Sunday, February 16, 2014

In which I attempt to answer a question from a school administrator

In a recent post on Twitter, I highlighted a very interesting news story by Kim Jackson of Channel 8 in Tulsa, and then linked to an explanation of why I thought Jackson's findings were not at all surprising. My tweet elicited a response from a gentleman named Jason James:

I've previously mentioned my general policy regarding hostile missives from strangers, and given my uncertainty that this particular question is being asked in good faith, I'm not sure it deserves an answer. In any case, it did cause me to think through some things.

In his Twitter profile Mr. James describes himself thusly: "Asst. Superintendent of Schools, Clinton Public Schools in Clinton Oklahoma. OKState Alumni." I've never met Mr. James, but the next time he's in Oklahoma City I will be happy to buy him lunch (thus putting my money where his mouth is). He can reach me via Twitter or at 405-602-1667. I certainly can't answer his question in 140 characters or less, but here are 10 observations which, taken together, may provide somewhat of an answer.
  1. I write about my perceptions of #oklaed because I'm an Oklahoma educator, taxpayer, and writer. Some may think the #oklaed hashtag should be limited to the government's school system (with a heavy emphasis on defending that system), but I respectfully disagree. In my view "public education" simply means we want an "educated public," regardless of where that education takes place. I agree with Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, a liberal African-American Democrat, that "an innovative and productive public education system can include home schooling, parochial schools, private schools, cyber schools, public charter schools and, yes, traditional public schools — all of which I support."
  2. I write about education policy because it's my vocation. I work for an organization which employs me to commission, edit, and write various books, articles, policy papers, editorial columns, and more. I'm pleased to say this is a nonprofit organization which to date has raised and distributed $127,000 to college-bound seniors in traditional public schools, private schools, and home schools.
  3. I'm an Oklahoma educator. My wife and I are among the thousands of Oklahomans who are part of the nation's fastest-growing educational sector: homeschooling. I consider this to be the quintessential example of putting one's money where one's mouth is.
  4. When it's all said and done, my wife and I will have saved our fellow taxpayers approximately half a million dollars by educating our own children, thus freeing up that money for our political leaders to fix roads and bridges, provide welfare benefits, incarcerate criminals, pay schoolteachers, and so on.
  5. Hats off to the truly excellent teachers in Oklahoma — I believe they deserve to be paid millions — and hats off to teachers who are certified. But when you consider that the two greatest teachers in history, Jesus and Socrates, didn't have teaching certificates, and that certified teachers in this state have produced enough functional illiterates to fill Boone Pickens Stadium more than six times over, one cannot be blamed for concluding that certification isn't all it's cracked up to be. "There is no other complex field in our society in which do-it-yourself beats out factory production or market production," the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once marveled. "Nobody makes his or her own car. But it still is the case that parents can perform the job of educating their children, in many cases better than our present education system." That being the case, I really don't see the need for a teaching certificate. "If ordinary people, with no medical training, could perform surgery in their kitchens with steak knives, and get results that were better than those of surgeons in hospital operating rooms, the whole medical profession would be discredited," the economist Thomas Sowell observes. "Yet it is common for ordinary parents, with no training in education, to homeschool their children and consistently produce better academic results than those of children educated by teachers with Master's degrees and in schools spending upwards of $10,000 a year per student." 
  6. If Mr. James is suggesting I go to work for one of the government's local school districts, I would simply point out that I already have a day job (see item 2 above) and a teaching job (item 3). Moreover, as an alumnus of both public and private schools, I can say with certainty that I would be very reluctant to attempt to teach children in a setting which ignores the very source of wisdom and knowledge.
  7. As a taxpayer who helps to pay Mr. James's annual compensation of $82,641, I'm already putting my money where my mouth is. Indeed, I'm already putting my money where Mr. James's mouth is.
  8. While we're on the subject of paying for the tax-financed schools, I would respectfully submit that I'm not entirely satisfied with my return on investment. In that regard I'm hardly alone: not even one in four Oklahomans is satisfied with his or her return on investment.   
  9. This dissatisfaction is justified. Oklahoma has many excellent educators, and Mr. James himself may be one of them, but according to the Global Report Card, the math achievement of the average student in Clinton (for example) is at the 31st percentile relative to an international comparison group. In other words, people with teaching certificates in Clinton are producing students with math performance worse than that of the typical student in the average developed country — "despite the fact that the comparison is to all students in the other countries, some of which have a per-capita gross domestic product that is almost half that of the United States." Consider this: If you picked up the Clinton school district and plopped it down in Canada, the average Clinton student would be at the 23rd percentile in math achievement.
  10. These poor achievement levels may help to explain why more than half of Oklahomans would choose something other than a traditional public school:
 Click chart to enlarge
Regardless of what Mr. James may think of those 10 items, I'm hopeful they will at least go a considerable way toward answering his question. In any case, I do have a hypothetical question of my own.

If an alarmingly large percentage of taxpayers were to tell their public servants operating the schools, "Your product is so unappealing to us that (if we had other options) you couldn't even give it away" — and yet those very taxpayers continued year after year to pay the generous salaries of the public servants — would the proper response of the public servants be one of defiance, or contrition?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Answers 4 and 5 - alone - should motivate this chap to write you and Mrs. D. a note of thanks.

Keep on truckin'