Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More on Education Reform

The following is an elaboration of an entry from Tuesday, May 27th on this same topic.

My ideas for education reform are based strongly on personal experience, both as a former student and as the owner of a private language school. Here are some thoughts:

Teacher & School Quality

* As a nation, a state; a county, why would we ever even consider scrimping on education because of expense, as we do now? We don't do that with national defense! And isn't education national defense? It is our competitive edge. After our physical safety, what is more important to the life and prosperity of our republic?

* The quality of the teacher is the only thing that matters at all in education - assuming he/she isn't hobbled by arduous and bad curricula or working in an over-crowded classroom.

* Florida is ranked 35th in the nation -actually a big improvement over 48th just a few years ago. But here's my question: why aren't we copying the #1 (VA) and #2 (CT) states in every manner possible? Those states pay teachers much more than Florida, and it is very hard for even the most qualified candidates to land a position in either state.

* The PACE Center for Girls in Immokalee operates at about $10k/student, with tiny little classes, a very small student population, and kids who are admittedly the dregs of the Immokalee school system: these girls go to PACE because they have been kicked out of public school, have dropped out, or are in danger of one or both. Yet nearly all of them graduate, and most go on to college. Meanwhile, our county spends about $7,500/student, and look at the results. The drop-out rate in Immokalee is 50%. For an additional $2,500 per kid, we could have them all in PACE-like schools, county-wide.

Teacher Pay

* If you want the best teachers, you have to pay for them - same as any other career. Would you go to a surgeon who made $35,000 a year? Yes, there are some truly gifted teachers who perform their jobs despite the pay. But my ambition for our schools is to have the very-most talented graduates go first into teaching, if they can get the work; those left over will have to settle for law, medicine, business, etc. Then, two years later, 90% of these stars will go into the general work force, so those other fields will not have to suffer their absence for long.

* The going rate for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in Greater Boston is $15/hour (at Berlitz it's $8/hour). Coiné Language School pays $50/hour. Yes, Jane and I are do-gooders - I think that's pretty well-established. But Enlightened Self-Interest dictated this decision. It allows us to poach the very best teachers at will from the very best schools in the area (and thus in the world, as Boston is a global center for private ESL). Part of the reason we can recruit those teaching super-stars is the money, sure, but the other part is the respect that differential in pay shows these teachers. Good teachers get the results our corporate clients demand, and those clients then refer us to their peers. It's just savvy business.

Class Size

* There are courses in which knowledge can be passed down en masse, lecture-style. I honestly believe that a student will benefit more from a book and some spare time to read it. Indeed, at William & Mary a number of my professors were eminent scholars with acclaimed books and ground-breaking studies under their belts - and many of them were grossly incompetent at the art of teaching. I chose philosophy as my major because the professors taught better, plain and simple. The discipline fascinated me, sure, but so did a number of other subjects - English, history, sociology; psychology (my minor). (Side-note: W&M's philosophy department, with its talented teachers, is always ranked at or near the top nationally. Coincidence?)

* We guarantee our results at our language school - but only if the class has 8 students or fewer. This is based on my 12 years of experience with real, live classes: each time you add a student after 8, learning slows down perceptibly. So you can quote all the studies you like about class size and results, but... good luck convincing me. My opinion is based on experience and results.

Trimming Fat

* I think we have many-too-many administrators in our schools and our school systems. The money we could save by eliminating their jobs - most of which pay more than teaching posts, sadly - would make up part of the extra expenses you mention.

* One of my 11 points is on kids doing maintenance. That would save more money now paid to janitors (who, by the way, deserve thoughtful, dedicated out-placement: this is a current concern right here in our county, and I'm sympathetic to their situation).