Righting the Ship: How We Can Fix Our Public Schools
You could say the same thing about public education.
In poll after poll, voters continue to express dissatisfaction with the nation’s pubic schools and an increasing level of frustration with the intractable nature of the problems that plague public education. As for how this angst is playing out in Duval County, a study recently released by the Florida Times-Union reveals that 72% of the community leaders and 76% of the readers it surveyed believe our public schools are getting worse, not better. (Does anyone actually think that public education has been improving? That really would be a man-bites-dog story!)
So what do we do about it?
For me, the most frustrating thing about the topic of education reform is the amount of misinformation that abounds and how it tends to push the debate in all the wrong directions. We can’t seem to agree on a solution because we can’t agree on any of the predicates.
In the interest of breaking this impasse and fostering a more productive discussion let us consider the following:
1. We need fundamental reform and we need it now. Remember, we’ve hit an iceberg. It was a really big iceberg and it’s torn a really, really big hole in the side of our ship, the SS Duval County Public Schools. We’re dead in the water, down at the bow and listing to starboard. It’s time we stopped rearranging the deck chairs and taking shuffleboard reservations.
2. Money alone won’t fix the problem. In Newark, New Jersey, public schools there spend an average of $22,000 per pupil per year, yet only a third of its student’s graduate high school. Adjusted for inflation, Florida has more than doubled its spending on public education in the past 30 years while graduation rates and academic achievement have continued to decline. Money is not the prescriptive fix the education establishment believes it to be.
3. Parochial schools produce better results while spending significantly less per student. Catholic schools in the United States spent an average of $5870 per pupil in 2007-2008 compared to a per student average of just over $8,400 for public schools here in Duval County. That’s nearly 45% more spending per student to produce a level of academic performance that falls short of what parochial schools are able to achieve for a lot less. Are Catholic schools and public schools perfectly analogous? Probably not and it may not be fair to do a straight up comparison. But at least this example proves that success is not entirely dependent on funding.
4. Until we’re ready to make fundamental changes it would be helpful if we stopped blaming teachers for everything that’s wrong with public education. If you want teachers to produce better outcomes then give them the authority to use their teaching skills to run their own classrooms. It’s unfair to complain about results when we allow bureaucrats to dumb down the curriculum and dictate every aspect of classroom instruction. I’m in favor teacher accountability and I thought Senate Bill 6 was a step in the right direction because it represented a down payment on the kind of fundamental reform we need. But pay for performance only works when teachers are given control over what happens in the classroom.
5. The public needs to understand that our schools are called upon to provide more than just an education. Tens of thousands of public school students come from homes that can most charitably be described as dysfunctional. For these students the only structure and continuity in their lives is what they get in school. Times-Union columnist Tonya Wethersbee is fond of reminding her readers that children who are “overwhelmed by poverty” may not be able to concentrate on learning. Fair enough, but let’s stop blaming public schools for their inability to overcome the social pathologies that are tearing apart low income communities. And let’s stop pretending that academic success is wholly a function of how much money gets shoveled into the maw that is public education. No amount of education spending will ever be enough to transform neglectful and uninvolved parents into supportive and nurturing ones. Parents who are absent, chronically unemployed, drug addicted or behind bars are, in the vernacular, “poor role models” who end up burdening our schools with the responsibility for raising their children. These conditions may be fodder for social service agencies but they’re absolutely corrosive when it comes to public education.
6. There’s a major disconnect when it comes reconciling concerns over teacher quality with a system of tenure that virtually guarantees permanent employment. According the Florida Times-Union, 16% of the educators who responded to its survey rated the quality of Duval teachers as only “fair” or “poor”. Among community leaders and Times-Union readers the numbers were 42% and 48% respectively. It’s hard to square these concerns over teacher quality with the fact that 99.7% of all Florida teachers received "satisfactory" performance evaluations in 2009. As Newt Gingrich observed, “a system that claims virtually 100 percent satisfactory performance while one in four students fails to graduate is a system in need of reform.” (Actually Newt, it’s more like one in three who don’t graduate, but who’s counting?) For the record, I think the low quality ratings are too harsh and probably overstate the problem, but that doesn’t mean our system of evaluation and retention doesn’t need to be changed.
7. Teachers are not underpaid. According to its website, Duval County Public Schools budget an average of $72,000 per teacher per year for salary and benefits. That’s not chump change and it’s certainly more than enough to attract quality teachers. In addition, the numbers posted on the DCPS website indicate the total amount allocated for teacher compensation went up by 25% over the three year period between 2006 and 2009 even though the number of teachers increased by less than 5%. Go figure. In an era of looming budget cuts, salary and benefit packages for teachers have increased at triple the rate of inflation.
8. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about cutting back on the number of administrative positions? Private schools typically operate with a staff to teacher ratio of 1 to 4, meaning one administrative or staff employee for every 4 teachers. In Duval County’s public schools, that ratio is around 1 staff position for every 1.75 teachers, fully 230% more administrators and ancillary personnel than what you would expect to find in a private school. Consider New York City’s Catholic Schools which, with a student enrollment of nearly 100,000, operate with a central administrative staff of less than 50 persons. Compare that to Jacksonville where the number of central administrative personnel easily exceeds 500. If we cut the total administrative overhead in Duval County by just 15% we could save about $30 million per year.
9. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about a slight bump in the number of students assigned to each teacher? According to the raw data posted on the DCPS website, the current student-to-teacher ratio is 15.75 students for every teacher. If we increased the average student load by just 7.5% – or to just 17 students per teacher – I calculate we could save at least $35 million per year. For the record, a student-teacher ratio of 17 to 1 is still under the state required cap and it’s the same ratio that existed in 1997. In the 1950s the average student-teacher ratio in public schools was 27 to 1. Can anyone honestly say that educational achievement is better today than it was 50 years ago?
10. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about trimming the capital spending budget? If we need to spend more money in the classroom let’s look for ways to spend less money on classrooms themselves. The reality is that student enrollment in our public schools has stagnated in recent years despite a recent uptick due to the recession. Nonetheless, Duval County devotes $430 million a year to its capital projects budget. If we closed underutilized schools and put some new construction on hold with the goal of trimming just 15% from the capital budget we’d save $65 million a year.
The poor performance of our public schools makes it imperative that we re-examine critical assumptions about how our public schools should operate and how we should educate our children. If we’re going to move the needle on school reform we can’t allow emotional appeals and the insatiable demand for bigger school budgets to obscure the facts or cloud our judgment.
As responsible citizens we know instinctively that now is the time for major reform on a scale necessary to produce a bottom line result. In the final analysis this result means being able to graduate significantly more students who can read and write at grade level.
It’s time to speak the truth and to speaking it plainly: It’s not how much money we spend on education, it’s about how we spend it. And getting the education establishment to give up control over that money isn’t going to be easy.
STAY TUNED: Tommorrow we'll have Robin's Six Point Plan for Fixing Our Public Schools!
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- Righting the Ship: How We Can Fix Our Public Schools | The Jacksonville Observer #edu « Parents 4 democratic Schools
- A Six Point Plan for Our Public Schools | The Jacksonville Observer