There are a lot of areas that need reform in this country, but education is right at the top of the list. It is one of the most important things for our future, and everyone agrees that we have problems — as exemplified by the massive teachers’ strike in Chicago! This is a great example of a place where we could use a small business-style, problem-solving approach.
Of course, you have to start by identifying the problem. In Chicago, it appears the union leadership believes the problem is preserving the status quo. But that is not the problem. The problem is how to best teach and prepare our young people. How do we ensure they are learning and getting the best we have to offer? If we solve that problem, I believe other questions will fall into place.
School districts all over the country are learning that we have to take a different approach from what we’re doing now. We spend more money per student than any country in the world, but we’re in the middle of the pack for results. At some point, you have to stop throwing good money after bad, and instead make sure you’re spending smarter, not just more.
One of the biggest challenges, and the official issue Chicago’s teachers cite for their strike, is evaluating teachers. In the standard model for public education all over the country, the vast majority of teachers are rubber stamped in their evaluations and receive tenure after three years. A study of Chicago teachers in 2007 found that 99.7 percent received positive ratings. It’s almost impossible to get a negative evaluation!
School reformers, from both parties, are looking for ways to make evaluations more meaningful. Many are looking to add test scores into the mix, but there are other options, too, including more rigorous in-person evaluations.
I respect and understand those who are concerned with making sure the evaluation system works — but it is irresponsible to reject all efforts at reform blindly because they might be imperfect. We know the current system is broken.
That broken evaluation system is just one part, though. There is no concept of meritocracy. Everything is based on seniority, including both pay and hiring and firing practices. The last teacher hired is typically the first teacher let go when layoffs become necessary, even if that teacher is one of the best.
Every year we hear about a teacher who wins the Teacher of the Year award, only to be let go because they lack seniority. And when it comes time to hire, Chicago’s union leaders want the last fired to in turn be the first hired, instead of letting principals and school leaders hire the most qualified candidates.
That kind of practice would be unheard of in any other field. No business would — or could — run that way. But union leaders like to claim that attempts to change these anti-meritocratic policies are based on “hating” teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both sides are taking their stances because they want to help teachers. The union wants to help teachers with seniority; but reformers want to help the good teachers.
As a small business entrepreneur, I can tell you that only one of those options would be acceptable for running a sustainable business in the private sector. And in a field as important as education, charged with the responsibility of developing our children, should we expect or accept any less?
Promoting meritocracy in schools will present no harm to the best teachers. In fact, as we develop better ways to identify our best teachers, we’ll be able to reward them far more, and use them as models of exemplary teaching.
But even the vast majority of teachers should have nothing to fear. While it seems implausible that only 0.3 percent of teachers are not at least satisfactory, school officials are not going to use a new system to get rid of teachers in droves. In reality, I suspect just a small percentage will be steered out of the profession, while the incentives at the top will encourage excellence and competition among the teachers who do belong in the classroom.
That’s a common-sense approach that represents the way small businesses would approach the issue. But even The New York Times editorial page, which would normally be expected to support the union leaders, says that reforms like those being proposed in Chicago are “sensible policy changes . . . that are increasingly popular across the country.”
These are not radical ideas; they are essential and necessary ideas, because otherwise the whole structure is at risk of collapse.
And best of all, when we introduce meritocracy into education, the compensation that union leaders are so obsessed with will go up dramatically. It’s like I say about business: the mission of business is not to make money, but rather to help people. If you do that, the money will come. It’s the same in education when there’s real meritocracy. If your mission is to teach students, then the rewards will come.
Fran Tarkenton is the Founder and CEO of OneMoreCustomer.com, a web resource for Small Business Advocacy and Education. After his Hall of Fame football career, Fran had a successful career in television and then turned to business. He has founded and built more than 20 successful companies and now spends his time coaching aspiring entrepreneurs. Read more reports from Fran Tarkenton — Click Here Now.
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