The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 11, 2008

School’s out for summer

First, the Song of the Day, for reasons stated two paragraphs from now. I wonder if, when Alice Cooper (who will be at Oshkosh’s Waterfest Aug. 28) wrote “School’s Out,” he realized what an anthem his 1972 song would become.

The best verse:
Well we got no class
And we got no principals
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes
Today is the final day of classes in the Ripon Area School District, where I live. Classes had to be held today because of more cancellations, late arrivals and early dismissals than were accounted for in the school district's calendar, which, by state law, is required to include 175 days of face-to-face instruction and 1,137 hours of instruction. (The cynic in me — and remember, I have three children, two of whom are in school — wonders if there’s an element of keeping children out of their parents’ hair longer in the state law.)

If that isn’t proof of overreaching state government, I don’t know what is. State legislators several years ago mandated that classes begin no earlier than Sept. 1 (usually the day after Labor Day), a move obviously designed to benefit tourism. It’s not clear to me, though, why it’s better for schools to stay open far past Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer tourism season. Even stranger is the fact that, in many school districts, graduation is held on Memorial Day weekend, but the rest of the students are required to go until the end of classes.

This is the point where the phenomenon I call “tyranny of the experts” comes in. It is remarkable to me how prickly and arrogant many people in education are when you dare question anything they’re doing, even though they are doing whatever they are doing with your tax dollars. Take, for instance, this word from Richard Zimman, administrator of the Ripon Area School District, from the district’s fall 2007 newsletter:
The effort to maintain quality schools takes endless effort and planning. This is especially true with the 14-year-old state funding law that forces annual school budgets to lag behind the normal inflationary increase in operating costs.
Reading through the newsletter reveals complaints about the state’s school funding system (“School Funding Law Squeezes District”) with simultaneous bragging about reducing taxes (“School Taxes Drop Again — Board Cuts Mill* Rate by 55 Cents”) and about what a swell job they’re doing teaching the kids (“Ripon Ranks #1 in ACT Exam Scores,” which appears to be a ranking in the area, not in the state or even in the region).

* That, by the way, is a misspelling — the correct term is ”mil rate,” short for “millage rate.”

More examples of this I-am-the-expert attitude can be found in the Wisconsin Education Association Council and its bought-and-paid-for state government subsidiary, the Department of Public Instruction. WEAC complains about spending limits, just like the Superintendent of Public Instruction does. Both blather on about what great schools we have; neither gives credit to the people who are funding those schools, many of whom don’t even have children in those schools.

This is not limited to Wisconsin, as this rant from something called Georgia Women Vote! demonstrates:
… Staggering dropout rates, scarce resources, bottom-of-the-barrel SAT scores and all other ills that plague Georgia schools will be resolved if only we put parents in charge. Professional training and schooling are not necessary to become an expert on education. Either election to the General Assembly or childbirth, both equally painful, will do the trick.
Put it this way: Any business with this arrogant an attitude toward its customers is not destined for a long life. A little more respect to the people who are paying teachers' salaries (the largest component of school district budgets by far) and extra taxes to pay for new school buildings would help. That appears to be absent in relations between schools and taxpayers in Wisconsin today.

But in a sense this isn’t surprising because of one reality not many people realize about education, but one I saw in my nearly seven years working in education, along with several years as a newspaper education reporter and, for that matter, four years as the father of a school-age child. Readers of Marketplace are obviously focused on results — revenues, expenses and profits, to name the three most obvious metrics. Educators focus on process — how you teach, more than what kind of results you get from your teaching. The truth is that teachers are only part of the educational process — students from bad environments, however you define that, will find learning harder than students from homes where education is valued. That’s something that school districts that crow about their high test scores should remember. Then again, that’s also something that those who complain about low-performing schools should remember — bad teachers are a big factor, but not the only factor.

And yes, as there are good teachers, there are bad teachers too. The single biggest negative of teacher unions is not that they advocate spending every last tax dollar (existing or potential new tax dollars) there is on schools. It is that they protect their worst teachers from what would happen if those bad teachers were part of the business world — firing for incompetence. I’m repeating myself since I’ve written this before, but: Good teachers should be paid more, and bad teachers should be fired. (Even those who are sympathetic to the union cause don't understand why public employees, including teachers, should be allowed to have labor unions — generally, the term "professional" and "labor union" don't belong in the same sentence — but I'm guessing that train left the station decades ago.

Perhaps the time has come for a grand bargain: Teachers give up their union rights (which really don't benefit teachers of average quality or better) and come back to reality in employee benefits in exchange for the state's reducing its micromanaging of schools and letting teachers and principals teach how they see best. If a school district wants to have classes all year, it should have the right to do that. If a school district wants to change the traditional schedule in some other way, it should have the right to do that. If a school district wants to specialize in a particular curriculum area district-wide, it should have the right to do that, subject to approval of that school district's taxpayers.

It's not clear to me that such state initiatives as the DPI's 20 Standards (that was the new thing when I started in journalism 20 years ago) and the federal No Child Left Behind Act have improved education. Assessments of how you're doing tend to focus only on the process and not the results, for reasons stated earlier. If you combined real educational reform with real school choice — parents having the choice of not just any public school in the state, but any school in the state — parents will be able to vote with their feet about what kind of education they want their children to have.

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