A few weeks ago, I blogged about the recent Town Hall meeting in Prescott. The subject of the conference was education reform. In Part I, I explained the issues confronting our country and state. This follow-up blog reviews the proposed changes suggested by the Town Hall as well as why these changes are necessary.
Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has gone from having one of the premier education systems to now being 25th out of 30 industrialized nations in terms of 8th grade reading, math and science test scores. In order to compete in the global economy, our children need a better education. All stakeholders at the conference including school administrators, teachers, teachers’ unions, university education professors, business leaders and political leadership recognize our schools are no longer competitive. While spending on education has grown substantially over the past 30 years, student performance as measured by test scores have remained flat or have declined. This leads to the general finding that our education system in the United States as currently designed, has reached its maximum potential. Real change is required.
Recognizing the limitations of our current education system, the Town Hall attendees called for major restructuring of our education system. The consensus of the attendees is expressed in the following statement: “Fundamental redesign of both Arizona’s PreK-12 education system and the post-secondary system that supports education preparation programs must be implemented to ensure each child in Arizona receives the quality education necessary to be competitive in a global marketplace.” The findings reached by the conference attendees were many. Here is what I believe to be the key findings:
• Training, recruiting, and retaining quality PreK-12 teachers can be improved only if Arizona restructures its PreK-12 education system and the post-secondary system.
• A professional total compensation structure should include a 12-month work year, be commensurate with these responsibilities, and comparable to other professions.
• Redefine and restructure the school year to encompass the entire scope of professional teaching responsibilities such as planning, student instruction, assessment, curriculum development, mentoring and coaching, professional development.
• The state legislature and the public schools should create a transition period of no more than five years to allow for the transition of 9- to 10-month contracted teachers to 12-month contracts.
• Global competition requires that, within 24 months, Arizona establish a statewide compensation structure competitive with professional compensation for similar skills, education, and experience, and accompanied by a well-developed performance pay system that includes student achievement as a component.
• To improve our future teacher workforce, schools need greater flexibility for remediation and, when necessary, termination of incompetent teachers.
• By the end of the 2010 legislative system, a statewide teacher compensation system needs to be designed so, among other items, it rewards performance rather than just longevity.
• Permanent salary should be based on a carefully constructed matrix that includes longevity, educational achievement, student achievement, leadership, professional development, and other factors relevant to teacher qualification.
• Teachers with in-demand skill sets, or those who serve students with special needs, should receive differentiated salaries. If a school needs teachers with certain skill sets, the schools should be able set the compensation at the level that would attract teachers with those skill sets. Additional market-based bonuses may be needed to attract and retain qualified teachers to high-poverty, remote, and rural areas.
• Public schools could attract and retain teachers by offering a flexible array of contract options, including twelve-month contracts, part-time contracts, and job sharing opportunities. Current teacher contracts generally run for nine or ten months. The state should move to a twelve-month contract. This change would enhance the public view of teaching as a profession. Additionally, it would give teachers time for classroom preparation, training, and in-services.
As you can see, the proposed restructuring includes all facets of the education system. Including, moving to a merit pay system similar to what is used in the private sector, ending tenure, and ultimately turning teaching into a profession.
Why all the changes? A review of studies of how other nations have improved their educations systems and surpassed us discloses three key factors in improving performance and outcomes in education systems: 1) quality of education is dependent on the quality of its teachers; 2) the only way to improve student outcomes is to improve instruction; and 3) achieving universally high outcomes is only possible by putting in place systems and mechanisms to ensure that schools deliver high-quality instruction to every child.
The first factor is critical. Currently, most college graduates who go into teaching in the U.S. come from the bottom third of high school graduates entering college. There are a few exceptions including Boston and Chicago public schools, both of which will only recruit from the top third. If high quality teachers are to be attracted to the education school systems in the U.S., recruiting practices will need to change. Schools will need to compete with the private sector for the best college grads.
How do schools hire better grads? It is relatively simple. Teaching needs to become a highly regarded profession, and pay will need to be commensurate with other professions. The most recent data for Arizona shows that new teachers starting salaries, on average, are about $28,915. A business major graduate (based on U of A data), on average, is paid $36,824; while a new accountant starts at $43,809 (ASU data). In those countries and in Boston and Chicago which have dramatically improved their school systems, their starting salaries are about 95% or higher of GDP. For Arizona with a GDP per capita of $36,373 in 2005, this would represent about $35,000. As you can see, this is close to what new business majors receive but less than accountants, which is currently a high demand profession.
The second critical factor is instruction needs to be improved. There are a number of ways to improve instruction. Currently, most teachers are hired and put in the class room with little or no training other than that received at the university. In order to improve their knowledge and teaching experience, new teachers need to be mentored for at least one and preferably two years. Similar to other professions, teachers need an on the job training program to help them become more effective teachers.
As part of improving instruction, principals need to spend 80% of their time working with their teachers. In essence, a principal should act as a master teacher who spends most of their time evaluating and improving the teaching skills of his or her staff. Principals should be chosen for their leadership skills and knowledge of teaching. Too often, principals become administrators.
The third factor is fairly simple, what gets measured, get done. Or in the words of an Australian educator, “What gets tested is what gets learnt, and how it is tested determines how it is learnt.” All high-performing school systems recognize they cannot improve what they do not measure. The mechanism for ensuring that all children receive a great education includes testing and evaluation of students, teachers, principals and schools. High performing school systems use two methods for monitoring and measuring the quality of teaching and learning.
The first mechanism is examination of students on a regular basis. For systems that are not yet high-performing, annual testing is typically required. Testing is the accepted method as the way to determine student learning. Tests provide an objective measure of the learning that has taken place on an individual student level. There is no substitute for testing. As a school system becomes high-performing, annual testing can be reduced to less frequent.
The second monitoring and evaluation mechanism that high-performing school systems employ is school review and inspection. The accepted method is to compare individual school performance against a benchmark of best practices developed by the principals and master teachers. School systems in the process of reforming need to have frequent inspections by a third party in order to measure how they are progressing. Once a school system becomes high-performing, less frequent reviews and outside inspection are required.
We are often told that the diversity in U.S. schools and the lack of support by parents are major reasons why we should not expect our schools to be as high-performing as those in Finland, or South Korea. While this sound like a plausible excuse, it is not true. The PISA test scores of the high-performing school systems around the world show a low statistical correlation between learning outcomes and the home background of the individual student. The best systems have developed instruction approaches to ensure that the school compensates for disadvantages some students have in their home environment. Chicago and Boston school systems, which are high-performing, have been able to compensate for poor home environments.
Of course, all of this sounds very expensive and one can just imagine the tax increases that could be required. However, this has not been the case in many of the school systems that have restructured and become high-performing. While an investment of additional funds in the classroom may be required at the start, over time, costs have been shown to decline. As it turns out, high-performing teachers can handle more students in the classroom instead of fewer. In fact, having on average 30 students per class is not uncommon in high-performing schools. This compares favorably to the average students per class of 21.5 in Arizona. Costs can also be controlled by phasing in the new structure over several years.
The fact that all stakeholders in the education field could come together and agree that fundamental reform was required in order to improve our education system with the goal of preparing our children to compete in a global economy was refreshing and invigorating. It is possible to change our system. Everyone recognizes that the stakes are high and it is important for Arizona, the nation and our children to get it right. The 92nd Arizona Town Hall could be the seminal work to begin the restructuring of education – a paradigm shifting moment.