It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of public schools. That’s why we need to de-monopolize, de-bureaucratize, and decentralize them.

Last week, we advertised a forum, “restoring excellence to education,” that an ad hoc group was going to hold in St. Cloud. I went to it, on Saturday. What follows are selected thoughts and gleanings from the morning session on K-12 education. In a later posting, I’ll address higher education, the subject of the afternoon.

How do we get high-quality teachers? Pay them well, and change the way we select and pay them

First up on the docket was AJ Kern, who spoke about teacher quality.  It’s a timely topic. Just two days before the conference, for example, Nicholas D. Kristof noted in the New York Times that “A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.” The more we learn about teachers, the more we recognize the obvious truth: A good teacher makes a big difference.

So how can we get good teachers? The obvious response from teacher unions is “pay them more.” Maybe. But should we pay average teachers the same as outstanding ones? (The union peddles the fantasy that all teachers are excellent and that none are bad.) Perhaps we should look overseas for some ideas. Finland pays teachers more than the U.S., and it cleans our clocks on PISA, a test regularly used to compare nations on academic achievement. So will giving teachers a pay raise here do the trick? Not in itself.

For one thing, Finland is much more demanding than the U.S. about who becomes a teacher. College students there who wish to become teachers spend a significant portion of their work in subject-matter departments (math, language, etc.), not the education department. The country also actively pursues the top 10 percent of college students; in the U.S., ed-school students generally have lower GPAs than their university compatriots. Once American ed-school students become teachers, public schools pay them more for accumulating graduate credits, which are usually earned in ed schools, not academic departents. Unfortunately there’s little or no evidence that having a master’s degree improves a teacher’s skills.

When it comes to what to do, Kern suggested that we pay teachers more, use alternative licensing routes to get more people into the teaching pool, require that teachers get subject-matter degrees, and make Minnesota a right-to-work state for teaching.

I agree with all of that, with the proviso that increased pay is not across-the-board. (That would be a waste of money.)  I would also suggest we include some form of merit-based pay as a component of teacher compensation. But also I wish we would open up the teaching profession even more than we have. Let’s decentralize it. Minnesota’s new law for alternative licensing is a first step, but it’s very limited when compared to other state’s laws. My ideal might be to see three or four different organizations that voluntarily develop standards for teacher certification. Even better, those organizations would have different ideas of what they want from a teacher.

Apply a critical eye towards universal pre-K

If we get unsatisfactory results from our K-12 system, what should we do? Expand it to include children at an even younger age! That’s a common response from inside and outside the public school sector, and in keeping with the view that what this country needs is not better-run schools, but better-run families. (Truth be told, there is something to be said for better families, though I’m not sure government can do much about getting us to that goal.)

John Kern, in his presentation, looked at pre-K programs through the lens of someone who does a lot of statistical analysis. The bottom line: Some studies have found that there may be a payoff to some specific examples of preschool programs. That is, the children who participated were less likely to drop out or end in prison, and more likely to become productive, taxpaying members of society, resulting in a net financial gain for society.

But. There’s a disconnect between the data and the policy conclusions.

In much of the literature, the data is interesting and informative, but the researchers came to their conclusions in a sloppy way. (For example, in some cases, the report’s findings were not “statistically significant.”) The result: science becomes a cudgel. Kern cited one document that concluded, “A growing body of research offers little doubt.” Growing body of research? Many publications advocating universal pre-K, said Kern, end up citing the same two or three studies. “Little doubt?” That’s advocacy racing beyond the science. With some understatement, Kern said, “It has to do with moving from science to politics, I’m sure.” Indeed. It’s much easier to sell a new program on the idea that it will serve the whole population, rather than create a program targeted to two or three percent. That’s especially true when the two or three percent don’t have what might be termed “middle-class values.”

My concluding thoughts from Kern’s presentation: Don’t waste money on universal pre-K. If legislators think they need to spend extra public money on the most “at risk” children, spend the money on at-risk children. Do so by giving scholarship money to their parents, which they can use to send their kids to pre-school programs of their own choosing, but don’t over-regulate those programs.

Does indoctrination (we don’t like) demand political action or market action?

Erin Haust spoke about the “indoctrination” of students that goes on in public schools, particularly from a “green” perspective that says Americans are greedy people who pollute the planet, are fixed on a culture of disposable products, and deplete natural resources. I’m all in agreement with Haust on her critique of environmentalism, and in fact may be even more critical of the green agenda than she is. But I was puzzled by her use of the term “indoctrination.” (I don’t recall if she was referring to environmentalists or schools more generally.) Schools and teachers should teach high school and even middle school students how to think. But very young children? They need indoctrination. At least that’s my understanding of classical education, which I’ve been reading about lately.

So the question is, who does the indoctrinating?  And what do you do if you don’t like the indoctrination that is happening? Here, we have at least two possible responses. The first is this: “A group of people have taken over the schools and they teach something we oppose. We need to get our group of people in charge of the schools so that we can impose what we approve.” A second one is this: “Let parents redirect the money that schools would otherwise use to teach their children. Let parents, not the political boundaries of a school district, select a school that supports or at least does not insult, their values. Instead of a top-down approach to educational questions, let people find their own way.”

The first approach favors control over other people. The second approach favors self-control. Most people are willing to take the first approach, and not enough are willing to take the second. The result is an ongoing political and social conflict over what schools teach (and how they teach).

Let’s imitate Florida. Yes, I said Florida.

Janet Beihoffer Rep. Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) spoke extensively about some of the reforms that Florida has enacted. If you haven’t been paying attention to education policy, you may laugh. Florida? A friend of the family once was a hiring manager of a Fortune 500 company in that state. He could make you laugh (or perhaps cry) with stories of hundreds of job applicants he encountered, all ill-prepared for white-collar work.

But that was some 25 years ago, and Florida has undergone a decade’s worth of work in changing its approach to education. It enacted a bevy of reforms: school choice; high academic standards; giving letter grades to schools, an aggressive effort to teach reading, and so forth. The result? Soaring statewide achievement that has been documented on the NAEP (Nation’s Report Card). The state’s chief minority cohort (Hispanics) outperform the statewide average of over 30 states. You can see more about the Florida reforms on the site of the Foundation for Education Excellence, especially the PDF document, Florida’s Education Revolution.

Note: When I first published this post, I attributed the comments on Florida to Rep. Myrha. As part of a panel discussion, Myrha touted her work in pushing a system for grading schools. I will have more to say more about Beihoffer’s presentation when I review the afternoon session.

Functionally illiterate in Minnesota? Indeed

The final speaker of the morning was RiShawn Biddle, of DropoutNation. Among the things I learned from him: The country spends $15 billion a year on schools of education. All I could say is, “wow.” Biddle also challenged the “Lake Woebegone” image of Minnesota, noting that according to the NAEP, 30 percent of fourth-grade students here are functionally illiterate.

While Biddle did not offer a full-throated support of school choice, his comments pointed to the need for it. For example, he said that parental involvement is key to a child’s academic success. Great. But too often, parents are rebuffed when they ask too many questions of teachers or administrators, or even try to observe a classroom. Biddle provided a few examples here, and noted that too many teachers and administrators expect failure from certain types of students. (He didn’t cite the term “soft bigotry of low expectations,” popularized by George W. Bush, but that’s what he was talking about.)

What should parents do? Biddle advocated “parents’ unions” and parent trigger laws. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain how either of them might or have worked. (See this page from Education Next on trigger laws.) I have my doubts that parent unions will do the job, but I do know that when a business is losing customers, it will (if it deserves to stay in business) start paying attention, ask what is happening, and take corrective action. School choice programs exert pressure on schools to pay attention. But in my view, Riddle soft-peddled the importance of school choice.

A postscript

No matter your views on politics, pedagogy, religion, economics, or whatnot, you’ll probably find something about schools in America and in Minnesota that you’ll find unsatisfactory: You may not like the performance, or cost, or pedagogy, or curriculum of public schools.

Why is this the case? Thanks to the many constraints that restrict the development of new schools and direct most students to one school (or perhaps one school district), innovation and differentiation among schools is hindered. Under a highly centralized and bureaucratized approach, differences of opinion and values become “winner-take-all” struggles.

Our schools are perfectly designed for the early 20th century. We pay teachers just like an old-line manufacturer that pays the worker who spends 8 hours a day putting one bolt on an endless supply of identical parts: On a union scale that is dominated by seniority. Also, we process children in batches, depending on their age, and advance them based on age rather than competency.

We should take a lesson from higher education, where we don’t expect every institution to have the same curriculum, hiring standards, or missions. (Witness: Harvard, a community college, and “Cosmetology U.”) We should allow a similar a diversity of institutions in K-12 education.