ISSUES related to public education have a certain circularity about them. What seems to get fixed becomes unfixed. This happens time and time again.
Currently, we have the state Supreme Court directing our legislators to increase spending on education. We have the teachers union filing Initiative 1351 to mandate class-size reductions in all schools. Though well-intentioned, these players contribute to the fallacy that putting more money into our schools would reduce the dropout rates and eliminate the achievement gap. Though dropout rates have declined somewhat, they are still high, with only 72 percent of our state’s students graduating. Thus, 28 of every 100 students will not even graduate from high school, let alone be ready for work or higher education.
These issues have been with us for years. Education advocates constantly talk about providing more money for schools. Teachers unions always press for small class sizes, which means more union members and more union dues. Yet the dropout rate remains at a level that creates a large “underclass” in society. Test results fail to increase in a meaningful way.
Is the problem really money? In the last 40 years, we have spent millions of dollars on our schools. Since the 1973-1974 school year, the number of students attending our state’s public schools has increased by 35 percent. The number of adults employed by our schools has increased by 73 percent. The amount of money we now spend, per student (in inflation-adjusted dollars), has increased 103 percent. In other words, staffing has increased at twice the rate of enrollment and spending has increased at three times the rate of enrollment. All the while, test scores have only modestly improved.
The problem is not money, it is the system. Putting more money into a failed system simply gives us a more expensive failed system. Smaller classes would be nice, but show me a small class with a second-rate teacher and I’ll show you a small second-rate class. Show me a school with a deficient principal and I’ll show you a deficient school. Show me a school district that is poorly led and I’ll show you a poorly performing district.
We have a classic example of what I am talking about right here in Seattle. In the last four years, we have had four superintendents, and we are now looking for a fifth. Since 2006, the district has witnessed an unhealthy level of turnover. Just look at the numbers: 19 School Board members; seven chief financial officers; seven vice presidents of human resources; six directors of special education; 10 executive directors of schools; four chief academic officers; five chief information officers; three general counsels; three communication directors; two deputy superintendents.
In 2012 alone, 36 principals and assistant principals left the district (20 percent of the total).
No organization can achieve any meaningful results with that type of turnover in leadership, regardless of the money we spend. Seattle’s public schools have been poorly led and poorly governed for years. However, the problems are not unique to Seattle. Many districts, particularly in urban centers, have similar profiles.
Our children need not only a good education, they need a better education than any of us received. The world has changed and our schools have not. Those wonderfully talented teachers and principals we do have are working in a system that prevents them from excelling in their work.
So, rather than increasing the money we spend on education, why don’t we focus on creating an education system that would prepare our students for the world in which they will live? We need to focus on improving teaching and improving the quality of leadership at all levels of the system. And we need to change the governance model to one that works.
This would require that our governor and state legislators show some real leadership by changing state laws and regulations that impact all three of these areas. If they do that, the present funding of our schools would be sufficient. The money would be spent more effectively and the learning of our students would be enhanced.
So here are some suggestions on how to get started:
• Improve teaching by making the profession a real profession. Raise the standards of admission to these careers and change the compensation system.
• Improve leadership by only allowing qualified people to become principals and superintendents. Admit leaders and change agents, not teachers who want to get out of the classroom.
• Change the governance model. The present method of elected school boards is not working, particularly in urban systems. You cannot find an urban district, with an elected board, that has been able to put in place sustainable changes to its system.
With highly qualified people in the classroom and in management, our schools would improve regardless of what else we do. Those kinds of folks would not tolerate the system we have now.
It’s not about money.
Donald P. Nielsen is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a former Seattle School Board president. His new book, “Every School,” was released this month.