Sunday, May 8, 2011

Education reform: Shorter week, more learning

Education reform: Shorter week, more learning
More than 120 school districts across the U.S. are finding that less can be more — less being fewer days spent in school.»

May 8, 2011
The general assumption is that when it comes to educating American kids, more is more. Longer school hours. Saturday school. Summer school. Yet more than 120 school districts across the nation are finding that less can also be more — less being fewer days spent in school.

The four-day school week has been around for decades, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, but it's quietly spreading as a money-saving tactic, especially after several states — including Montana, Georgia, Missouri and Washington — passed legislation allowing school districts to make the switch as long as they lengthened each school day so that there was no reduction in instructional hours. Teachers work just as much under the four-day plan, so there are no cost reductions there, but schools have saved from 2% to 9%, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Education Policy at the University of Southern Maine. Utility and transportation costs are lower; there's no need to serve a fifth lunch each week; even the reduced wear and tear on buildings has helped.

Here's the surprise: There appear to be educational benefits as well. Absenteeism among students and teachers in these schools has fallen appreciably, the report said. (As a result, schools also paid less money for substitute teachers.) Students reported feeling more positive about school. Dropout rates fell, students behaved better and participation in extracurricular activities rose. Parents of young children often objected to the change because of the need to find childcare, but once the programs were in place, the report said, they often found that it was easier to find care for one full day a week than for several partial days. Test scores didn't fall, and in many cases, they rose.

As promising as all this sounds, the findings are far from definitive. The four-day week has been tried mostly in tiny, rural school districts. Providing the necessary childcare could be more of a challenge in urban areas. And despite the findings above, four-day schedules might turn out to be more helpful to high school students than children in primary grades, who have shorter attention spans. For those children, teachers said, it would help to schedule meatier academic subjects early in the day, but it still means the later hours are likely to be less academically productive.

Four-day school weeks aren't an educational panacea, but they are intriguing. Even in Los Angeles, there might be individual schools where such an arrangement would lower dropout rates and perhaps give teenage students an opportunity to find part-time jobs. Some teachers might prefer it too, which would be a way to provide a benefit without additional cost.

California has 10 or so school districts, all with fewer than 500 students, that use the four-day week. It takes a new law each time a school district wants to try it. The state could make that simpler, ideally by allowing a couple of hundred schools to try the new schedule in a pilot program, and checking on the results in a few years. Real reform requires schools to break the mold, to test new ideas; here's one that's worth a try.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

I like how the article explains the lack of respect, support, and money for teachers also has an impact in our educational system.

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a minimum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari are founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher.”