Monday, April 18

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 3 of 3

GlobeThere are probably several hundred issues that could be pulled out of the recent protests in Wisconsin. But out of them all, the most important one remains largely neglected. The education system is broken. And we collectively broke it.

The reason I say we collectively broke it is that the entire issue is more complex than most people know. For all of the debate in Wisconsin — bankrupting government vs. workers' rights — few people dug deeper than the symptoms to identify the problem.

If they did, some people might have raised an eyebrow to learn that the largest teachers' union in that state also owns the health insurance company that public schools contract. They will learn about it soon enough. I see a bigger problem.

The education system is overwhelmingly complex and inefficient.

The debate ought to have never been about teachers and their salaries. The formula is too complex. It's not like other salaries.

Roughly speaking, average teacher salaries are $45-55k for 180 days of work* (as opposed to 240 days in the private sector) with disproportionate benefits of about $30k and tremendous job security (very difficult to let poor performers go) but this is also offset by paltry starting salaries (some as low as $25k), greater education requirements, shrinking autonomy, and personal investments that many teachers make for their classrooms.

What strikes me as more interesting is that teacher salaries and benefits only account for 30-35 percent of the entire education budget whereas the professional-private sector invests closer to 40-45 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. Health care is even higher, with 50 to 55 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. (Some sectors are lower too; quick service can be as low as 20 percent.)

nevadaIn Nevada, I know that the Clark County School District reports that 65 percent of its funding goes to salaries and 21 percent to benefits (which seems to indicate that less than half of the salary allotments go to teachers), which leaves 12 percent for services and supplies. Yet, if only about 30-35 percent of the entire budget goes to teachers, then they only account for about 35 percent (or less) of the entire salary budget. The question to ask is who else receives salaries.

In many cases, administrators make two to three times the amount that teachers do. In other words, the bulk of the salary spending doesn't go to teachers, but rather the people who administer the teachers. The irony is that any time there are cuts to the budget, the people most likely to face cuts are the teachers themselves.

*As someone who teaches, I can attest to the fact that good teachers work unpaid on most weekends. And it is not uncommon to continue researching education materials during the summer for the following year.

The agenda needs to be less on adults and more on kids.

When I helped open a private school in Las Vegas, the philosophy was to place an emphasis on the child's education. While I do not know if it has held up since then, I do know that it was the answer to every question related to the school. From which textbooks to purchase (with teacher-driven input) to how many microscopes they needed in the science lab, it always came back to "everything thing we do is dictated by the educational needs of the children. Period."

Most decisions made by the public school system are not based on this. They are based on school board directives, including which books are useful. They are based on how much union dues can be collected. They are based on a disconnect between teachers and the public over what constitutes fair salaries (and fair benefits). They are based on seniority over performance in all but six states.

At the same time, test scores are ridiculously poor. The dropout rates are unacceptable. And the students, from most surveys, are bored and disengaged with their overall studies (only one country ranks higher in terms of bored students than the U.S.). I even raise an eyebrow when my son shares how his education is invested — rallies featuring McDonald's, rule refreshers as to why students aren't allowed to shake hands, career quizzes pointing to jobs that may be gone in ten years, etc.

A student-first ideology makes sense because it removes all the burdens from the education system. It also increases teacher support because teachers are the biggest student assets. Great teachers will have an impact regardless of any other tools (whether tech or textbooks).

However, in order to move forward, school districts will need to consider modular tools, including smart boards and tablets for students — even if that means a certain percentage of parents have to purchase them much like parents are asked to purchase school supplies or uniforms or any number of other items kids need for school (with sponsor opportunities for certain income brackets). Tablets would reduce some of the costs associated with other materials and make books more accessible to the students.

But I would hold off on too many tech investments. School districts have a tendency to put tech ahead of the students. If the overall education system isn't working, then it doesn't matter what tools you have at your disposal. And, the overall plan isn't working.

Three considerations for an overall plan.

From what I've been told, school districts tend to remove autonomy from teachers in the classroom. (In my personal experience, the best teachers complained about administrative directives whereas the worst teachers supported it. Weird, I know.) To be effective, school districts could be changed with mapping out expectations (what the kids need to learn by the end of the year) but the teachers need to develop plans that are designed to get the students there and then beyond the mark.

Teacher Autonomy. Teachers need autonomy — even from some textbooks — because many of the books are wrong. (Last summer, we invested in a tutor who promptly untaught our son inferior methods in math.) This places a greater burden on the teacher, but if more funding could be allocated for performance-based raises, they might be more willing to invest.

Transitional Teaching. Another shortfall in education is the lack of transitional planning. The administrative function of assigning kids to their teachers in the following year needs to take place before the conclusion of the school year. This would provide the new teacher or teachers the opportunity to assign material for students to prepare with over the summer.

Student Expectations. The expectation for every student ought to be college, with the higher marks set for college entrance as opposed to a high school criteria. Learning vocations instead of pursuing college entrance ought not be a consideration until the eleventh grade. The reason is simple enough. Many trades are not looking for secondary education; even the greatest percentage of manufacturing jobs in America are classified as highly skilled.

I've mentioned the need for immersive education in the first part of this series. I use the technique too. While I consider every class custom, some structural elements are the same — an introduction that ties in a current event, coverage of common errors from the last assignment, theory related to the subject, case studies related to the subject, execution tips related to the subject, and then an assignment and optional reading based on the subject. Students also rewrite whatever assignment is returned to them.

students firstApplied to math, after covering common errors from the last assignment, I might include the history of an equation, examples of why an equation is used, basic instruction on how to use it, in-class practice and corrections, and then some inventive homework to ensure they can master it. They might also receive an additional assignment based on what they missed with the first. Having not taught math, math teachers are probably best equipped to decide if it would work for them.

I suspect they would need more time than the allotted 50 minutes. But then again, in Nevada, some students have seven 40-minute classes, effectively reducing the teaching time to 30 minutes or less, not counting roll. That needs to change. Education requires more than snack-sized offerings. Expecting students to benefit from seven classes in one day is just a symptom of a struggling system.
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