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Education in America

March 5, 2012

Josh Alley ’15

For all the talk of “No Child Left Behind” and a “Race to the Top,” the fact remains that America’s education system is underperforming woefully. This has severe ramifications for our economy and future as a nation, as well as for the children who pass through the system. While there has been a much needed focus on teacher evaluations as a part of recent reforms, I am of the opinion that such efforts are only a part of what can be done to reform secondary education in America.

Some of my views on education reform have, of course, been shaped by my own experience in the secondary education system, which I would like to think is unique, despite a great deal of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. I attended high school in upstate New York, an area of the country where teachers unions hold a great deal of influence. As such, employment for teachers is governed by the tenure system, or in common parlance “last hired, first fired.” In addition to this, teachers, even those who have committed serious misconduct, enjoy the unconditional support of the union (of which every teacher must be a member), which gives them the means to contest a dismissal or suspension in an expensive, drawn out battle with the district. The end result of these policies is the retention of many less effective teachers at the expense of younger, sometimes more competent colleagues. During my last year of high school, the state of New York slashed education funding, forcing my district to let go of over 20 teachers. Many of these educators were exceptional, and their forced departure left an already struggling school district in even greater difficulty.

As such, several reforms are absolutely essential, especially in states where teachers unions hold a disproportionate share of influence. The tenure system does not need to be utterly abolished, but it should be much less stratified. Good teachers should not even need the protection of tenure, as the quality of their work should assure them a job. Also, states should consider finding the means to better support rural school districts like the one I attended, as many of those districts lack the property tax base to even subsist financially. When schools are forced to choose between letting teachers go and saving extracurricular programs, that is hardly a testament to a healthy education system. Furthermore, the last decade has seen a reduction in the standards of many state exams, again to the detriment of our children and future.

Another matter to consider is the impact a great teacher can have on his or her students, especially over an extended period of time. Studies have shown that an effective teacher can raise student test scores greatly, even in the face of intellectual and socioeconomic differences. As such, the question we must ask is how do we train, attract, and retain more truly great teachers? Several policies, if implemented, might help. The first would be raising the pay of teachers nationwide so that it more accurately reflects the value of the work they do. However, that should coincide with a retreat from the tenure system, to ensure that the rise in pay is truly merited. Also, requiring more academic achievement from prospective teachers, as is the case in Finland, might help raise the quality of the applicant pool for teaching positions. Having more individuals who excelled in their own studies in the classroom simply cannot hurt.

In conclusion, I must say that I am of the mind that while effective teacher evaluation is a key piece of the solution to our education dilemma, it is only one step. Evaluations need to be coupled with other measures, such as a shift away from the inefficient tenure system or a concerted effort to get better teachers into the classroom. Should reforms continue to stall, we will eventually find that our graduates cannot compete in the global economy, and that we are no longer a truly innovative nation. If that occurs, America’s decline will no longer be a concept to be debated, it will be reality.

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