Healthcare reform poll roundup

Healthcare reform is top political news as of late. Is Obamacare the government takeover of healthcare or what Americans need right now? There are a variety of recent polls on America’s support for these reforms. Here are a collection of recent polls.

Who do you trust more to overhaul the U.S. health care system?

Democrats 44%
Republicans 14%
Neither 43%

Would a new Healthcare reform law improve, not change, or worsen medical care in the U.S.?

In the U.S.
Improve 44%
Not Change 14%
Worsen 34%

Improve 26%
Not Change 29%
Worsen 34%

USA Today
Do you favor or oppose Congress passing a major health care reform bill this year?

Favor 56%
Oppose 33%
No Opinion 12%

The most telling poll is perhaps the Gallup poll. When it comes to America at large most citizens believe healthcare reform will improve healthcare. Start grabbing at personal medical charts and people become a whole lot more skeptical of Washington’s reform. The overwhelming number of people surveyed do not feel healthcare reform will impact them positively.

Moving past school consolidation UPDATED

(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)

Gov. Baldacci’s school consolidation plan could possibly go down as one of his most controversial. School consolidation may have been able to be sold easily to the public with a little education and openness from Augusta. Baldacci’s PR fumble stalled chances of an easy passage.

Many were downright offended by what they saw as Big Government trying to tell them how they should run their schools. The bill, bristling with penalties for non-compliance, rather than helpful incentives, helped it grind to a halt in some communities. Rural communities are presumed to be the biggest resistors, but Yarmouth, Falmouth, and Cape Elizabeth are holdouts as well, though some have received exceptions.

Some towns balk the consolidation because of nothing more than petty turf wars. A state representative said recently that parents of Town A didn’t want to consolidated and have their kids go to school with children from Town B. Parents from Town B expressed similar sentiments. You’d think someone suggested the Jets and the Sharks share the same classroom. One can understand the sentiment that citizens felt this consolidation proposal pushed on them. One can understand anger that districts rush through consolidation efforts. It takes time to sort out tax burned issues and what schools to close, etc. What is not understandable is how adults can be so petty and act like their town is the John D. Rockefeller to their neighbor’s Clark W. Griswold. If that is your only hangup, move on.

Finding the right formula to save towns money, the whole purpose of consolidation, is still a valid concern. 72 districts or towns operate at $1 million or more over EPS standards. The reduction of our bloated district system is a noble goal. However, if it isn’t being reduced into something more efficient then what’s the point. Still, every day legislators spend on school consolidation is a day they can’t focus on another aspect of our children’s education.

What are some of the topics the legislature could not discuss:

  • Establishing statewide curriculum standards
  • Moving toward 21st century standards
  • Exploring graduation requirements
  • Improving college attendance rates
  • Charter school implementation
  • Integrating schools with the university and community college systems

Mainers have been dealing with consolidation for close to 15 years, 50 years if you count the Sinclair Act. School district consolidation can be worked to save communities money on overhead in the long run, and put that money back into the classroom. We could all argue till the Sun burns out how to best do that. What we adults are forgetting here is the whole point of education; the kids. While we are bickering back and forth they are the ones who are losing out. No matter the outcome of the November’s referendum on school consolidation it is time to move on.

(Cross-posted at the Augusta Insider)

UPDATE(9/30/09):  I wrote this piece quite a few months ago.  A lot has changed since then.  There was one looming issue I had yet to consider; what will happen if consolidation is repealed?  I’d like to think we could just move on no matter what happens November 3rd.  After reading a recent article in Matthew Stone’s The Report Card it looks it will not be that easy.

Maine can’t afford to roll back the law, the Web site says. “School district consolidation can save taxpayers $36 million every year and hundreds of millions of dollars in the future. Repealing the measure will wipe out those savings and will make local property taxes will (sic) go up much, much faster.”

It’ll be tough to convince voters in towns like Monmouth and Pownal that repealing consolidation will have an adverse effect on their property tax bills. Those two towns experienced significant property tax swings while budgeting for this school year, the first one they were members of consolidated school districts. Voters in both towns have said they want out of their consolidated districts. Problem is, there’s no provision in the consolidation law that would allow them to withdraw.

The budget for education is so tight cutting learning days for students has been placed on the table.  Taxes are such an important issue in Maine there are two ballot questions relating to them.  If you cast a yes on question 3 you will possibly ad $36 million to an already overloaded education budget.  Also, no one has explained what will happen if school consolidation is repealed.  What will districts that have consolidated do?  Many have cut jobs and positions and generally reworked operations already.  Wont be easy, if not impossible, to back to the way things were.  If you cast a no on question 3 you will possibly ad to already tough property taxes in some towns.  Pownal saw a 35% increase in education costs when it joined RSU 5.  Towns like Pownal are seeing a shift in costs, from state to localCatch 22. Damned if you do damned if you don’t.  Between a rock and a hard place.  Pick your adage.  That makes it all the more important you take the time to think on your choice.  Either way it wont be as easy to just move on as I once thought.

Charter school supporters hold public forums

Both Greenville and Belfast hosted public forums on charters schools in Maine this afternoon. Dr Judith Jones will speak at the event in Greenville. Dr. Jones talk will emphasize how charter schools can benefit a rural state such as Maine. Dr. Jones is director of the Maine Association for Public Charter Schools.

Dr. Joe Nathan will appear at the Belfast forum. Dr. Nathan heads the University of Minnesota Center for School Change and was also a founding father of the U.S. charter school movement. Dr. Nathan will give a little history of the charter school movement in his speech, while highlighting the lessons we have learned on charter schools up to this point.

The Maine Senate rejected charter schools, LD 1438, back in June. The bill garnered support from many state agencies such as the state Board of Education, Department of Education, Governor Baldacci, the Maine House, and the Maine PTA. Maine is one of only nine states who do not allow some form of charter schools. This puts Maine in serious jeopardy for $4.3 billion of Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” education stimulus funds to be released this December. This is money Maine education cannot afford to miss out on. The Maine Senate dropped the ball on charters. It will be Mainers who get the bricks dropped on them, not Augusta.

Is the Governator Strong Enough to Lift California’s Budget?

A little something for my Cali readers.

from KCBS:

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushes for a swift agreement to fill California’s $24 billion budget deficit, he is also pushing several ideas for reforming state government, including a state constitutional convention.

In an exclusive interview with KCBS, the governor said there must be a fundamental reform of state government from top-to-bottom, but California has not had a constitutional convention since the 19th century. The Governor says that having another convention is an idea whose time has come once again.

“Everyone who has looked at [the state’s governmental system], not just Californians but people from the outside of California, looks at it and says we have a dysfunctional system.”

The idea of holding a constitutional convention is being pushed by the Bay Area Council, a local business group.

The governor says also he wants to see changes made to the initiative process.

“It’s outdated. One has to revisit it again, and kind of bring it up to date so you don’t have to go to the people for every little thing.”

A dysfunctional system eh? The same state that brought us the twinkie defense, LA riots, rolling blackouts, and an election featuring a liberal Greek blogger, porn mogul, porn actress, washed up child actor, and a watermelon smashing prop comic is dysfunctional? Well that sounds like state governing as usual.

Joking aside, I’m not entirely sure what Schwartzenegger hopes to accomplish. You need more power to do what exactly? More of nothing? This is nothing but a diversionary tactic, slight of hand so no one realizes Arnold has no frigging clue how to fix the mess he’s in.

Merit Pay Is Here To Stay

Merit pay for teachers is not going away, not anytime soon at least. It may be a fad that will disappear in a few years. We may continue to debate how to implement it or if we should even try for some time.

Most of us can agree that the current mode of pay, tenure/time based, is not the most effective way of paying our teachers. Generation Xers and Generation Ys (Millennials) are less likely to stay in one place or at one company. Serving a lifetime at one place of employment is no longer a goal like it was for previous generations. Living in the same town, state, or region isn’t a given for Gens X and Y. Tenure based pay makes little sense for the upcoming generations. As a Time article states, we’re getting off the ladder.

The discussion of new pay systems for teachers must continue. It is essential we work toward a more efficient system.

As of right now, the best (read only) system proposed has been merit or performance based. This is a subject I’ve taken to heart. Merit pay has been written and discussed here, here, here, here, and here.

The Washington Post and School of Blog have provided us with two more examples of merit pay systems.

Jay Mathews from WaPo critiques Michelle Rhee’s *a cacophany of boos and hisses rises from the crowd* merit pay plans. Mathews and I agree that current hiring and compensation practices are a mess in DC and many other districts nationwide. It keeps talented people from sticking around or joining the teaching force in the first place. Merit pay discussions bring these issues into the light. Rhee’s solution, however, is vague, possibly intentionally so, and flawed.

from Washington Post:

Rhee has proposed paying teachers as much as $135,000 a year based on achievement gains, classroom practices, meeting school goals and choosing high-needs students, as long as they are willing to forgo tenure protection. The chancellor is part of a national movement, backed by some leading policy experts, to create for teachers the same kind of merit pay enjoyed by football players, stock analysts and shoe salesmen.

Now let’s pick this apart. Achievement gains means what? Could it be progress in test scores? High test scores? Graduation rates? Vague measurements such as these are pervasive in Rhee’s plan, as mentioned earlier. Really we need a mix of all things I mentioned, shifting focus where applicable. A high performing school would be expected to maintain that performance etc. Of course, as I mentioned in earlier posts, our methods of measuring student performance are severely flawed. Unless Rhee’s plan includes changes to the standardized testing system I expect a her policies to be a huge failure. More of a bad thing will not suddenly make it good.

Gaging pay on classroom practices and school goals are again far too vague for me. It sounds logical at first glance. We need to give teachers flexibility to teach however is best for them. Grading them on what classroom innovations they use, unless Rhee is more specific I’m guess she is going there, is completely off the rails. As long as students are succeeding, who cares how the teachers do it. This standard will be different for every teacher, so again as long as they are succeeding there is no reason to judge pay in that respect.

Briefly on school goals, there is a danger to set the bar low. We’ve seen this happen with NCLB. We’d need well trained principals to assess these goals and classroom practices. It seems like a lot of work to find out if a teacher’s students are learning.

Then there is the cost. The idea of a $100,000 plus a year teacher. As long as schools still run on tax dollars I don’t see that big a pay rate feasible. Something else would have to be cut. Sports, music, other teachers perhaps. I wouldn’t mind cutting the fat and more efficient spending in schools. In fact it should be a priority. None the less I don’t see many states being to afford such increases.

Mathews points to charter schools as an example of merit pay done right.

from Washington Post:

Charter schools — and some regular public schools with special arrangements — often do better by placing decisions on salary and other matters in the hands of carefully selected and trained principals who know what great teachers do because that was what they once were. They judge teacher talent on classroom technique as well as test scores. They help teachers who are struggling. They praise those who are improving. They reward staffers in ways that make sense for each individual. Paying big bonuses to stars based on a formula decided by a district committee means fewer thoughtful conversations about students and more bitter gossip about adults.

Of course, this approach requires great care in selecting and training the school leader, but what’s wrong with that? The superintendent also must be ready to relieve principals whose schools do not raise achievement. Results will be measured, of course, at least in part by test scores. There is no escape from that. But it will be an assessment of gains, or lack of them, by every child in the school, not just those taught by one teacher in one classroom.

How can anyone disagree with better trained principals? What team can succeed consistently with a poor coach, especially when facing tough challenges? Some principals are of course just too busy to really perform the tasks they should, leading their staff. Fielding calls from parents and discipline can take up a lot of time. Do government schools need a PR person? Probably. Many private schools have someone to fill that need, giving principals more time to observe and coach.

I would like to see this formula charters use for “big bonuses to stars.” Also remember, as Mathews does not, all charters are not created equal.

Julie at School of Blog comments of a merit pay system she thinks works.

from School of Blog:

we’ve found a way to do merit pay that sort of fits with our mission. Only 10% of the pay increase is tied to test scores, and that applies to all teachers, not to any teacher in particular – so it gives us an incentive to work together. The rest is tied to projects that teachers come up with at the beginning of the year.

For example, as a social studies teacher my project might be to design and run a class that utilizes oral history. I write up the proposal. If I’m successful in my stated goals, I get the extra pay bump. Q-Comp even provides some funds for materials for my project (such as tape recorders, etc.).

Teachers at our school who experienced Q-Comp in traditional districts and hated it are excited about doing it this way. It’s cooperative rather than competitive. I’ll keep you posted on whether we get the funding.

This Minnesota merit pay is a step in the right direction. I’d much rather see teachers cooperating toward bonuses rather than competing with each other. Still there is danger of a slacker ridding on the coattails of others. I’d like to know how they combat that. On the flip side of that, it does mitigate some of the disruption factor I mentioned in an earlier post. Now that disruption effect in one class will be spread around the school when combined with all classes.

I like that teachers get funding for classroom projects. Still, setting your own goals is troubling. How keeps an eye on how tough or easy the goals are to reach?

I still think it is not comprehensive enough. Maybe other measures are included, but not mentioned. Do colleagues evaluate each other? Students their teachers? Parents their teachers? Those methods are all valuable in improving schools and should be taken into account.

Keep that debate going people! Thoughts?

Gregory House in the Classroom

Over six seasons House has provided us with some of the most unorthodox medical diagnoses seen on television. The title character, Gregory House, has been called the Sherlock Holmes of the medical field. So what can this cynical, curmudgeonly, genius show us about how our classrooms work?

Questionable ethics and drug addiction aside, House’s diagnostic methods demonstrate interesting ways of teaching. House and his team begin by brainstorming possible causes of the patient of the week’s symptoms. House guides the whiteboard sessions, but allows his team to propose their own solutions. This gets the brains of the team flowing.

In a problem solving process, which can be molded to many subjects, the teacher can guide the students in diagnosing the problem. Why do you think the colonists wanted to break away from Britain? This plant is brown and dry. What causes that? The back and forth analyzing the question and possible causes can lead to a lot of unexpected discoveries by the students. They will also feel like that had a real hand in finding out solutions, rather than just being outright told.

House is not afraid to try any method to find the solution. Nor does he or his team fear being wrong. In the classroom, no student should be afraid to be wrong. Being wrong is one of the greatest learning experience one can have. It opens up so many possibilities. A student who has arrived at a wrong conclusion can now explore why they were wrong and how to achieve the correct answer. By trying various methods a student sees there is not always simply one way to solve a problem or always one solution.

House uses a holistic approach to diagnostics. While he does use medical tests, House does not rely on hard data alone. House and his team explore the patients lives, often searching their homes and jobs for clues. House never discounts what sort of psychological factors may be effecting the patient either. This past season, House and team were attempting to diagnose why a patient was suffering from locked-in syndrome after a bicycle accident, leaving the man conscious but completely paralyzed. Tests alone could not explain the syndrome. After consulting the man, through use of a computer interface, the team finds out he last his job and was moonlighting as a janitor where he received cadmium poisoning. Had House and his team fail to dig deeper into the man’s personal life they never would have been able to cure him.

Reformers and students alike can learn from this example. To get a true grasp of a problem it is best to view it from all sides, using hard data and soft. Only then can one get a true picture of the solution.

There you have it. Another life lessons provided by pop culture.

Anyone else have any lessons that can be applied to the classroom or ed reform from pop culture?

Team Duncan – Strategic Planning vs Strategic Thinking

Arne Duncan has been at his post as Education Secretary for several months now. I’ve been following his escapades closely at and my own blog. High off Mr. Obama’s election as President, I was on board Team Duncan when I heard of his appointment. Since then, I’ve taken a different stance. Not quite a 180, but I’ve developed a healthy criticism for Duncan and Obama’s education policies.

Way back in 2007, Robert Evans wrote an article arguing against the strict application of strategic planning for schools. “The Case Against Strategic Planning” was given to me by my father in-law after he attended, of all things, a planning sessions at a local private school. The paper is a great read for anyone involved in education, parents and kids too. I suggest you take some time to read the whole piece.

As I read Evans’s article I began to realize much of what Duncan and Obama have detailed in their “race to the top”, “pillars of reform”, etc. are exactly what should not be happening.

Evans states people often confuse construction of plans with creating an actual strategy. Strategic plans focus on step-by-step problem solving, timetables, measurable results, and fixed outcomes. Plans focus on structure and are not open to flexibility, often avoiding addressing uncertainty and unpredictability.

Just look at Team Duncan’s support for merit pay, longer school days, standardized testing, and charters. Not that I disagree with those things, Duncan and Co. fail to realize all the nuances of each approach and think about how to utilize them best to reach their goals.

Duncan and Obama are ignoring all the flaws of strategic planning. They are basing their policy decisions on predictability, objectivity, and structure.


Every teacher knows that schools are fluid environments, as are the communities they operate in. Political, technological, and social landscapes have changed drastically in even five years. Sometimes in ways we could not have predicted(twitter who knew?). The world will not wait while you debate. A plan cannot become and end in itself. Saying we want to close the bottom 5,000 schools and reopen them in five years might seem like a blueprint to better education, but it cannot be a replacement for addressing the realities facing our schools.


In crafting a beautiful plan it can be easy to overlook the soft data effecting schools. Hard data is so nice, cut and dry. I love it. Graduation rates, test scores, and the like line everything up so nicely. When we base a merit pay system or funding system like No Child Left Behind, which Duncan and Obama still support, on something like our current testing system important mitigating factors are ignored. Our current testing system does nothing to show a students understanding of the material. Current standardized tests prove nothing except how well a student can memorize and fill in bubbles. True understanding can only be shown from written exams asking for problem solving and analysis. This is something I have argued for time and time again.

I also spoke recently on how one disruptive, which doesn’t necessarily denote misbehaving, student can skew test scores for an entire classroom. Linking merit pay to the current testing system doesn’t take this into account. Nor does it factor in the many other tasks teachers perform such as implementing new technology, mentoring colleagues, or tutoring students for example. Without this soft data one cannot get the complete picture of what a teacher is doing.


Schools do not often produce rational outcomes. Anyone with children knows kids are pretty damn irrational at times. I don’t care, toddlers to teenagers just do some stuff that make you slap your forehead. Human judgement can adapt to whatever kids can dish out better than a strict plan. Focusing on the plan as an end all be all puts all the weight on the means totally forgetting the end. Look at the 5,000 schools business again or the D.C. voucher debacle. Duncan is missing the most important questions he should be asking. “Why am I doing this? Is this the best way to pursue my objective?”

I’ve spent all this time criticizing Team Duncan on what they should not be doing, I’m going to switch gears and talk about what they should.

Duncan and Co should employ some strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is in many ways the antithesis of strategic planning. Strategic thinking is flexible, creative, considers hard and soft facts, and collects opinions from teachers and students. An outline, not a blueprint.

Innovations are not something to push out like merit pay, charter schools, or longer schools days. New reforms should be adaptable. We should expect to modify them during implementation, as education is fluid. Static reforms are bound to fail. Like so many things in life, reforms must evolve or be pushed aside.

Simplify plans. Having many standards forces us to spend less time on each one. Testing many standards will bring us down the same road. Leaner standards and adaptable skills allow us to prepare students for anything that is thrown at them.

Strategic thinking leaves room for schools to roll with the punches. Less targets over shorter periods of time keep a school flexible. A school can adapt to new situations, instead of being bound by a five year plan that was out of date in less than five months.

Lastly, strategic thinking takes information from many sources into account. Something as trivial as gossip or hearsay from teachers and students can provide valuable candid insight into what’s happening in the trenches. Students and parents should be surveyed on the status of their school and learning experience. Weak spots can be caught quickly and strengths bolstered. Hey, if parent involvement matters to Obama and Duncan, then it should be encouraged in all forms, especially one as helpful as this.

Flexibility has always been a key to education reform. It is a corner stone of strategic thinking. If we are talking in business terms, as some reformers including myself occasionally do, what business can expect to last long that is not adaptable to change? Remember the key to strategic thinking is in the name. Thinking! We should be thinking, considering, evaluating, reevaluating reforms. Always adapting to changes when applicable. Otherwise we will fall back to more of the same ol strategery.

Change in Education?

Or more of the same?

I am loosing faith in “Change”. EdSec Duncan seems to be more hype than “Hope”. I had a lot of confidence that Arne Duncan would clean house and sow the seeds for some real gains in education. There is a bit of egg on my face at this point.

While Duncan and Co certainly push changes in the education system these changes are more novelties than substantial improvements. Some take issue with the business like manner Team Duncan takes on education reform. Personally this is not a problem for me. If the business world presents a solution to an education woe we should use it. That being said, business and education are not entirely the same. Teaching a student is vastly different from running an add agency or producing a product. Ideas should be kept in perspective. Business solutions can translate to more effective ways of running a school (It does concern me that, excusing the rising costs of stuff and inflation, education continually gets more and more money for the same mixed results. Money is not the solution obviously). Business solutions do not translate well to business of learning.

Why this lack of education in education reform? Team Duncan is no team of rivals.


Something that stands out about Ed Sec Arne Duncan and his inner circle – Klein, Sharpton, and, lord help us, Newt Gingrich at the *cough* “progressive” Education Equality Project; Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mayor Bloomberg, and the whole Billionaire Boys’ Club gang; Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and the “give us a rookie idealist and a five week crash course, and we’ll give you a competent, expert teacher” gang at Teach for America – and their whole “reform” discourse is how much talk and proposed action we hear about teachers, and how little about teaching.

An obvious cause is that Duncan and most of his gang have more background in management (or, lord help us, politics) than in education. And the frightening thing is, when we listen to them, there’s little evidence they’re aware of the difference between an MBA and a Ph.D. in education. It’s like the hospital comptroller thinking he should have the right to dictate surgical techniques in the O.R.

Clay Burell goes on to say that Team Duncan may actually have a deeper understanding of education, but they continually fail to show this. Burell leads in to a recent post by Diane Ravitch at Bridging Differences. Ravitch uses accountability and high stakes testing as an example of how Team Duncan are just pushing more of what doesn’t work.

from Bridging Differences:

I think our society is in dangerous territory on this subject of accountability. The so-called “reformers,” the guys (yes, guys) who call themselves the Education Equality Project, would have the world believe that accountability is the key to improving American education. They think it can be done fast, not incrementally. They think the key to improvement is punishing the bad students, the bad teachers, and the bad schools. Their latest formula, as enunciated by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is to close down 5,000 schools and re-open them. I wonder where he plans to find 5,000 new principals and thousands of new teachers, or does he just intend to reshuffle the deck?

This approach rests squarely on the high-stakes use of testing. One only wishes that the proponents of this mean-spirited approach might themselves be subjected to a high-stakes test about their understanding of children and education! I predict that every one of them would fail and be severely punished.

We agree that a better approach is needed to assess how well students are learning what they are taught. We agree that current standardized tests are not adequate to the task of determining the fate—whether they should be rewarded or punished—of children, teachers, and their schools.

Some thoughts Ravitch’s post

Things in education should be done incrementally. Playing fast and loose with children’s education is unacceptable. When you rush a reform without thinking it through it can have severe detrimental consequences. I’m not saying that everything Team Duncan proposes is a ticking time bomb, but it seems they are putting little thought behind their plans. There is far too many buzz words being tossed about and far too little contemplation of what they mean.

Bad students, teachers, and schools should face some consequences. I hate using the word “bad” however. That word has such an implication to it. Bad is something I say about the outdated milk. There’s no saving it. Straight to the garbage. Let’s say failing to meet standards for lack of a better word. Consequences should be assistance to meet standards. Talk about throwing the education system under the bus. Would you punish a child who has reading difficulty rather than provide assistance to meet that goal? Recalling an earlier post by Clay they might.

I am not against testing. It is a good way to find trouble areas in curriculum and in spotting students in need of help. Students should be meeting certain standards before moving ahead. Otherwise we are just pushing students into new territory before they even have a grasp on where they were. That is an excellent way to loose a student. And of course ultimately a HS diploma must be more than a piece of paper.

But the current tests that are being pushed are ineffective. Standardized tests prove nothing except how well a student is at regurgitation. Multiple choice cannot show a true understanding of a topic. Problem solving and analysis type tests are the only way to show this.

The thrust of their “strategic plan”, which negates strategic thinking, ignores a large looming issue. They are trying to duct tape a crumbling 19th century factory. The foundation itself is shaking. They are rebuilding what doesn’t work already with band-aids. There needs to be consideration for how we teach students, what skills they need for this new century, and how to inspire life-long learning. Duncan and company has contracted assembly line sickness. I’m not sure if they will survive the disease.

Can They Think Outside the Box? – More thoughts on merit pay and policy wonks

I posted a few days ago about my evolving thoughts on merit pay. The catalyst for this was a study on class disruption and learning. The comments left pushed my thinking on the subject even further. I’d let to post the discussions here today and get some more thoughts on there on merit pay.

Just to recap, the article I read from pointed out that even one disruptive student in a classroom can taint the learning experience for the whole class. Commentator d.eris of Poli-Tea Party illustrates the principle with a little anecdote from the Simpsons.

from d.eris

I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode in which Homer and Marge are hauled into the school and are shown a diagram of the grades of students who sit in Bart’s immediate vicinity. In a set of concentric circles, grades go up as distance from the trouble-maker increases.

If someone hasn’t written “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from The Simpsons” they someone damn well should!

It becomes easy to see how one tiny factor can skew assessment scores in any given classroom. Most teachers get their students by pure chance. One teacher could have a classroom full of students ready and willing to learn. Another may have a student with a learning disability or a constant rule breaker.

Chuck of Tongue-In-Cheek weighed in as well. Chuck and I have discussed merit pay before. Chuck applauds me for beginning to see the merit pay light, but also puts my solution for disruptive classrooms in perspective.

from chuckrates

Now you’re starting to see some of what I was trying to tell you about why merit pay is unrealistic. Executing proper discipline/behavior management against the “bad apple” is not always an effective solution. In my 5 years of teaching experience, the “bad apple” is not always breaking the rules. Often, he/she just has a poor attitude, or has special needs that must be accounted for to the detriment of my ability to attend to the other students.

Again, it’s all oversimplification. There might not be one “bad apple” in a certain classroom, but maybe there are three generally good kids who are shy or don’t work well with others. There goes my unit that centered around group projects. Maybe teacher A has a class in which five students miss a week of school because of a band trip, but teacher B has only one such student. Six people in Teacher A’s class (counting the teacher) now have to work significantly harder if they are to keep up with Teacher B’s class, which can pretty much continue as normal.

Just to be clear: I’m not opposed to merit pay. I just consider it unrealistic because there’s no way for it to be fair in the reality we live in. Sort of like Libertarianism — yeah, the world might be a better place in a lot of ways if it looked like Libertarians want it to look, but how in the hell do you get to that point without nuclear holocaust or something?

I’m starting to see the situation is far more complex than can really be solved by one measure. We can’t think that school is a factory line. Info in citizens out. There needs to be some outside the box thinking here.

I’m not convinced Obama, Duncan, etc have it in them to approach the situation in this way. I like you, think there are ways so improve learning, use merit pay, etc. The execution at this point is just all wrong.

It’s like Lee at Gettysburg. Everyone is telling him you know if we just packed up and flanked these guys they will leave their HIGHLY DEFENSIBLE POSITION. Lee just says, “naw let’s just cross miles of open ground and march straight up that darn hill. (I know this is a gross oversimplification of the battle and circumstances surrounding it. Just let it go this once.)

Also I’ve had the Libertarianism argument before. I’ll refer to His Little Majesty James Madison on this one. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Unfortunately a country needs a little more guidance than making sure its citizens don’t kill themselves and countries don’t invade. Libertarianism, and communism for that matter, take a utopian view of humanity I just don’t subscribe to.

There is a point to this. There is really no way to make the pay system for teachers 100% “fair”. There are inequalities inherent in the system that just can’t be avoided. There are circumstances outside of the educator’s hands. People do not carry an equal share of the work. Unless we genetically engineer the perfect teacher there wont be even teaching ability, then what would be the point of paying them anyway.

Can the pay system be made more efficient? Yes. Can the pay system reward teachers for exceptional work? Certainly. Are the current merit pay proposals we’ve seen the solution? No way. Will merit pay raise student achievement? Anyone who thinks any one reform on its own will solve out education woes needs their head checked.

The merit pay proposals we’ve seen attack the problem directly, like a factory. Merit pay crafters seems to have assembly line sickness. If we input this we will get this output. The solution is far from that cut and dry. What we need is outside the box thinking. I’m not convinced merit pay, or at least a better pay system, can’t be achieved. Antiquated linear thinking wont get us anywhere.

Are these policy crafters in need of some lessons in 21st century skills?

Sunday Editorial on Editorials – Maine needs more of the same?

While there are some who would rather barricade schools up than allow the opinions of business people to influence education. When it comes to running a school more efficiently business innovations should be examined. However when it comes to actually educating children I’m not sure a business mind is always best.

Jake Burnham, a recent Columbia MBA graduate, wrote an editorial this morning linking the importance of an educated populace with a state’s economic growth and how to achieve that here in Maine. I agree with Burnham’s initial assertion. Maine is lagging in Gross Domestic Product (42nd) and GDP per capita growth (45th). A state’s percentage of graduates can contribute positively to GDP. Of the states in the top ten of GDP seven have 30% or more college graduates. Two of the top ten are mere fractions of a percentage point from 30%. One could stretch and say nine out of ten make the cut.

That doesn’t bode well for Mainers, 24% of whom are college graduates. Our two closest neighbors New Hampshire and Massachusetts are at 34% and 38% respectively. There are other factors to Maine’s low growth that Burnham doesn’t mention. Take into account the high property taxes (more on that later), high income taxes (10th highest), 48th out of 51 in the Business Tax Index, and relatively low per capita income ($34,000) the whole thing is much more complex than school reform alone can solve.

While Burnham’s narrow view of this issue is a problem it’s his solution that I find most troubling.

from Kennebec Journal:

The plan is simple but controversial: expand the scope of the education system to birth and extend the school calendar through the summer. The Educare center in Waterville, which will offer high-quality care and education for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers, is exactly what Maine needs, but the state needs it everywhere — and fast.

We are failing these children by assuming their parents can prepare them for kindergarten and keep them learning during the summer. Every child should have an opportunity to get a quality education. It should make no difference whether you are born into a mansion with two doctors in Cape Elizabeth or a trailer with one welfare recipient in Caribou.

Extending pre-k programs to all Maine children would be fruitful. Not all children start school with the same advantages as others. Giving everyone a leg up on a few skills (basic reading and math) will prepare them for their kindergarten year. Some summer programs will negate the need for so much review each fall. Burnham’s logic that if the current amount of education is decent then more must be better is severely flawed. Burnham assumes that schools are already functioning at high efficiency. Wrong. Maine schools are still functioning on the antiquated industrial learning model. Memorize, regurgitate, get a treat. Subjecting students to more of the same will not increase the quality of a school’s output to put it in blunt business terms.

Having state-wide Educare Centers such as the one in Waterville is also a nice idea. The cost, which at this time is not on the taxpayers, is high. Educare has a $3 million operating cost. When compared to the $93 million that the Portland School District has proposed for 2010 that doesn’t sound so bad.

But all this money talk raises one question. How will we pay for Burnham’s proposed reforms? More taxes!

from Kennebec Journal:

A creative recommendation from the Brookings Institution would be to institute a second-home property tax at the state level that would either apply strictly to non-residents or have a high exemption level to protect the majority of Mainers. “Summer People” own more than two-thirds of the $28 billion in second-home wealth in Maine. A small property and transfer tax would provide hundreds of millions of dollars with which to transform the outcomes of Maine’s future generations.

OK so maybe I played taxation specter a little bit. Taxing those dreaded people from “away” might not sound so bad to those of us who tough it out here year round. However, for a state that bases so much of its economy on tourism, taxing tourists may not be the best move. Not everyone who owns a second home can afford this extra tax. My mother in-law owns a small camp on North Haven. She is not a millionaire “summer person” in a McMansion. If they imposed yet another tax on her small property she would not be able to keep it any longer.

The economic impact of tourism in Maine cannot be understated. A 2006 study found tourism contributes $10 billion in sales and services. One out of six jobs in Maine is supported by tourism. That’s a greater percentage than even Florida. Those are numbers too big to ignore. How many people would continue to come spend their dollars in Maine if we taxed them even more. Most would find a less expensive place to play. That is not something Maine can afford in the short or long term. Especially since there are ways to improve education without large tax increases.

I may have come off a bit harsh. I agree with Burnham’s start (an educated populace improves economic growth) and his destination (Maine schools must offer a higher quality education). How we arrive at those goals are two vastly different trips.