Difficult education reform

Difficult education reform

October 10th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

Everybody wants to improve education, but some startling statistics from down in Georgia reveal just how hard that can be.

This year, almost 100 percent of the teachers in Georgia's public schools got positive job evaluations, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Only a tiny handful received unsatisfactory performance evaluations.

Now, there is no doubt that many schoolteachers perform their duties not only satisfactorily but with excellence. We applaud them! But is it realistic to think that almost every single employee in any government or private venture can truly earn a glowing performance review?

Sadly, it's not. Analysts say that in a properly functioning organization in the private sector, between 5 percent and 10 percent of employees annually are on notice for poor performance or because they are otherwise unsuitable. So if that figure is far less than 1 percent in the public schools, doesn't it seem that something may be out of line?

To make matters worse, even in the few cases when Georgia school districts attempt to remove poorly performing teachers, it can be extremely difficult, slow and expensive. For example, Atlanta's public school system is still paying $1 million per month in wages to roughly 100 teachers who have been named in a scandal involving helping students cheat on standardized tests. The teachers are on the payroll while the cumbersome process of hearings and appeals slowly moves forward.

Another problem is that Georgia, like some other states, has long relied on a system that pays teachers extra based on their having earned advanced degrees. But as the Atlanta newspaper noted, that extra pay -- nearly $1 billion per year in Georgia! -- is given even if the teachers' advanced degrees do not translate into improved student achievement or classroom performance. Wouldn't it make more sense to reward the best teachers by tying extra teacher pay to demonstrated improvement over time by their students?

As one observer correctly noted, "The quickest way to lose top-performing teachers is to let them work side by side with someone who is disengaged and to reward them the same."

A Republican state senator from Atlanta summed up the difficulty of bringing about positive change in education.

"When you are dealing with education, you are dealing with a battleship that you are trying to turn," said Sen. Fran Millar.

That's certainly not a simple task, but when the "battleship" of education is going in the wrong direction, a turn surely is necessary.

That means paying better-performing teachers more, providing mentoring and other training to boost the performance of teachers who are "in the middle," and creating a fair but prompt method for removing teachers who consistently do a poor job.

Our children deserve nothing less.