Education Problem? Throw Money!

The extent of bankruptcy in the thinking of people connected with education in Kentucky (probably most other states as well) was exhibited in an op-ed piece of 08 March in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Lexington, Ky., by Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Indeed, one wonders if Ed Prichard, a respected pragmatist with a brilliant mind in whose honor the committee is named, wouldn’t wonder at Sexton’s latest suggestion if he were still alive. Prichard filled a number of jobs in the “New Deal” administration of FDR in the 1940s.

Sexton suggests that public-school teachers of mathematics and science (actually just physics and chemistry) should be paid significantly more than other teachers because the best mathematician- and scientist-graduates when leaving college opt for higher-paying careers in fields other than teaching. This is the old and predictable political ploy used to solve any problem, to wit, throw money at it. The State Senate has already approved such a bill.

Even though it’s doubtful that the Prichard Committee has ever been worth much more than warm spit in affecting the state’s education system, this latest pronouncement predictably carries weight with a legislature no different from that of 1990 that heaved, strained and vomited up the Kentucky Education Reform Act, complete with enormous pork-barrel attachments (highest tax increase in state’s history) necessary to its passage. Much of it has been rescinded, and there’s absolutely no indication that KERA has effected a system any better than the one it replaced. In fact, education is worse off, not least because the legislators attempted to enact pedagogy, about the same as a third-grader designing college courses.

The law probably would never have been enacted if an activist judge hadn’t ruled that some systems were shortchanged in funds, when the fact was that town/county taxing agencies, as well as local populations, were remiss in doing their part with regard to school-financing. Even at that, if such a circumstance had actually been sufficiently important enough for action, the legislators could have effected funding-equity without attempting to completely realign the system, particularly with regard to the academic area. Actually, the legislation gave school-based councils (principal, three teachers, two parents) almost total control of everything from curriculum to materials, with both the state machinery and local school-boards virtually powerless in comparison with the SBCs. The result is virtually no standardization, not to mention that a local superintendent is so powerless that he cannot buck a council on even something as important as a principal-position.

Under KERA, Sexton’s philosophy was enacted in the “rewards system,” the doling out to teachers and administrators of bonuses when their students achieved the proper test grades. In the worst schools (usually demographically/economically/sociologically and not intellectually hatched), no teachers received rewards, while in the already good schools teachers were happy to be given windfalls for simply doing what they were hired to do. The predictable upshot: widespread cheating (stealing) on the part of both teachers and administrators. The losers: students. This system has been rescinded or drastically reconfigured, so naturally it is being urged again. Amazing!

Whether or not he realizes it, Sexton is suggesting that subjects having to do with the arts or other science subjects such as biology, anatomy, and botany are so unimportant that the teachers of these subjects can be nincompoops, with no sweat. The latest figures (2004) indicate that 53% of the freshmen in Kentucky universities and related enterprises needed remedial work just to be students: math, 44%; English, 32%; reading, 25%, for instance. A student needs only to score above 17 (out of a perfect 36, almost like tossing a coin for the answer) in order to escape remedial work, so this is an indication of how awful the public school system is currently. Even worse, new standards will probably be established soon that will drive the remedial rate even higher.

Sexton blames the Kentucky Education Association (virtual teachers union) for road-blocking his currently misguided approach, while agreeing that there’s no proof that it will work. He simply says that the present salary system doesn’t work but offers no proof of that, either, simply insisting that compensation helps attract talent. Go figure. That’s a known fact in practically any enterprise, so what he’s actually saying is that education should be reformed into tracks (actually systems) that provide schools for technocrats and all other schools for everyone else, a virtual impossibility in other than private terms.

The KEA presents a whole set of problems but it’s right on this one. Under the Senate bill, a chemistry teacher could make up to $10,000 more per year than the biology teacher next-door, with the governing factor being the student’s test scores and economic status. This is another way of encouraging the teacher to “teach to the test,” not to the subject. How Sexton could not see this is amazing. It’s already been tried and proven to fail.

The root of this problem lies in KERA, and until the last vestiges of this enactment are erased – especially the school-based councils – the system is doomed, and so is Kentucky education. When the legislature signed-on to “outcomes-based” pedagogy in 1990 (self-esteem as the most important of all educational endeavors), it essentially mandated mediocrity academically, with diversity and multiculturalism being the be-all and end-all of education endeavor and making it into an experiment (failed, at that) in social engineering. The Prichard Committee needs its collective head examined, and its director needs to face the fact that KERA, far from being an educational success, has damned an entire school generation and is nothing more than the result of a miserably failed fad.