Education + Politics = Illiteracy + Waste

First Published: 2011-01-18

Unfortunately…the failure of public education in both the U. S. and the Bahamas ranks close to jobs and budget deficits as one of the most difficult public policy issues of the day. The evidence of the public education failure in the U. S. and the Bahamas is clear. However, the average citizen cannot help but be confused about what is wrong and what should be done. The evidence is clearer with respect to the U.S.; but it is relevant to the Bahamas.

Explosive Documentaries

The level of academic achievement in the U. S., the long-standing status quo, promises catastrophic long-term economic and social consequences. The 20th Century world super-power ranks 24th behind virtually all advanced Asian and European countries in international academic rating systems. Academically it is under-achieving; and two recently released full-length film documentaries deal with this.

“Waiting for Superman” is in limited public distribution; and in late February it is expected to win the Oscar for Best Film Documentary. It focuses on a particularly successful type of school that flourishes in urban low-income neighborhoods.

“The Cartel: education + politics = $” is about New Jersey, the state with the highest expenditures per student in America and an  unacceptably low academic achievement ranking.

One should note that New Jersey has three types of public schools:

  • Regular public schools with teachers in teachers’ unions,
  • Magnet public schools that have a specialized curriculum also with teachers in teachers’ unions, and
  • Charter schools that are publicly owned but privately operated with teachers who are not in teachers’ unions.

The New Jersey Reality Show

The latter documentary argues that in New Jersey there is  a Cartel made up of unions, school boards, the New Jersey Department of Education and politicians that collude systematically for their gain at the expense of students and the state’s tax payers. The immediate losers are the students as measured by what they don’t know and cannot do on leaving school and a state financial budget that has been out of control.

The documentary describes and illustrates how the Cartel works with interviews and hard data…a simply fascinating one hour and thirty-two minute tour de force.

One example is a new $30 million football stadium at Shabazz High School located in a low income district where only 14% of the students get a passing grade in math…a startling contrast of wasteful spending and academic failure.

The Obsolete Paradigm

The obstacle to education reform in large measure is the political power of the New Jersey Education Association (the NJEA, the teachers union). The issue is not the quality of 60 to 70% percent of public school teachers; rather it is the 30-40 percent that are not and cannot be fired for cause.

Teachers achieve tenure after 3 years and one day of service; and they are protected against unlawful discharge by a litigation process that the NJEA zealously uses to block  99.7 per cent of all proposed separations. Because of the costly litigation hurdle, it is virtually impossible to fire a teacher.

And…guaranteed employment-for-life has disastrous consequences:

  1. Learning Impairment. Students who get more effective teachers have an extreme advantage while those with poor teachers experience a “near-permanent retardation of academic achievement.” Strong evidence supports the conclusion that a good teacher will produce “a student gain of one and a half grade-level equivalents during a single academic year; whereas a bad teacher will produce a gain of only a half year…and…it is likely that the typical student will get a run of bad teachers.”
  2. Picking Good Teachers. It is extremely difficult to identify those teaching candidates that will produce superior student-learning gains. Unfortunately, “teacher-education courses taken” or a teacher’s Intelligence Quotient are not good indicators of future teaching success.

It helps if teaching candidates have under-graduate degrees in specific academic fields; however, Eric Hanushek, the leading education economist, concludes that what happens after a teacher is hired reveals more valid indicators of teacher effectiveness; and he strongly recommends that teacher rewards and promotions should be tied to the measured academic gains registered by a teacher’s students.

Such a policy means that a school district must engage in a continual process of hiring, evaluating and firing to acquire a stable of quality teachers in order to avoid trapping unfortunate students in a series of poor teachers…thus creating a life-time learning impairment. In this case the  “best practice” is the polar opposite to employment-for-life.

The Inconvenient Truth

The Cartel documentary, however, identifies a genuine road map to extract New Jersey from the present quagmire…namely, the unleashing of its existing charter school program and combining it with student education vouchers given to all students who redeem them at the public or private schools that accept them.

The past performance record of charter schools maybe viewed differently depending on the analyst. Up until now the New Jersey Charter Schools have been approved and regulated by the Cartel; and it is no surprise that the total number of charter school students is very small. This creates an excess number of students applying to charter schools; in this situation the state mandates the use of lotteries to determine who gets admitted.

Teachers unions are diametrically opposed to charter schools since they allegedly drain financial resources from unionized to non-unionized schools; and thus their objective is to limit their success.

Progressives and liberals generally favor existing U.S. Government voucher programs like the GI bill and Pell Grants that support college attendance, food stamps and housing vouchers; but they abhor school vouchers. The inconvenient truth is that education vouchers split the funding of education from the delivery of education services. The New Jersey charter schools may produce higher academic achievement and/or a “safer” learning environment; but The Cartel prefers to fund regular and magnet public schools. That’s the Inconvenient Truth.

However, the newly elected Governor Chris Christie is on a mission to change this.

The Bahamas

What do we know about public school reform in the Bahamas?

The good news is that the nation has a Minister of Education who is dealing with the Department of Education in an effective way.

The bad news is that he inherited the “New Jersey good teacher/bad teacher” problem; and he must deal with long-standing and deeply-ingrained beliefs that are hostile to the New Jersey reform program.

And…there is a need for a new ten-year plan with a convincing Bahamian strategy. There is nothing easy about this task.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

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