Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Reforming Education in California 

As the Michael Jackson mania begins to die down, it is about to be replaced in California by the Schwarzenegger show. To wit, the Governator has called for a special election in which he will be pushing for some very controversial reforms (as he calls them). As education is a prime target of Schwarzenegger’s proposals, I want to provide some analysis of their implications. Before I go on I should make clear my two areas of bias. First, I’m a university professor, and, when push comes to shove, I care first about the implications for higher education. Second, I have consulted the web sites of both sides in the debate and found that they contain mostly platitudes and sound bites, rather than analysis. Of the sites I examined, Schwarzenegger’s provides the least information on the arguments in favour of his proposals. If I am unpersuaded of them, this is in part because he has not effectively presented whatever merits they may have.

That said, let me attempt to evaluate those merits. The governor’s proposals for education seem to involve the following actions.

  1. A constitutional amendment removing legislated minimum funding requirements for schools and essentially giving the person of the governor (as opposed to the legislature) discretion to reduce the education budget to “live within our means”. Fiscal impact is unknown, but spending cuts on education are made more likely.

  2. An increase in the time for teachers to reach tenure from two to five years. Two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations would be made grounds for teacher dismissal. Fiscal impact is unknown, probably varying from district to district.

  3. Prohibits unions from using dues for political contributions without prior consent from the employee. Fiscal impact is probably minor state and local government implementation costs potentially offset in part by revenues from fines and/or fees.

I hope that by adding the predicted fiscal impacts I have made clear one flaw in the Governor’s proposals. There is great uncertainty about whether we will emerge fiscally better off. In the case of union dues, the impact might be a raising of fees to compensate for the lost income routable to political campaigning. Can you really make changes with such uncertain financial consequences and call it reform? In all likelihood, educational institutions and individual educators will suffer more often than they benefit.

I do have a lot of sympathy for what the Governor is trying to achieve through changes in the tenure and dismissal procedures: he wants better teachers. His proposal to introduce merit-based pay, which did not receive enough support to make the ballot, was part of the same proposal. It is true that the teaching profession employees and continues to attract people who are poorly suited to the job: people who lack sufficient knowledge and training or lack (for whatever reason) the ability to acquire sufficient knowledge and training to build a more educated populace. In principle, the Governor’s move is the right one: get rid of those people who shouldn’t be there.

But let’s look at his method a bit more closely. Teaching is in many ways a thankless profession, with few material rewards and often very hard working conditions. Making tenure harder and dismissal easier adds greater uncertainty to the job. This, combined with the likelihood of further spending cuts and an undermining of the power of teachers’ unions to fund the advancement of teachers’ political agendas will make the profession even less attractive. The result will be twofold. First, people who have the potential to meet the requirements Schwarzenegger wants for teachers in the system will actually be further discouraged from entering it. In short, the result will be a brain drain. Second, the profession will become a revolving door job in which people will teach for a few years and then leave either because they do not see any benefits on the horizon or because their performance is unsatisfactory and they are forced out. The result will be not only a chronic lack of experience in the profession (a further brain drain), but also a chronic need for more teachers to enter the revolving door.

And this is where my concern for higher education enters the picture. The proposals which are on the ballot, if passed, will, as I have argued, create a greater demand for universities to produce more qualified (i.e. certified) teachers. We are already buckling under this imperative with more and more of our time being spent on teacher training and many of our curricular designs limited by the requirements of our teacher education programmes. Student learning is suffering and teaching in the CSU is becoming increasingly unattractive. More and more, I am hearing of potential job candidates being advised not to accept any job in the CSU. In all likelihood, the Governor’s proposals will encourage the brain drain in higher education.

Finally, a word about merit pay. The California Faculty Association (the faculty union for the California State University) opposes introducing merit pay to teachers because this “would make it very easy for a merit pay scheme to creep back into the CSU, leaving faculty members vulnerable to subjective standards of good teaching.” Although merit pay for teachers will not be on the November ballot, there is a good chance that it will be reintroduced in the future, especially if the proposed changes in tenure are adopted. I stridently oppose the CFA’s line of reasoning here. Merit pay for teachers and merit pay for professors are two different items. Teachers are judged primarily on teaching; university professors have a more dynamic range of activities on which they can be judged meritorious. For higher education, tenure decisions are already based on subjective standards of merit; but, on the whole, they are fair and effective standards. The true agenda is that the fear in the CFA that merit pay will be based primarily on research activities, the very activities that distinguish professors from teachers. This is not a fear that I share, but that’s a debate for another time. Suffice to say that merit pay has serious problems when introduced at the pre-University level. However, that is not an argument against merit pay in higher education.

In summary, I believe the Governor’s “reforms”—however well-intentioned they may be—should be opposed for the following reasons:

  1. Their fiscal impact is unknown, but probably overall detrimental to educational institutions and individual educators.

  2. They will undermine the teaching profession by depriving it of revenue important to advancing its cause in government and by making it less attractive to potential educators.

  3. They will not produce better qualified teachers. The results of the proposals will run counter to their intent because the profession will become an unattractive revolving-door profession.

  4. They will adversely impact higher education by undermining the teaching profession at that level.

I believe that if you truly support education you must put your money where your mouth is. Many would counter that throwing money at the educational system has not improved standards. If this is true, it is often so because the barriers to achievement lie in factors outside of the control of educators (poverty, family life, and so on). But improving the quality of teachers—one of the Governor’s stated goals—can be achieved with money. Make the profession attractive to society’s best and brightest and a great many other improvements will follow.

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