Thursday, September 18, 2008

A National Issue

The following story was just published in Education Week, a widely-read periodical for the educators of our country. The writer is a former teacher who was later elected to the School Board in his community of Cherry Hill, New Jersey (suburban Philadelphia). It feels like he is writing about us, which suggests that our situation is not that uncommon.

Common-Sense Ways to Improve Education Without a Tax Increase

By Kenneth E. Hartman

In the latest attempt by a state to control the cost of public education, the New Jersey legislature recently gave approval to a new law limiting the number of sick days an outgoing public school superintendent can cash in on his or her way out the door. It also seeks to pass legislation that would move school elections from April to the November general elections to engage more voters in local school board races.

New Jersey, like her sister states, is struggling to offer a high-quality education at an affordable price. Interventions, such as financially penalizing districts who spend "too much" on administrative costs, have done little to control property taxes.

The truth is that both our states and the federal government are broke. New Jersey, for example, is $32 billion dollars in debt, and the federal government is more than $9 trillion dollars in debt. We must face the fact that there is no cavalry coming from our state capitals or from Washington to bail out local school districts and taxpayers. We the People must find a common-sense solution to enhance learning and stop pitting good people (young vs. retired) and good communities (urban vs. suburban) against one another.

Twenty-five years as an educator has taught me a lot about effective school districts, but nothing has given me more insight into how public schools work than the past year as an elected school board member in New Jersey.

Here, drawn from my experiences, are a few common-sense ways to improve public education, without raising local property taxes:

Control benefit and pension costs. In most districts, nearly 85 cents of every school-tax dollar received goes to pay for staff salaries and benefits. As salaries have risen to respond to market demands, teachers' contributions to their health-care premiums have not increased. In fact, few public school teachers in most states pay any amount of money toward those premiums.

In addition, most states have out-of-control teacher pensions: They are going deeper into debt to maintain a system that permits retirement at age 55, with a pension of up to 65 percent of the highest year's salary, plus lifetime health-care coverage for the teacher retirees and often their spouses.

Contributions to health-insurance premiums could be phased in and be prorated for newer teachers, who make less money than their senior colleagues.

Lack of action today will result in many states' being forced to declare bankruptcy in less than 10 years, and to have no choice but to make draconian cuts in pension benefits paid to currently retired teachers.

Pay to play. Families should pay a small student-activities fee for their children to play a school sport, participate in a school club, or be in a school play. Families on a free or reduced-price lunch program could be offered a fee waiver (there is little evidence to show that a student-activities fee reduces participation in extracurricular activities).

Corporate and university partnerships. State and federal tax incentives are needed to entice corporations to financially support local schools. Likewise, colleges could, for example, use their Federal Work-Study funds to pay their work-study students to serve as online tutors for local K-12 students, or offer online courses for schools to share.

Create a K-11 graduation option. Millions of students are ready for college after completing 11th grade, as evidenced by the plethora of kids taking mostly Advanced Placement courses in their senior year. I say, let them go. Students who are ready could receive half the money we would save by not educating them for another year (from $5,000 to $10,000) in the form of a college scholarship.

Stop reinventing the wheel. An ever-changing curriculum is costly and has resulted in teachers being confused and suspicious of the "latest" new direction. As a result, most teachers in America pretty much teach what they want.

The cost-benefit ratio of implementing a new curriculum every five to six years should be questioned by local school boards. Moreover, do we really need 15,000 curriculum departments across the country?

Use the technology we bought. Nationally, we've spent upwards of $60 billion on educational technology, with little evidence that it has had a significant impact on student achievement.

But technology can enhance classroom learning, and it does not require that we buy another gadget. With a single computer and Internet access, students could collaborate on a global-warming project with students in China, publish an essay on the Web for experts to evaluate, or plug in a $20 webcam and see and talk to leaders around the globe.

While local school board members may have the will to make meaningful changes, they don't always have the way. The way requires all elected leaders, local and state, to band together in a single voice to stop the unaffordable path we have been on for too long.

It is fear and mistrust that prevent shared ownership of this problem. It is fear and mistrust that inhibit creative solutions and cloud judgments. And it is fear and mistrust that encourage us to run from the problem.

We can't afford not to operate a public school system that includes quality teachers, safe and functional facilities, and an internationally benchmarked curriculum. But, at the same time, we can't afford a system that we can't afford.

Kenneth E. Hartman was elected to the board of education in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 2007. The opinions and ideas expressed in this essay are his own and do not represent those of the board, individual board members, or district employees. He is the recipient of the 2007 Educator of the Year award given by the University of Pennsylvania, and can be contacted at


  1. Hartman's thoughts make perfect sense, though I don't see where he made mention of how to deal with the biggest obstacle to his first point: teacher's unions. Is he (and are we) willing to wait out/deal with teacher strikes? Because that's what it's going to take if we're serious about pension reform.

    But regardless, there's might be a more overarching reason that we'll have to become resigned to education becoming a larger and larger percentage of our spending: relative to other costs it is not coming down.

    Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that education and health care are highly inefficient, i.e. they require mostly human labor. Computers and robots have made almost every other industry more efficient but are of little help to the doctor or teacher, whose physical presence is necessary.

    With other forms of human labor, we've mostly outsourced it to very inexpensive illegals. We can't do that with doctors or teachers. If you want to know why starter homes don't cost $250,000 to build, look no further than your Mexican roofer.

    The human hands-on element of teachers and doctors is wonderful but it comes at a price. It will result in education and health care becoming predominant in our budgets, both governmental and personal, unless there are ways to make both dramatically more efficient.

    We're seeing some of efficiencies come to college education, such as online courses & degrees.

  2. eire:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. A couple of thoughts:

    There is a lot of dialog in this country - mostly driven by the education community - that American kids, each and every one of them, need ever more sophisticated courses in high school if we are to compete in the future world economy.

    I disagree. The kinds of jobs we've lost/outsourced are mostly not those requiring high education. Rather the deciding dynamic is labor cost. Who can hang a tire on a car on an assembly line cheaper, an American worker or an Indian worker? Sure lots of assembly operations can be automated, but if it were just our robots vs their robots, we'd win on the transportation costs. The point is that even our highly-automated production processes are more expensive than the labor cost in countries where our minimum hourly wage is more like their weekly salary.

    My point is that we have plenty of smart people - Ohio State and other top rate American universities annually crank more smart engineers and scientists than our economy can absorb. What we're lacking is a labor pool that will work and live at world wages.

    The only way out of that is to mess with free trade, like making it more expensive (via tariffs) to import stuff we could manufacture here. But we can expect retaliation on our exporters if we do that. We'd better have jobs for all those folks or we don't gain much.

    And on doctors: many hospitals are now using surgical robots - I think every one of our big general hospitals in central Ohio does. Although the instruments may be attached to a 'robot,' it is really just a manipulator that follows the movements of a skilled and certified surgeon who is normally sitting only feet away (but outside the sterile field).

    But there have been experiments where the surgeon is much further away. In Canada, robotic surgeries have been performed where the patient is in the far north and the surgeon in Toronto. To be sure, there was a surgeon on the scene in the operating room, but perhaps not one skilled in that particular procedure. The patient benefits from having his procedure performed by one of the best surgeons in the country without the expense of traveling to Toronto, and the surgeon gets to perform surgeries all over the country.

    There have already been cases, as I understand it, of American health insurance companies 'motivating' a patient into going to India for a procedure because of the cost savings. What will happen when the FDA etc approves having a surgeon in India perform a robot surgery on a patient in Iowa?

    Well, Indian surgeons will get richer and American surgeons poorer - maybe so much so as to discourage American medical school graduates from making the investment in a long surgical residency. Scary thought.

    I don't know that the YouTube/Facebook generation couldn't do just fine with online school. We have plenty of kids doing it now. Would I rather my kid sit in a classroom bored to tears by a crappy teacher, or have them be online with one of the very best in the country?

    The meltdown is on the horizon. And you right, the teachers' unions can either lead us into, or away from the fire. The evidence is that the union leadership chooses the former, perhaps because they (the leadership) will reap their rewards before they believe the meltdown occurs.

    I think they're very wrong...

  3. As an educator I beleive one of the most outrageous expenditures this in the area of special education. The laws enacted by Congress regarding FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Edcuation) are utterly ridiculous. It would be interesting to know how much money nationally in education is spent in the arena of special education. My beef with special education is not with the expense of education the student - it is with the cumbersome amount of paperwork which must be completed to document every step taken in the educational process. I would venture to say that 45% of a special educator's time is devoted to filling out paper work and not teaching the student. If this paper work really meant something toward the overall education of the student that would be one thing but it is an exercise in covering your ass. Good teachers need the ability to be flexible in their approach to teaching - not driven by what is on a piece of paper. When you find an approach that doesn't work - change it immediately! It should not be necessary to give the parents 10 days notice for a meeting to change their child's plan.

    Another realty is that the public schools are not equipped to meet the needs to the every severely impaired student. While these students definately need services the delivery method in public schools is mired down by outrageous staffing requirements that have nothing to do with producing results but merely provide a method of child care. I don't mean to sound harsh but the salaries we must pay to special educators and support staff to meet these needs could better be provided through a venue other than public schools.

    As an educator in a public school system I believe our education system is in trouble in many ways. Too much regulation devised by people with no expertise in teaching and have merely political agendas to get themselves elected.

    We have a society of parents which hover over their kid's every move and are ready to come to the rescue in an instance. Parents what things to be easy for their kids and at the same time want them to be independent and self sufficient. They want education to be entertaining and fun all the time. The minute an ounce of pressure is put on their kids to perform they come to the rescue. We have become a soft and undisciplined society with a feeling of entitlement. Too many "safety nets" and too little accountability for our actions and decisions.

    If the next President wanted to change the public education for the better he would allow for a pilot program wherby districts would be exempt from all federal and state regulations (except health and safety) and allow local school boards and their chosen administrators to operate the system with common sense and accountability. Absence of union designed personnel laws would allow teachers to be replaced in short order. Students that disrupt the system would be removed - or at least moved to a program that meets their interest and ability.
    Most educators I work with are not afraid to be held accountale - just let us do what we know how to do - TEACH. Let us do it without our hands bound my red tape that binds our abilty to reach our students.

  4. Thanks for your insights.

    I've heard it said that more than a few parents have moved to our school district because of high level of service offered to special needs kids. At the same time, some parents have told me that our school system has failed to serve their special needs kids.

    I suspect what might be true is a classical 'failure of the commons' in which so many flock to take part of the benefits of a shared resources that the resource eventually fails and no one gets any benefit.

    I understand what you mean about the so-called 'helicopter parents' who hover over their kids all the time. I guess it's a matter of degree. Our kids had some activities in which we were intimately involved, and others not so much. But we never interfered with the teacher-student relationships. But I could certainly see that happening if we thought one of kids was getting a raw deal. Fortunately, that never came close to happening (that we know of!).

    It is heartening to see an educator advocating a change to union work rules. I think that in the next decade, the unions must either demonstrate that they understand that they have overshot what is reasonable, or bear the consequences of a public becoming motivated to vote with their checkbooks. The School Board, Administrators and union leaders must start working this out immediately, regardless of whether this levy passes or not - or there is about zero chance of getting another levy passed in a couple of years.


  5. Paul:

    I thought your readership might find this interesting. It is an article from Van Keating, the director of management services for the Ohio School Boards Association. The article suggests that Hilliard is not the only school district experiencing financial turmoil. It also gives some sobering analysis as to the root cause and prospects for improvement.

  6. Thanks Marc - very interesting article.

    Here's a clickable link.


    Marc Schare is a member of the Worthington School Board

  7. To the educator:

    As the mother of 2 minimal special needs children who attended both Hilliard and Upper Arlington schools, I would like to shed some light from the parent's perspective.

    First of all, I would have to agree with the parents who said that HCS failed their child, but I can only compare my experience in Hilliard with my experience in Upper Arlington.

    In UA, two of my children were suggested by their elementary teachers to be tested and both qualified for IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) My children needed minimal assistance and our goals were always to keep them integrated into the regular classroom and to learn coping mechanisms to deal with their deficiencies (ADD, dyslexia). I also sent my dyslexic child to Marburn Academy during the summers to continue to learn additional decoding strategies.

    For my ADD child, having a tutor benefited the entire classroom, as his tutor functioned as a full classroom tutor, helping all students, but keeping a special eye on him to make sure he was able to follow the instructions. He didn't even realize that he had an IEP until he was 18.

    Yes, there was a lot of paperwork to document progress and meetings to discuss goals and at the time, I, too, thought it was excessive.

    Then I moved with my younger child to Hilliard. By that time (6th grade) my child had graduated from IEP to 'special watch' meaning that we (the teachers, tutors and parents) felt an IEP was no longer necessary, provided the coping strategies continued to be sufficient. We moved to HCS at the beginning of 6th grade. By 7th grade, it was obvious (to me, at least) that additional assistance was again necessary.

    Both of my children are extremely bright and as it was explained to me in UA, basically, testing measured the difference in my children's abilities vs. their performances. When there is a significant gap, an IEP is developed to assist in closing the gap. For example, when it was realized that one child had dyslexia and had not yet mastered decoding tools, tests for social studies were read aloud in order to test the content knowledge, not the ability to read.

    Based on my younger child's math performance, he/she was placed in Advanced Science and 9th grade math as a 7th grader. Unfortunately, the combination of moving to a new building when all of the 6th grade friends moved to a different building (don't even get me started on how I feel about 2 6th grade buildings splitting into 3 middle school buildings then back to 2 high schools and the impact it has on social structures), plus the additional stress of changing classes and not staying with the same 'team' for math and science lead to acedemic frustrations the 7th grade year.

    Because I had been warned that too many changes without appropriate coping skill training could lead to a decline in performance, I requested by child be re-tested. My request was turned down because the teachers felt my child was performing very well (I'm guessing relative to the other students, not to his/her ability) and felt that individually they could accommodate his/her needs without a formal IEP. I assume there was also the thought of the additional paperwork burden that an IEP would require. Because the teachers seemed sincere in their efforts and concerns, I agreed to try working outside the IEP plan.

    About half of my child's teachers went above and beyond to assist my child, a couple were about the same and one refused to cooperate, stating that it wasn't fair to the other students to make any accommodations. (Talk about whining about having to make any extra effort!)

    I believe that it is teachers like the last one who are the reason that so much paperwork is required for an IEP and why a parent should insist on one. Thanks to the teacher's unions, that teacher is continuing to teach other children in HCS. That teacher is fairly well recognized not to be a team-player (by both colleagues and parents), yet continues to be employed by the school when other excellent teachers are being laid off. That teacher will receive a 7.15% pay increase, probably for the next 3 years.

    Is the amount of paperwork excessive? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes, because a principal's hands are tied when it comes to deciding which teachers to let go. The principal can't even use pay increases (or lack thereof) to motivate that teacher to either change her attitude or leave.

    Unfortunately, because only 80-90% of the current pool of teachers and/or administrators can be trusted "to operate the system with common sense and accountability" (my guestimate)the only protection a child has from teachers and administrators who really should be in a different field is the regulation of paperwork.

    I just wanted to share from a parent's perspective.


  8. Teacher compensation and teacher quality is always an interesting subject to discuss. One of the factors regarding the quality of teachers in our classrooms relates to the compensation package. Many individuals that would make exemplary teachers won't consider the field because of the compensation and status of prefession. Other countries, such a Singapore for example, attract a teaching force that come from the upper third of graduates from their educational institutions. (Singapore is often cited as an example of an educational system that is kicking our butts in the student achievement realm.) Interesting enough, the compensation for teachers, and the regard for the profession in these countries.

    If we want the best and brightest in the teaching profession we need to take some innovative steps to rescue the profession, such as:
    1. Teachers should be on year round contracts which requires intense training and recertification during the period of time school is not in session for students. (The number of days in the school calendar should be increased by the way - but that is another topic ofr another time.)
    2. Teacher compentency should be tested on a regular basis throughout their career - not just when they enter the profession.
    3. Teacher compentency should NOT only pertain to the mastery of subject matter. There is a great deal of research on the effectveness of various teaching techniques. Many of the techniques that have been researched can be correlated to the levels fo student achievement that the techniques produce.
    4. Teacher evaluations and teacher compensation should be tied to the pervasive use of proven high yield teaching techniques as well as the teacher's subject matter competence.
    5. Highly regarded professions have high standards of entry into the profession as well as rigorous professional development standards. This environment should be the same for the teaching profession.

    By the way, I am an educator with many years of experience and much success in the classroom. During my first year of teaching, I was a members of the teachers association. Since that time I have not been a member. I did not feel that the association represented my interests as a teaching PROFESSIONAL so I discontinued my membership. I felt my familiy could benefit more from the money I spent on dues.

    Over the years I have had sterling evaluations, documented levels of high student achievment in my classroom, and great relations with my students and their parents.
    Over the past 22 years in education I have spent a large portion of 19 summers in training to enhance my effectiveness in the classroom. I am not sharing this so you or anyone else will pat me on the back. I'm merely trying to make the point that education is a serious profession which takes serious preparation. In all my years in the classroom, I have sent 1 student to the office for a discipline problem. When I have to resort to other people taking care fo my classroom, it erodes my effectiveness. This is not to say that I have not had difficult students to deal with over the years. In those cases, their parents and I have become very well acquainted. I remember one situation when I spoke by phone or met with the parent about 3 times per week for an entire semester. In the end, the student was successful and the parent and student realized what I expected in the classroom.

    By the way, during the my years in the classroom, I have never needed to be represented by the teacher association. I do not have troube with my school administrators - even when we don't agree on the issues. Teacher associations need to shift their focus from a union mentality to that of a PROFESSIONAL organization - they cannot effectively be both things.

    I did not intend to get on such a soap box, however, it really upsets me on the state of the profession. There are many outstanding teachers across this country but our ranks are being inflitrated by those that do not have a passion for students, a dedication to the pedagogy of effective teaching, and see teaching merely a job and not a mission.

  9. Thank you for your comments and your perspective.

    I have two intertwined, and some think antagonistic, beliefs about what must be done to get the American education system straightened out:

    1) We must ensure that every American kid has equal access to education resources, and the best way to do that is to levy taxes proportional to wealth, and redistribute the funds on an equal basis per kid (adjusted for local economic conditions). Those funds belong to the kid, not the school district;

    2) We must require schools to compete for kids by giving families free choice where to send their kids to school, without artificial restrictions created on the basis of political boundaries.

    I don't think most Americans understand the magnitude of the negative impact our way of organizing public schools has harmed our economy and our national soul.

    One of those is that school district boundaries automatically create significant changes in real estate valuation. The price of admission to a school district is the price of a residence in that district, be it an owner-occupied house or a rented property. This has directly led to the hollowing-out of our cities, leaving the urban core to those too poor to also escape, or to people without kids.

    And that motivation to seek housing in the suburbs led directly to the mortgage loan crisis, as homebuilders invented ways to make their product available to yet another segment of the population. I wonder how Columbus' population would be distributed if there were no school districts?

    Teachers, like you, who view their vocation as a profession and strive for excellence and continuous improvement should be rewarded well. The very best compensation systems are individualized, and may not be just about money. They might also include sabbaticals, opportunities to study abroad or to be a teacher of teachers. It can be things like a parking spot close to the front door and a classroom with a nice view.

    But to reward the best teachers in this way, the ineffective teachers must be weeded out. I think this is the role of a true 'teachers association' - to ensure the quality of their membership. Individuals who truly try but just don't succeed as teachers should be supported by their professional association as they retrain for another line of work. To afford that, the association would dramatically improve its standards and screening techniques so that very few failures occur once a license is granted.

    In a paradigm where 'school' is defined as an environment where professional teachers teach stuff to kids, the notion of school district no longer has meaning. There will be buildings in which teachers and students gather to complete a curriculum of study. Sometimes groups of building may gather together into larger organizations to gain operational efficiencies, allowing more of the per-pupil funding to be used on education things and less on things like textbooks and toilet paper (e.g because they buy in larger quantities).

    Or 'school' might be an online environment in which the English teacher is in Kansas, the math teacher in Texas, and the science teacher in New York.

    Innovation will come from the competition for students. If online learning doesn't work (as measured by standardized testing required of all students), then the experiment will die from the lack of 'customers' and therefore funding. But other things will be proposed, and we'll find approaches we haven't even thought of getting tried.

    Perhaps schools would be organized as professional partnership, where there is no 'administration' per se, but rather perhaps a 'managing partner' who is a peer, but also a skilled leader elected by the faculty. That individual will need to understand how to recruit and motivate teachers, serve customers (students and parents), and build a pipeline of business.

    If we did all this, we'll see many of the same dynamics we see at the university level. Notice that some colleges struggle to fill their freshman classes (e.g. Antioch), while others turn away many multiples of the students they accept (Princeton, Northwestern, Stanford).

    And notice that those who govern OSU decided that they needed to replace Karen Holbrook, who I understand was a talented scientist and teacher, with Gordon Gee, whose strength is in the marketing of the university to students, parents, alumni and even to the state government.

    Presidents Holbrook and Gee both understand the education value equation: for their product (an OSU degree) to have value, OSU graduates must be regarded highly in the marketplace. The best way to prime the pump is to allow only students with a high probability of succeeding to enter the university. OSU has gone from the school you apply to because you know you'll get in to one you apply to and hope you can get in. In spite of that, the enrollment is as large now as it was 30 years ago when I was a student.

    Once there, the students must have the benefit of top-notch faculty, who aren't just excellent practitioners of their field, but also excellent teachers.

    To attract such teachers, OSU would need to reward them well (football tickets never hurt).

    But they would also need to weed out those who just don't meet the standards, because such teachers just consume resources and chase away students.

    We have public primary/secondary schools organized the way they are as a result of decades of evolutionary forces, from racism and discrimination to labor unions to social engineering. Not all evolutionary paths are successful. I think it's time to declare this strain of DNA obsolete, and move on to something else.


  10. The blogger who wrote that the problem with special ed is the paperwork obviously doesn't have a special needs child, therefore, not appreciating the need for special ed at all costs. The real cost is the fact that school districts like HCSD do not take special education seriously enough. Therefore, parents are forced to be helicopter parents hovering over their children to make certain that their special needs are being served. If you think you have a tough job being a teacher and filling out the paperwork, just imagine the paperwork of the child's parent in making certain that the child receives FAPE. If the school districts would only do the right thing, like they used to do in the 1960s in my school, there would be no need for paperwork because they already had proved accountability when they walked the kid down the hall for speech therapy because he needed it, and not necessarily because he had to qualify for it first. I am not saying that we don't need special education laws and procedural safegards. We most certainly do because of teachers like the one whose beef is in the paperwork. Real, involved, and concerned teachers want to do the right thing for the child at all costs. After all, it is most costly to society not to serve their needs while in school. It is ashamed that we have teachers that are too lazy to fill out the paperwork. At my child's former HCSD elementary school, a teacher refused to retain a student because, as she told the parent, "it is too much paperwork." Give me a break!!!! I will continue to hover over my children like a helicopter until they are gone from Hilliard City School. Obviously, a parent has to hover to make certain that the right thing is done for the child!!!!! Sounds like that teacher ought to get into another profession!