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Mr. President, don't just hire, fix the leaky bucket

Tim Farmer is a Teach for America alumnus and current Membership Director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators

I recently wrote a blog post for Education Next in which I discussed the need for more innovative thinking when it comes to the way we spend money in education; particularly on the teaching profession.

What initiated my thoughts was the news that the President’s jobs plan would direct $30 billion toward teaching, but only to hire more teachers. While I understand this would help the unions by increasing the number of dues-paying members, I do not see how this would result in any long term benefits for the profession.

Spending money this way is just like, as the the old analogy goes, pouring water into a leaky bucket. We have first to fix the bucket. If we distribute this money and districts spend it to hire more teachers, what is going to happen next year? I doubt that this will become recurring federal spending. Will we hope that magically the state coffers will recover enough to keep these teachers?

The truth is that this shortsighted measure, which is the old union-supported scheme of more hiring and more dues revenue, only provides more teachers for one year, making no long-term impact on student learning and the teaching profession.

As I wrote in Education Next:

Federal Department of Education statistics show that the student to teacher ratio has dropped from 18:1 in 1960 to 8:1 today, causing union membership to increase six-fold. The unions clamor for more money to hire more teachers, while nary a word is said about using this money to promote teacher quality. Doesn’t it make more sense to use money to create innovative reforms that will improve the teaching profession, even if it doesn’t result in more dues paying members?

Using Human Capital Effectively

Since I wrote that blog post, many have commented that the 8:1 ratio I cite is misleading. I get it; I know when I was a teacher that my classes weren’t close to that size. But remember that first, those are official numbers, I didn’t make them up. And second, it cuts to the heart of a part of my point.

People that advocate for more hiring would do well to take a look at how many certificated teachers are in school buildings but not teaching. In the small school of 300 students where I taught there were three instructional coaches, one special education director and four administrators, none of whom ever taught a class. They equaled one-fourth of the certificated teachers in the building and none of them were teaching. We need to use the resources we already have more effectively.

I will be the first to admit that I would’ve loved smaller classes as a teacher. But I also recognize that this philosophy of “more teachers will equal better results for students” relies on there being a deep pool of qualified teachers waiting to enter classrooms across the country, which I don’t think is the case. This is why, if we are going to make billions of dollars of investments, we need to look at more than just quantity. We need to deepen the pool.

Use funds to focus on quality and better pay, not just quantity

The teaching profession is in need of a dramatic overhaul. A McKinsey report found that currently only 22 percent of teachers, and 14 percent in high-poverty schools, come from the top third of their graduating class. Union and district policies have created a profession that struggles recruit our nation’s best and brightest.

Is the solution really just more hiring? Having spoken with plenty of college students about this issue, the answer is a better paid profession with greater opportunities for advancement beyond one more year, one more step increase. If we are going to make a one time, multi-billion dollar investment, why not use it to start modernizing the profession?

There are innovative examples of what is possible, particularly if we are already looking to make some investments. When I was teaching in Florida, I was envious of an incredible new compensation structure being implemented in Hillsborough County. It evaluated teachers on a variety of measures, from value-added test scores to independent (not someone from your building) observations by master teachers trained and normed on using a uniform rubric.

It then created a career ladder allowing teachers to progress in the profession based on merit and experience, not simply years in the system. Here in Colorado, Harrison D-2 has operated outside of collective bargaining to provide great teachers with a pathway to earn $90,000 in nine years of teaching. In Washington D.C. former Chancellor Michelle Rhee created a system for teachers to earn six-figure salaries in exchange for their agreeing to higher accountability standards. After the vote was initially blocked by the union, eventually three out of four teachers agreed to the new program.

When I cite these examples people are always quick to throw in that, while these programs are great, they were only made possible because of outside funding. Well, $30 billion is a lot of outside funding. Hillsborough County, a very large district, needed $100 million from the Gates Foundation. $30 billion is three hundred $100 million grants, and most districts would only need a fraction of that. Creating these types of programs are long-term investments that might not increase the union’s bottom line, but will help fix the bucket, and not just fill it with more water for a year.

The union would have you believe that teachers are all in lock-step with their beliefs that lead to lobbying for more hiring without regard to increasing quality or salaries. However, organizations like the non-union Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) are proving that more and more teachers are realizing that if we don’t change the policies of the past, then teaching will never change and become the competitive profession it should be.

Organizations like PACE are supporting teachers wo are tired of the politics and policies of the union, and want to find innovative ways to get the better salaries and professional respect they deserve.

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