Sunday, January 02, 2005

The 2% solution-part 3

The next two chapters in Miller's book deal with education. The first proposal is to create "millionaire teachers". His second is for vouchers that liberals can support.

Millionaire teachers. This is fairly straightforward, but it has ramifications that Miller goes into detail about. The idea is to pay teachers enough that providing they show a decent grasp of financial responsibility, they will grow to become millionaires. He would peg starting pay at something like $60,000 and top pay at around $125,000. Conservatives might object, "What?! How does giving more money to teachers who already aren't doing a good job help matters!" That's where merit pay comes in and where liberals and the teachers unions will have a conniption. Miller proposes very substantial pay differentials for good teachers vs. average teachers. He also would make it easier to fire teachers who are not up to par. Another effect of his Millionaire Teachers program would be to attract top graduates to the profession. Because of hard work for low pay, the lowest a person with a college degree can expect, the people that tend to become teachers do it for two reasons: they love teaching(the good ones) or they can't hack it in the private sector(the bad ones).

So in speaking with conservative thinkers, Miller manages to get tentative support for his idea. But he finds more resistance among the teachers unions. The unions want higher pay, that's great. But merit pay, substantial merit pay, for better teachers? Firing bad teachers? The first objection is, who decides? Well, in going around schools, Miller found that there was almost always near unanimous agreement among students, teachers and administrators as to who the best teachers were. I've found this to be true when I was in school as well. I attended several in my time. Everyone knew who the good teachers were and the ineffectual teachers and there was seldom any sort of debate. The only time there was serious dispute was in cases where there was a teacher who was really popular with students but didn't really do much in the way of teaching. So let's dispense with the "who decides?" argument. There will be a level of subjectivity, but in most circumstances there will be little argument with the decisions on who gets the big raises and who gets canned.

The second objection the unions had was over job security. Teachers seem by nature to prefer security over the chance at higher pay. Well, Miller replies, how about if we offer two tracks? Those who want to keep job security can continue to make the current ridiculously low salaries, and those who want a shot at big money can choose that track?

Then we get to where conservatives will jump back off the wagon. The only way to fund this is for the federal government to do it. But surprisingly, Miller found that conservatives' objections were lukewarm at worst. I've also noticed that in recent years conservatives have become less dogmatic about the federal government involving itself in traditionally state affairs. Might have something to do with the fact they have the power right now. All in all, I think this plan is probably the single easiest one to sell in Miller's entire book. Who doesnt' support rewarding good teachers, attracting better teaching candidates, and getting rid of teachers that are failing to educate the students entrusted to them? Only the unions. And they have no power in this matter if the teachers are drawn by the higher pay being offered as an inducement. Mark my words. If this proposal is seriously brought up and debated, it will pass quickly.

Vouchers. What do liberals define as the single biggest problem with America's education system? The fact that schools are funded primarily by property taxes. What's the solution? Well, the old liberal solution was to pour federal money into inner city and poor rural schools. Problem is, even where they've done so it simply hasn't worked. Plus, from my own studies of the issue I've determined that there is little relation between per student education spending and academic success. The Midwest spends the least yet has the highest achievement as measured by graduation rates and test scores. The Northeast and California have the highest yet tend to be middle of the pack. The South is the worst, and spends at levels in between the North and Midwest. Miller really doesn't spell this out, but he does seem skeptical that simply pouring more money into these inner city schools will accomplish anything. Instead, he proposes using the magic of the marketplace, the magic of competition, to bring about improvement in quality(combined with millionaire teachers, of course).

How about a "grand bargain", as Miller aptly coins it? Why not increase per pupil spending by about 20 to 30 percent, and give every student a voucher which they can use to attend any school they wish? Why should inner city kids be stuck with inner city schools? Currently we have a situation where some schools are so horrendous, and a good school is located only a couple of miles from the bad school. So parents that care enough feel forced to lie about their addresses so they can send their child to the good school. Miller predicts that if every student had a voucher, that more private schools would be built to meet increasing demand. This would in turn force public schools to compete. This proposal seems to rely on a lot of assumptions and tweaks a lot of people the wrong way. In contrast to his other proposal for education, which is the easiest to pass, I think this one will be the hardest by far.

One point which Miller doesn't mention, and probably the most important, is the students and parents themselves. I think the reason he doesn't go into it is because quite simply it's outside the scope of his book. The government can't make students want to learn or parents give a damn about their children's education. A local news story in my area reported that in a failing school where the students were eligible for vouchers, only 10% took them. Parents interviewed said that they didn't want to have to drive their kids farther to a different school. WTF!? This is the kind of attitude that is 90% of the education problem, IMO. Parents that don't give a damn, students who treat education as something uncool.

However, he could have mentioned this if he had a solution. Fortunately, I do.

Bribe the students. Yeah, I know, some people are going to think there's something dirty about paying students to do well in school. But you know what? In the real world you will be paid in accordance with your achievement. You'd be shocked at how cool learning would be if students got $50 for every A on their report card, and $25 for every B, with a single F meaning no bonus at all. And you can be darn sure that inner city parents that struggle to pay the bills will be wanting their kids to bring home the money for the electric bill once every two months. In real life, the vast majority of most people's efforts are dedicated to making a living. Might as well instill this work ethic in students from the start. It's perverse that we expect kids to work hard just because they it's the right thing to do, but adults demand immediate gratification(a paycheck) for work they do. School is analogous to a real job. It's preparation for a real job. Why not just make it a real job?