Friday, June 10, 2011

New Incentives for Education Reform

Leaving No Child Left Behind, Behind

The PBS NewsHour this evening had an article reporting on the apparent conflict between a school's rating based on the standardized tests and the results of an "in person" visit by the NewsHour's education reporter.  Although centered on a specific elementary school, the story told the tale of the national confusion about the question.

What can be done with an overly expensive, largely ineffective education system populated by snarling teachers' unions on one side and reckless, budget cutting ideologues on the other?

Although less popular than ants at a picnic, the federal standardized testing was supposed to address the dilemma head on.  Legislators in the Congress, led by the ever so stingy Bush Jr., found themselves frustrated at the impenetrable defensive shield the educational system was able to prop up at a moment's notice. 

Following the autocrat's quiet penchant for constantly increasing the size of government, increasing the expense of everything and increasing the degree of federal penetration into the lives of citizens, No Child Left Behind was born after a difficult delivery.  Although the initial program touted a few mystical goals concerning educational outcomes, it turned out to be a slick GOPCon way of diverting costs from the federal coffers to the states, freeing up general fund dollars for more tax cuts.

However ironic it may seem in afterthought, the No Child Left Behind scheme sold itself on the traditional GOPCon faux-value of accountability.

New Mexico is an excellent example of the program's real world outcomes.  A poor state, New Mexico was already devoting a hefty portion of its annual revenues to education.  Once the initial glory of No Child Left Behind faded like a week old rose, the cost limitations of implementing the over priced program made things which were already pretty bad, even worse.

The 2011 graduation rates from Albuquerque's public high schools -- and for the entire state -- remained quivering on the brink of total failure.  New Mexico squeaked past Utah to become the 49th in the country for high school graduation.

The PR Conflict

Teachers and administrators were eager to re-image the standardized testing as a financial coercion to abandon their previous "high borne" educational policy in favor of a federally imposed new set of standards.  Although persuasive in the media coverage, the threat still couldn't grow teeth.  Students were failing the standardized tests just as regularly as they failed the tests they replaced.

When fascist throwbacks like the tea baggers in the Capitol of Wisconsin saw an opening to attack expensive teachers' compensation and benefit packages, they very predictably targeted the collective bargaining structure.  Although, in the end, citizens of Wisconsin joined the outrage at such action, Wisconsin parents with children in public schools were a bit more reluctant.

For these parents, the educational outcomes of the public education system were no longer a compelling component of the State's normally progressive inclination to defend the teachers' unions and collective bargaining, in general.

The Manufactured Confusion
Yes, it's difficult to conjure up a believable comparison between past memories of a well paid, well funded and well managed public school system and the current state.  Yes, it's far too easy to compare outcomes of 2011 to those same outcomes when the parents were in public schools a few decades ago.  Yes, the incendiary attacks on teachers' wages and benefits made by the GOPCons (and the Koch Brothers) in the State House gained traction with a population struggling to put food on the table.

However, there is an "elephant in the living room."  Further, like most elephants, this one is not particularly secretive.  Parents are not oblivious to how much their children have learned from attending public schools.  Their discomfort with the current state of educational outcomes may not be expressed in specific words, but these unsettled parents have a distinct "feeling" that they are watching their off spring being herded into a future as "wage slaves."

It's worse.  Barely literate future wage slaves.

The white haired teacher with thirty years of seniority can bandy forth a few gaseous comments about "critical thinking."  A concerned school principal can add wrinkles to his already "sincerely troubled" visage while touting the "new possibilities" of better targeted job training.  Yet, the fundamentals of the education effort we now have seems to be, well, fundamentally, off track.

Meanwhile, amid the unwanted pregnancies, petty crimes, drug use, vandalism and simple adolescent malaise, the high school graduation rate hovers around a stagnant 50-60%.  Further, the educational outcomes for those who do graduate seems suspicious all by itself.  There seems to be a certain something about "educated youth" in 2011 which is ever so slightly different than it was 20 years ago.

The question is a simple one.  "How can what goes on in the classrooms of our public education system become exciting?  Engaging?"

One Thing At A Time

This posting could go on to be longer than a Manhattan Yellow Pages if we were to consider all the faults and foibles and an equal collection of mitigating suggestions for solutions.  However, if we linger on the "exciting" and "engaging" aspects and begin to think of directly associated those things with the graduation rates, we may reveal a small, yet decisive starting point in our dreams of effective reform.

The premise is straightforward.

If classroom content becomes more "exciting" and "engaging," students will be inclined to energetically continue with the process until they graduate, whatever that might mean in the quality of educational outcomes.  Further, the "exciting" and "engaging" sides of this are not isolated in the final years of the program, but filter down through all the years beginning in the earliest classes in grade school.

There's plenty of blame to go around.  Depending on what position one might hold in the over all scheme of things -- parent, legislator, childless tax payer, teacher, administrator -- there is a corresponding lament which "explains" the dismal outcomes.

For now, let's target the teachers.

This posting is about incentives.  Currently, floating personal prospects of being a teacher -- including job security, slowly increasing salaries, tenure and slowly increasing benefits packages -- are considered to be adequate incentives to "get the job done" or, at least, the maintain a cadre of warm bodies to sit at the desks.

Here, MeanMesa is proposing an alternative incentive system, one which gleefully dances over all the other pressing issues to focus exclusively on the graduation rate problems.  Happy dreaming holds the promise that solving this difficulty may, along the way, collect a few of the other dilemmas and resolve some of their fundamental shortcomings, too.

The New Incentive System for Education Reform

In this age of computers, tracking an individual student through the entire period of public education has become quite manageable.  The new paradigm of graduation will be one which includes not just the high school principal handing out diplomas, but also every teacher who has participated in this course of public education since kindergarten.

After all, hasn't every individual teacher this student has encountered all along the way either contributed or inhibited the likelihood of this favorable outcome?  Why shouldn't a teacher's compensation system also be included in this consolidated concept?

The specific incentive we are considering here is to pay every one of these teachers a commission bonus for individual students who finally graduate, even years later.

This means that if you are a third grade, elementary school teacher, you will receive a bonus when one of your students graduates from high school after ten years have passed from the time he sat in your class room.

This approach strips some of the overly convenient "bite" out of the pressing impact of the  standardized tests.  The unpopular vagaries of arbitrary emphasis imposed by such tests should probably remain a part of the mix, but this long term accountability might be the "secret ingredient" which will finally make the recipe function effectively.

Other teachers, peers of inadequate instructors, will have a long term interest in either criticizing or eliminating the "weak links."  No tests or awkward justifications will be required to make this "thinning of the herd" possible, either.  The faculty of an average junior high school already know who needs to go.  When bad teachers remain in place, under this approach, everyone else will wind up paying the price in reductions to the annual "graduation pay" part of their compensation.

Think it over. We have to solve this.

To review a few MeanMesa postings on this subject, link to the following:

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