weren’t any good in the first place? Or they couldn’t pay people three times as much when they got three times as much work done?”

“Not really great ones because if you’re really smart you go, ‘I can’t win.'”

Steve Jobs is as anti-union as most Silicon Valley leaders — and I learned this by discussing unionization with Apple employees during the 1970s. We used to refer to him as “Nonunion Jobs”, so I laughed out loud this morning when I saw that today’s Wall Street Journal use this old labor moniker to headline its predictable and dreary editorial page comments.

Teacher’s unions are part of the problem. As one California official told Miller: “Dismissing a tenured teacher is not a process, it’s a career.” The effort can take years and involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather than being fired, bad teachers are shuffled from school to school. In a recent five-year period only sixty-two of the 220,000 tenured teachers in California were dismissed.

A decent rule of thumb is that between 2-5% of all employees in any organization need to leave involuntarily each year. This is basic pruning familiar to any gardener: people burn out, give up, need to try something new, get sick of their boss or colleagues, can’t adapt, are insufficiently challenged, or should not have been hired in the first place. Not all need to be fired: smart managers know how to counsel people out and be generous and gracious about it. I’ve been fired before, and I’ve fired more than my share of people and this I know for sure: the only thing worse than firing people is not firing them.

But unionized civil service organizations do not fire people and they have no tradition or capacity to counsel the deadwood to leave. Having neglected to revitalize its teaching corps or to challenge them, California schools surely need to replace 10,000 teachers annually for many years in addition to retirements if we hope to reinvigorate public education.

This, one suspects, is the main benefit of allowing parents to use vouchers to send their kid to better schools — it offers a crude but consistent measure of accountability. Imagine if food stamp recipients could shop only food stores run by tenured civil servants. Not only would the apples be stupid expensive, they would be bruised and rotting.

Where are we to get highly qualified teachers, if so many are retiring or in need of firing? There is only one answer: we need to pay teachers much more. But why on earth would we pay more for mediocre performance? This presents an opportunity for a new deal for teachers and we desperately need to make it. We need to trade much higher pay in exchange for much less job security. Teacher pay would go way up; tenure would go away, period.

Miller outlines the deal:

“..a grand bargain between unions and conservatives: make more money available for teacher’s salaries in exchange for flexibility in how it is spent. For instance, the standard “lockstep” union pay scale, whereby a teacher with a degree in biochemistry has to be paid the same as one with a degree in physical education if both have the same number of years in the classroom (even though the biochemist has lucrative options outside teaching), should be scrapped. Better-performing teachers should make more than worse ones. And dismissing poor performers-who, even union leaders agree, make up perhaps 10 percent of urban teachers-should be made much easier.

To improve urban schools, teaching poor children must become the career of choice for talented young Americans who want to make a difference with their lives and earn a good living too. To achieve that, the federal government should subsidize the salaries of teacher’s in poor schools (states fund schools with property taxes, thus guaranteeing that the rich prosper and the poor suffer). This increase would be contingent on two fundamental reforms: teacher’s unions would have to abandon the lockstep pay schedules, so that the top-performing half of the teacher corps could be paid significantly more; and the dismissal process for poor-performing teachers would have to be condensed.

In Los Angeles teachers currently earn about $40,000 to start and top out, after thirty years and a Ph.D., at about $70,000. Under this new deal those teachers would start at $60,000, and the top-performing half of teachers would make $85,000 to $90,000 a year, on average. A number of the best teachers could earn close to $150,000 a year. The plan is designed to pay America’s best teachers of poor students salaries high enough to allow them to put aside a million dollars in savings by the end of their careers.

How much would this cost? Roughly $30 billion a year, which would lift the federal share of K-12 spending from seven percent to 14 percent of the total. This federal investment looks modest beside the $80 billion a year that some representatives of corporate America say they spend training ill-prepared high school graduates to work in modern industry. The plan could be administered through a program similar to Title I, which provides supplementary federal funds to poor schools. We might call it Title I for Teachers.
Miller ran the idea by “big-city superintendents, high-ranking union leaders, and assorted education experts and teachers”.

“I’d endorse something like that in a hot minute,” said Day Higuchi, the president of the Los Angeles teacher’s union from 1996 to 2002. “Right now L.A. Unified is the employer of last resort. People who can’t get jobs elsewhere come here. If we did this, we’d become the employer of first resort. High-powered college students will be taking the job.”

“Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, told me that now there’s “very little incentive outside of pure altruism” to get someone into teaching. This proposal “would dramatically change the face of the teacher profession,” he said.

“To gauge the conservative reaction, I spoke with Chester E. Finn Jr., a longtime school reformer on the right. Finn is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and served as an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration. He expressed several concerns. “The troubling part of this proposal,” he said, “is a 50 percent boost for just showing up for work, without any reference to whether anybody you teach learns a damned thing.

“I replied that the offer was designed to make it worthwhile for the unions to accept real reform in pay and dismissal practices. And the pay increase would subsidize mediocrity only briefly, because under the new dismissal rules bad teachers could much more easily be fired.Finn had his own variation to offer. “If you wanted to make this plan really interesting,” he told me, “job security and tenure would be traded for this raise.

“The swap here ought to be that you take a risk with your employment and you don’t have to be retained if you’re not good at what you do. If you are good and you get retained, you get paid a whole lot more money. If current teachers can’t swallow that trade off, make this a parallel personnel system for new ones coming in and for the existing ones who want to do it.”

There is more, of course. We can improve good teachers and help them become great. We need to allow for dysfunctional kids and families — not something a teacher can always fix. We need to recruit smarter and allow people to try teaching, if only so that they can discover, as I did, that they are not suited for a demanding profession.

Above all however, we need to make teacher quality a top three topic with every presidential candidate. This is especially true of Democrats, and among Democrats, Californians, who are distressingly dependent upon teacher’s union donations for their political lives. More on this later.