Back to School: Obama Needs to Push Teacher Accountability

Image: Pete Souza/WhiteHouse.gov

The reading and writing skills of our high school graduates are not sufficient to the needs of the workplace – and that needs to change

I was mildly surprised the other day to note that the U.S. is not the richest country in the world. At least, on the basis of per capita GDP, the IMF ranks our country eleventh. Luxembourg, a country with about the same number of inhabitants as my apartment building, ranks first, with Denmark, Switzerland and Qatar also outstripping us. How will these comparisons look twenty years from now?

Much will depend on how aggressively President Obama pursues education reform. Lasting wealth ultimately derives from how the resources of a nation are managed and cultivated. Most important is how people are managed and cultivated. We are not doing a bang-up job on this front. Only 40% of our citizens are progressing beyond a high school degree (compared to 56% in Canada, for instance). We actually rank twelfth in the percent of adults aged 25-34 that earn an associate degree or higher – behind Japan, Ireland and even Russia, for heaven’s sake.

This wouldn’t be so alarming if our high school grads were especially well educated. Sadly, that is not the case. The Wall Street Journal reports this week that “fewer than 25% of 2010 graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam possessed the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level courses.” Imagine that. This does not suggest that less than one quarter of all our students could manage their way through freshman year; not everyone takes college entrance exams, so presumably the actual number of college-ready kids streaming out of our high schools is considerably below that figure.

This is horrifying, and dovetails with the concerns of businesses across the country; the reading and writing skills of our high school graduates are not sufficient to the needs of the workplace. A recent CBS report notes that there are some “227,000 open manufacturing jobs, more than double a year ago.” That sounds like great news, until you read that they are likely to stay open. A local business owner echoes the concerns of others – she can’t find young people who have decent math skills and who are willing to work in a factory. Can this possibly be?

It is no new revelation that the U.S. is falling behind in education. Our fourth-graders trail those in many other countries both in reading (we rank eleventh) and in math (ninth). There are doubtless many factors that account for our slippage in the schoolroom. For starters, President Obama has cited our short school day as a problem. He has said that “our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea.” In fact, U.S. kids spend less time in the classroom than any other developed country – 180 days compared to 243 in Japan, 216 in Luxembourg and 192 in England, for instance. It’s hard to imagine that we can provide the same curriculum in so few days. In fact, we don’t. As Obama said in a speech, our eighth grade curriculum is two years behind that of competing nations.

Lengthening the school day and the school year is an appealing proposal. Another idea gaining currency is revamping how teachers are paid, tying their compensation to some measure of student achievement. This seems an obvious approach; most of us are paid on the basis of performance, teachers are not. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan reported in a recent speech, 99% of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” In most schools, teacher reviews ignore student performance. Duncan added that “too many teachers are unprepared” and “the system fails to identify and reward good teachers.”

Duncan has been in the forefront of pushing some common sense changes in the way our schools are managed. The $5 billion Race to the Top initiative, which was probably the most meaningful sliver of the stimulus program, caused 17 states to reform their teacher evaluation programs to include some assessment of student progress, and 13 states to change their laws governing the growth of charter schools. These are positive developments, but more needs to be done. The majority of school districts in the country continue to wrestle with unions that are firmly planted in the status quo, and which reject performance-related pay.

Last May, Colorado braved the teachers’ unions to pass a bill changing the way pay and tenure were awarded in the state’s public schools. The fight was bloody, especially since unions had spent some $8.7 million on state elections since 2000. Legislators wept during debate, unions dubbed it the “teacher scapegoat bill,” but ultimately the state became one of many deciding that change was necessary. The uproar was over provisions requiring that half of principals’ evaluation of teachers be based on student performance. The bill also requires three years of instruction before a new teacher can receive tenure and that two consecutive below-par ratings can cause a teacher to be dismissed. This does not seem overly onerous; imagine a job where after three years of adequate ratings you are guaranteed a job for life. Sadly, not every state is going along with such heretical procedures. In Florida, Governor Crist vetoed a similar bill because of teacher protests.

Unions would prefer to blame inadequate funding for our dismal record. That one is hard to argue. Spending per pupil has more than doubled (in constant dollars) since 1970. Forty years ago the U.S. spent $4,060 per student; today the total is over $10,000. The Washington Post ran a story in 2008 that concluded that spending per student in DC was nearly $25,000 per child, instead of the oft-quoted figure of $8,322. The difference included payments into the teachers’ retirement fund and capital outlays, among other things. The full accounting brought spending within striking range of the prestigious private Sidwell School.

Our education system needs a jolt. Despite its powerful union affiliations, the Obama administration is moving in the right direction, with an occasional wobble. As our students head back to school this fall, they should not be the only ones at risk of passing or failing. Teachers should also be accountable. Our kids deserve better, and so does the country.

Editor’s Note: Liz Peek is a financial columnist.

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