Merit, not money, will fix our schools

Remedy: Reward good teachers and restore local control.

June 18, 2000|By George Liebmann

IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS, good teachers said they could teach any child: All they needed was a book, a mountaintop and a stick. Today, things have changed for the worse. Many educators say they can't teach any child without computers, expensive teaching gimmicks and a mountain of federal cash.

Our nation's schools suffer from that liberal notion that any problem can be fixed by throwing money at it. For example, in early March, during a visit to an elementary school in suburban Washington, Al Gore called for increasing the federal share of school budgets to 50 percent. If taken seriously, this would require $300 billion, 28 percent of the proceeds of the federal income tax.

Meanwhile, here in Baltimore, educators continually call for more tax dollars to fix the ailing school system. They never get as much as they ask for, and this shortage of cash has become a convenient excuse for the system's failure. Schools in our nation need an infusion of something, but it is not cash. We need to return to the days when teachers and principals could run their schools without the threat of lawsuits. We need better educated teachers in our classrooms. We need local school boards that are empowered to increase teacher salaries by replicating the pay incentives of the private labor force. And we need to create education merit systems that reward outstanding workers just as the best public bureaucracies do.

Despite the cries of the naysayers, school vouchers will not bring down the public school system - vouchers would strengthen it. Vouchers were proposed by Adam Smith and other classical economists as the best way to finance education long before public schools existed. Their virtue is that they empower parents and stimulate competition. The competition need not be limited to the best students; vouchers could also be made available for educating learning disabled and disadvantaged students. Vouchers produce not privilege but accountability.

Public school teachers and some of their unions agree that student discipline is a problem. The roots of that problem are found in two federal laws. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act makes it impossible to suspend large classifications of students, including "emotionally disabled" and violent students, for more than 10 days without elaborate hearings and exhaustion of appeal rights.

The Civil Rights Attorneys' Fees Act allows fees to lawyers for students who are even partly successful in any challenge to school actions, while providing no equivalent sanctions against those bringing unsuccessful suits. Principals know that the safe course is to back off when challenged and that they lack real authority within their schools.

Schools are as good as the teachers in them.

To be certified in Maryland, a would-be teacher needs nearly a year of education courses. To become a principal, another year of graduate education courses is required, while superintendents require a total of nearly three years in the education schools.

These requirements fence out housewives, retired police and military officers, and the best liberal arts graduates. They say to teachers that the way to promotion is to take more education courses, rather than courses in the subject they teach. They make leadership of county systems the exclusive province of a few thousand holders of doctorates in education who tour the nation, failing upward.

While Gov. Glendening seeks to meet teacher shortages by providing scholarships for 18-year-olds to be indoctrinated in the education schools, New Jersey provides alternate certification procedures which admit 750 liberal arts graduates a year to the teaching force; Maryland gets only 50 teachers a year through this method.

Maryland's teacher pay structure fails to offer incentives allowing teaching to compete with other occupations. Only three Maryland county teachers' union contracts allow extra seniority credit for teachers in scarce disciplines such as math and science.

Seniority systems in many counties provide automatic increases for teachers who have been in the system for 25 or 30 years, while promising young teachers who are beginning to accumulate children and mortgages are driven into other occupations by inadequate pay.

While the public schools behave as though they exist in isolation from the private labor market, they also have failed to adopt the selection and promotion systems of the best public bureaucracies.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has boldly addressed similar problems in England: "Equal pay for unequal performance is in no one's interests. It does not enable us either to reward excellence properly or to encourage improvements. Too many teachers feel they have little choice but to take on more and more administration in order to improve their salaries and advance in their profession. That's bad news for the children at their school."

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