Waiting for 'Superman' | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Waiting for 'Superman'

Posted By on Tue, Sep 7, 2010 at 3:09 PM

Slow day. Want something deep to read? Try New York magazine's long piece on "Waiting for 'Superman'," the documentary by the man who made "An Inconvenient Truth." His new movie, about children from Harlem hoping to win lotteries for charter schools, was screened at the Little Rock Film Festival and is expected to have dramatic impact on the "education reform" debate. The article is decidedly sympathetic to the film and the reform movement.

The filmmaker says the movie is not intended as a brief for charter schools, though it will be seen primarily as that. The magazine article is about the movie but it's also about the debates underway about reform, teacher unions and what it takes to make schools work. (Thought in passing: the urge to beat up on teacher unions is nearly reflexive in many circles, but remember that only four or five school districts in Arkansas have union contracts with teachers.) Anyway, this passage struck me. It's about a McKinsey study about the incentives necessary to produce a better teacher talent pool. In short: lots of money. But read on:

The McKinsey study attempts to move the discussion into the realm of the empirical, by using market research to estimate what it would take, money-wise, to induce top-third grads to overcome their reluctance to teach, especially in high-needs schools.

The answers are surprising. To start with, the report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can’t find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. “Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher,” says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study’s leaders.

Changing that perception would mean changing the reality, but the payoff would be dramatic. According to the study, a [Washington school leader Michelle] Rhee-style compensation package—starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000—plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K—12 education spending.

By nature, such research is imprecise and imperfect, and there is no data proving that hiring teachers from the top third would boost student achievement. For some American-education gurus, those weaknesses may be a cause to doubt McKinsey’s work—an attitude that policymakers in Singapore or Finland would find dumbfounding. You want data, we’ll give you data, they would say: Take a gander at our kids’ stratospheric proficiency in math, reading, and science; how’s that for data?

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