Redefining Public Education

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

In the November Education Outlook issued by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), senior fellow Frederick Hess issues an ambitious set of K-12 educational reforms which, he argues, would modernize teacher hiring practices and public education.

“Ultimately, the goal is to rethink the teacher challenges of the 21st century,” writes Hess. “While we should recognize that institutions change slowly and celebrate incremental advances, we should not allow that to obscure the goal: to recruit the most promising talent and then foster a more flexible, rewarding, and performance-focused profession,” he later adds.

In the paper “Rewriting the Job Description: The Teaching Profession in the Twenty-first Century” Hess suggests a series of reforms:

1)      Recruit additional second-career teachers to supplement hiring of new teaching graduates. “A 2008 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reports that 42 percent of college-educated Americans age twenty-four to sixty would consider becoming a teacher and would be more likely to do so if they could count on quality training and support and expect to start at salaries of $50,000 or more,” Hess writes.

2)      Alter teacher compensation scales to reflect career experience outside of the education sector, instead of basing salary primarily on seniority,

3)      Reduce teachers’  bureaucratic duties by hiring more “support staff” to handle “administrative and other noninstructional tasks,” thereby “free[ing] up teachers to perform the work for which they are best suited,” and

4)      “[U]se technology for tasks to which teachers add limited value” such as web-based tutoring and tools which help teachers monitor student achievement.

Is additional support staff the answer?  U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that noninstructional employees compose 30.3% of local districts’ full-time equivalent (FTE) staff for elementary and secondary education but constitute only 21.3% of payroll.

State education staffing costs are increasing significantly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “The payroll for state governments rose by 5.3 percent ($937 million) in 2008. Among the functions with the largest increases in payroll were education ($464 million) and corrections ($113 million),” stated an October 26 Census Bureau press release.

Some of Hess’ policy suggestions are likely to be unpalatable to education professionals from both ends of the political spectrum. For example, along with the integration of “hybrid positions” and second-career teachers, Hess promotes outsourcing some of American public education to foreign nationals. “Perhaps the most significant impact of education technology is its potential to eliminate obstacles posed by geography,” writes Hess. “Web-based delivery systems can take advantage of the wealth of highly-educated, English-speaking people in nations like India willing to tutor children at relatively inexpensive rates.”

He later adds that “Using technology to deliver instruction or tutoring from a distance creates opportunities to make ‘classrooms’ with large numbers of children (as in South Korea or Singapore) and to streamline the ‘teacher’s’ role. In either case, the challenge of finding enough high-quality local personnel becomes more manageable.”

One can logically conclude that in such a scenario, taxpayer dollars might end up funding foreign tutors’ salaries.

In one case Hess appears to insinuate that elementary school children should be taught by a number of specialized teachers rather than a single class teacher. He writes,

Teachers would be deployed according to their particular talents and focused preparation. Elementary reading instruction, for example, might be recognized as a role distinct from other tasks, with research-based preparation for diagnosing, instructing, and supporting early readers taught in highly specialized training programs. Teaching remedial math at the secondary level might be another area suited to taking advantage of specific skills and training” (emphasis added).

He also draws upon the medical and legal professions as examples of modern successes in human capital specialization.  “In a well-run medical practice, surgeons do not spend time filling out patient charts or negotiating with insurance companies; these responsibilities are left to nurses or support staff,” he writes. “Similarly, not even junior attorneys are expected to file their own paperwork, compile their billing reports, or type letters to clients. These tasks are performed by paralegals and secretaries.”

“Such efforts to use talent and expertise fully have been largely absent in schooling, apart from some small- scale initiatives.”

The first profession mentioned might not serve as an ideal staffing model given America’s looming shortage of doctors. “The number of U.S. medical school students going into primary care has dropped 51.8% since 1997, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP),” reported USA Today this August. Author Janice Lloyd later added that “The AAFP is predicting a shortage of 40,000 family physicians in 2020, when the demand is expected to spike. The U.S. health care system has about 100,000 family physicians and will need 139,531 in 10 years.”

This April Slate Magazine’s Juliet Lapidos offered a clue as to how this situation might have been created in the first place:

“Ironically, just a little more than a decade ago, there was a doctor surplus. In 1996, a committee of the Institute of Medicine warned that the United States had a surfeit of doctors caused by foreign-trained physicians coming here to work and recommended freezing med-school class sizes and limiting first-year residency positions. A year later, Slate ran an article on an alternative strategy for reducing the number of doctors approved by the federal Health Care Financing Administration. Under the Graduate Medical Education Demonstration Project, 41 teaching hospitals received $400 million in exchange for not training between 20 percent and 25 percent of the medical residents they would otherwise have trained over the next six years” (formatting in original).

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.