Is pro-teacher school reform possible in this country?
The $5 billion plan aims to elevate the status of America's teachers, and is dubbed RESPECT -- although inspiring that particular sentiment may be wishful thinking. The name is an acronym for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is to make teaching "not only America's most important profession -- but also America's most respected profession." School districts and states are expected to compete for their part of the initiative's funding, which is requested in the 2013 budget, to fund reforms to boost the teaching profession's profile.
Good luck with that. Politicians, parents and students give a lot of lip service to the lofty ideal of teaching. Gold stars and shiny apples. However, in practice, the nation is far from embracing the esteem in which other countries hold the profession and the value they put on student achievement.
Philosophically, the new initiative hits on all the right points: making admissions to college teaching programs more selective, tying pay to performance rather than years spent in the classroom, evaluating teachers by a range of measures, not just test scores, and making teacher salaries more competitive with other professions.
Unfortunately, any such effort will meet strong headwinds.
Legislatures, facing large deficits and lagging tax receipts, have been slicing education budgets. Politicians, especially on the right, have attacked teachers unions as the problem with public education, rather than engaging them as critical allies for change. So-called education reformers have focused heavily on using student test scores to evaluate teachers (while others complain that teachers are "teaching to the test"). Meanwhile, little effort is made to address the strong correlation between socio-economic status and student achievement in the U.S.
"No child left behind" is a catchy slogan, but it doesn't describe the likely outcome of current U.S. education policy. The phrase is a far more apt description of education systems in countries that routinely outperform our own. By and large, these countries' education officials promulgate nationwide standards and curriculum, and insist on high achievement across class boundaries. And they get it.
This kind of top-down national bureaucracy is anathema to American conservatives. The leading GOP candidates all envision a smaller role for the Department of Education, if not its extinction.
The administration's new push is the political reply to a report issued last year titled "What the U.S. Can Learn from the World's Most Successful Education Reform Efforts." It compared the U.S. education system to those of the highest performing countries as ranked by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Finland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Canada were among the nations whose students blast ahead of ours, especially in math.
The report's top suggestion was to "make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession."
One aspect of that is pay. Compared to other high-achieving countries, U.S. teachers are not underpaid. However, they are when compared to American college graduates with similar levels of academic training who enter other professions. Their salaries are 40 percent lower. Teachers are underpaid in other countries, but not nearly to this extent. That's a measure of relative levels of respect.
At a very basic level, the ability to reconfigure the American education system comes down to instilling respect toward the profession. The deficit is glaring in the U.S., where many of the most vocal voices for reform take an antagonistic, punitive view of teachers, of unions, of school boards and even, at times, of children.
One line of the report especially stands out in that context. It notes that culturally divergent counties have all succeeded not simply by changing how teachers are trained, supported and paid, but by fostering a very different attitude about education and educators. Education appears to have a high status in these countries, the report argues, "because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its human capital."
And that spells RESPECT.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at email@example.com.)