By Kathreen Harrison | Mar 28, 2014

Earning a living is not easy in Midcoast Maine, and taxpayers understandably want to be sure the money they invest in schools is spent well. Test results, dropout rates, LePage’s school grades, college completion rates are not reassuring. What can we do to get more bang for our buck?

Answers are to be found in the current issue of OECD Observer, the magazine of The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Several articles in the current issue focus on improving educational outcomes from an international perspective.

The first answer is that we need to explain to our children and our students that they are wasting taxpayer dollars when they do not work hard. "...students in high-achieving countries consistently say that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence ..." High-achieving countries, according to OECD, are those who perform well on the PISA test, an internationally-benchmarked test of 15 year-olds across 64 participating countries. Students in the United States perform below the OECD average, at about the same level as the Slovak Republic and Lithuania.

Speaking from my own experience as a teacher, the above quote rings very true. I would say that about half of the children in the schools where I teach, beginning in about fifth grade, put very little energy into schoolwork. Most of them put less energy into schoolwork than they do into sports, other extra-curriculars, and after-school jobs. They do not seem to believe that working hard at school is important. This is not the case in nations with high-performing schools. A cultural shift seems to be in order if we are to get the proper bang for our buck.

The second answer to be found in the OECD magazine is that we need to support teachers as professionals. High-performing education countries "...provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control and accountability to professional forms of work organization." For reasons I do not really fathom, we seem to think that teachers need to be controlled in order to perform at high levels. Hence all the grading of teachers, and schools, and the move toward merit pay.

We are fundamentally confused about what makes teachers strive for excellence. Studies have shown that teachers do not work harder when bribed with financial incentives. Teachers already work about as hard as they can. Why do they work so hard? It's because they want to help their students learn. I see very few teachers who need bureaucratic control. What I do see is teachers whose potential is untapped because they are treated like replaceable cogs in a wheel. Teachers would produce better results over time if they worked within systems that helped them to grow.

The third answer is that "... classrooms need to be places for teaching creativity ... an individual's capability to come up with original and valuable ideas to solve problems." The worldwide web has definitely made obsolete the idea that an education is principally about coming up with the right answers to questions. We can get right answers to questions (if right answers already exist) by googling them. What we need now are people who can tackle the enormous and new problems facing the next generation.

In order to move the curriculum in the direction of emphasizing creativity we need professional development, time for teachers to collaborate, time for teachers to think. It's more complicated to teach creativity than it is to teach a right answer. Taxpayer money is wasted on mandates that teachers have no time to implement.

The last answer provided in this issue of the OECD Observer is that we need to raise teacher salaries. In the USA teachers make on average considerably less than other employees who have invested approximately the same amount of time and money in their own education. Korea, a world leader in education, pays its teachers considerably more than the average gross wages for similarly-investing professionals. In these economic times especially we are simply not going to get the cream of the crop to enter the profession unless we make it more attractive, and this includes financially attractive. We should take the funding that goes into creating more mandates and administrative positions to implement those mandates and put it into salaries. This is the most efficient way to improve schools fast.

The question is not whether we can create a financially-viable roadmap for improving educational outcomes in Maine. The question is whether we as a state really want to improve our educational system. If we do, there is a wealth of data available through OECD, the University of Southern Maine, and other organizations to show us how to begin. Nations around the world have bit the bullet and plunged into the effort and still spend less money on education than we do. Singapore. Poland. Germany. Canada. England. How about us? The way to elevate educational outcomes in mid-coast Maine without breaking the backs of taxpayers is to prioritize the changes that will improve schools fastest.

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