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Schools Abroad - Funding, Teachers
Original post made
by David Cohen, Palo Alto High School,
on Mar 2, 2008
Recently, a couple of interesting articles have shown stark contrasts in school systems. Setting aside Palo Alto for the moment, California's education investment is poor and about to get poorer. Meanwhile, in Singapore, teachers have about half of their work week set aside for planning and collaborating, compared to the average California teacher who gets about a third of that. Singapore also pays teachers during their training and starts them with competitive salaries.
See Time magazine:
An article in the Wall St. Journal reports that in Finland, teachers are expected to be more entrepreneurial, using curricular standards as a starting point for innovative teaching. Contrast that with the number of American schools feeling the pressure of NCLB and responding with scripted lessons that ignore differences among students and teachers. Finland also requires a master's degree for teachers and has 40 applicants per position.
Wall St. Journal article:
For those who take the time to read the WSJ article, I'm sure someone will note that they get these results with less spending per pupil. However, consider how much of our spending per pupil is actually spent on health insurance for school personnel, which would not be necessary there. The article also notes that they seem to have a lot fewer extracurricular activities.
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 5, 2008 at 9:21 pm
SWM - You suggest unionization leads to overstaffing, but I'd like to see you try to apply that 30% idea to a school work force. Most schools (not talking so much about Palo Alto) are seriously understaffed, in my experience. Not enough counsellors, not enough school nurses and campus supervision, not enough clerical support, (with teachers picking up the slack and wasting time that could be much better spent). Palo Alto isn't as short staffed as most districts, and makes up for it with phenomenal volunteer support. At Palo Alto HS, we have volunteers providing the equivalent hours of several extra full time employees each year. Most districts and schools can't match that. But suppose we did away with unions and lowered teachers' wages and benefits, decreased staff size and increased the work load: are you actually suggesting that would attract and retain enough highly qualified teachers and produce the same or better quality education? And if you want to argue that teachers are overpaid, in wages or in pensions, I couldn't go along with labeling it "waste," as if the money were being thrown away on something unnecessary.
Regarding centralization of services, you raise questions that deserve attention in any system trying to be efficient. Yet, if centralization of certain functions leads to problems and delays in providing services and resources on sites, then you have decreased the educational efficiency in the name of financial efficiency. Then, if individual sites anticipate problems with distribution, their response will be to pad their orders, horde supplies and... voila - more inefficiency. My cousin's school in L.A. has waited months for someone from the district to come take care of various maintenance jobs. It's not as clear cut as you'd like to suggest.
Distance learning holds promise, and should be investigated, but I don't think it will make a major impact for most students any time very soon.
I'm not saying that there isn't waste, but I don't see much where you're pointing. Maybe we could talk about the legislature and Dept. of Ed.'s relationship with testing and publishing industries, though...
The idea of the 186-day work schedule is also a red-herring. That's the contract for school days, not the contract for actual work. Almost every full-time teacher, and some who are officially part-time work something closer to a six-day week throughout the school year, plus unpaid days in the summer, plus (in other districts more than PAUSD), paying out of pocket for much of their classroom supplies and professional needs.
Parent - regarding busy work, I'd suggest talking to the teacher about it. But in any case, I think there's likely to be less busy work if teachers have more time to collaborate and develop their curriculum and skills.
Terry writes: "With all due respect, since I know you are a thoughtful and sincere person, it seems like your interest in these comparisons is based in large part on the support you think they lend to your predisposition for better pay and working conditions for teachers (like yourself I believe)." -- No need to preface it "With all due respect." You're not risking insulting me by pointing out the obvious. Yes, I absolutely posted these links because they support my "predisposition." My opinion in this matter comes from years of experience in a variety of school settings, from constant communication with a network of teachers around the country, and from constant reading about teaching and learning. I'm not hiding my bias.
Terry adds: "You may be right that California should improve conditions for teachers - I don't know. But without looking at the details, it is hard to draw any conclusions pro or con from cross-cultural comparisons, or even across districts." -- On the contrary, it is quite possible to observe trends that work across settings despite their differences. When you look at successful programs in suburban U.S., urban U.S., and international systems, and see that one thing they have in common is spending more time and money to enable teachers to work together, learn together, and develop in their profession, you might be making a mistake to get bogged down in comparing the number of minutes that fourth graders spend on reading vs. math vs. P.E., or any other minor detail.
The main principle seems so obvious: give the people who do the teaching more time and opportunity to figure out what works best in their own setting. Key supporting elements would be access to data and resources, along with some guidance, direction and responsibility. I'm not suggesting a free-for-all approach or something "touchy-feely" that isn't based in solid research and with built-in accountability measures. But, tell me, is there any successful, complex human enterprise that achieves its potential by limiting the ability of its workforce to learn, communicate, and innovate? Because for too long in too many places, American schools have effectively isolated teachers and put up barriers (maybe unintentionally) to the type of model I'm suggesting. (If you want to argue that teachers unions bear some responsibility for this situation, I'd agree. But recent developments in other places show that unions can be part of the solutions as well).
Terry asks: "For instance, what do you think about New York City's focus on increasing the authority and independence of school principals (sometimes at the expense of teachers)? Is that a useful model for California?" Good question - with too many variables to go into here. I like local authority and independence, but I think an effective principal works with teachers, not against them - and likewise, teachers need to be professional about working with principals, not against them. There are successful and unsuccessful principals and school systems - I don't think we can isolate a certain single concept or variable and say it's simply "good/useful" without a lot more information. Even with my pet issue here - more spending on professional development isn't simply "good" - it has to be done right, with other factors in place. (Refer back to the articles).
--- I'm glad people are interested in talking about schools, and I hope everyone's interest extends beyond Palo Alto. This exchange has been interesting, but it's also just a work break for me: I need to bow out and go grade some quizzes or essays - at least another 90 minutes of work for me tonight.