We are often reminded that there is a time for everything. As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, "a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak." I believe the time has also come for educators to listen, to speak, to mend and to change some aspects of the public education system. We need not wait for Superman or the Department of Education to shape this change. The changes I speak of must come from within—from educators who work to teach the skills and improve the lives of students in American public schools every day.
We have arrived at an unprecedented point in public education where a national movement seeks to undermine its very foundation. A selective reporting of statistics has been engineered to diminish the public's confidence in its schools and to pave the way for a new-age public school where either lottery or wealth determines who is enrolled.
Before this philosophy of selective public schools takes greater hold, we must take on several difficult issues that have been left unchanged for too long.
For starters, we must acknowledge that the method we have used to pay educators for decades no longer meets the need of today's professionals. The negotiated salary scale locks all educators into a system that rewards seniority and advanced degrees, not performance. There is no credible evidence that a higher degree makes a teacher more effective, yet we spend $8.6 billion annually under the current system for advanced degrees. Consequently, it doesn't matter if you are the most effective educator in the world. Until you work from ten to fifteen years and earn advanced degrees, you will not be getting the top pay. This precludes rewarding those who have demonstrated the ability to produce results. Our goals should be to attract, develop and retain the best teachers and administrators.
We must discuss the fact that seniority is the only factor used when it is necessary to eliminate jobs or make transfers of teachers within school systems. Oftentimes the system requires that the youngest, not the least efficient, staff members be let go. The entrenched concept of "last hired, first fired" is not serving our children well.
We must discuss an assessment system that allows for fairer comparisons from state to state. The current system of evaluation is flawed. The concept of a state test that assesses a very narrow dimension of intelligence is not the way a great nation grows its educational system, nor is a "race to the top," in which several states are left behind, the way to improve public education.
We must discuss longer school days and longer school years. Over the years through legislative action at the state and federal level, we have had dozens of responsibilities added to our mission, yet as a nation we have not added one single minute to the amount of time that children spend in school.
It is now widely understood that the state public pension systems are not sustainable. We must discuss the reform of the pension systems and move to defined contribution systems rather than defined benefit systems. It is possible to rationally explore ways to accomplish this. After all, we all have an enormous stake in the viability of our pension system.
The time has come for the brightest minds in America to struggle with these questions and to revamp our system of education. The problem is not the people who work in our schools, but the system that needs repair. An editorial in the Indianapolis Star on Nov. 21, 2010, said, "A great school system ... must be built by comprehensive education reform that values teachers as the most crucial variable." Adam Urbanski, the outspoken director of the Teachers Union Reform Network, says all sides of the debate need to be more flexible if schools are to get better. "I think it'll be tough enough if we all pull together," he says, referring to all stakeholders. "We're dead in the water if we don't."
Educators have been attacked so long that we have developed a siege mentality. It is time to leave the bunker and to have a thoughtful conversation about the interesting, provocative and valuable work that we do.
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