This is a Guest Post by Lindsey Wright from Onlineschools.org:
Creating the Political Will to Change Educational Performance
In his recent post on this blog, Lessons From Finland #1 - Teacher Education and Training, Bob Compton states that the quality crisis in the US education system can be solved by changing teacher's educational requirements to stipulate higher levels of education, specialization in the fields teachers teach, and an increase in the amount of time student teachers spend in classrooms under the guidance of experienced master-level teachers, rather than just in online courses or teacher training. He notes that these educational changes require the action of each state's governor and its legislature, and further states "All it takes is courage to withstand the screams from colleges of education - the sacred cash cow of most universities." At the heart of this issue is the question: "what does it take to effect political change?"
Actually making political changes, of course, is for better or worse ultimately in the hands of our elected officials. Unfortunately the primary concern for many politicians becomes getting elected, even if their motivations are purely to serve their constituencies. We must also recognize that their constituencies are comprised of both individuals and businesses or other organizations, some of which often have very different priorities. Because corporate entities are frequently the largest political donors, their needs are often addressed first. Call it corruption or simply the nature of democratic government; either way, corporate contributors' interests often lead politicians to prevent legislative changes that might threaten business. Education reform is no exception.
So what can be done to spur the process? Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for creating the political will to change educational performance standards in this country. However, there are steps that can be taken to slowly turn the political behemoth in the right direction.
First and foremost, our elected leadership must be willing to put education reform near the top of the political agenda. To make this happen, concerned constituents in each district must unite in pressuring politicians to respond to this priority. For individuals, this means expressing concern for the education of the children in their local school district. Local businesses must weight the costs of higher taxation against the advantages of having an educated workforce to rely upon in the future. This view is not always taken into account in commercial enterprises, but would benefit our economy immensely in the long term.
Secondly, we need to make school and teacher improvement a national economic priority. A very large number of American schools are currently embroiled in economic crises, without the funding to maintain reasonable classroom sizes or retain teaching professionals with experience and outstanding credentials. Alex Johnson of MSNBC states that "Federal education figures show that employee salaries make up about 80 percent of the typical school district’s budget." He quotes Eric Churchwell, superintendent of schools in Palmyra, Mo., who points out “if you have to reduce your budget substantially the only way to do that is to reduce your teaching staff." This causes not just a reduction in the number of teacher in our schools, but a reduction in quality of instruction. Teachers possessing the master's degree that Compton would have us require will cost more to hire and retain. In part this is because they will cost significantly more to train, and it would make little economic sense for aspiring teachers to pursue additional education without the prospect of better earnings.
Thirdly, we need continued support for post-graduate teacher education. If we require teachers to possess a master's degree, we must provide potential teachers with economic support through grants, loans, loan forgiveness programs, and scholarships to access this higher level of training. Since teachers often earn significantly lower salary as educators than they would in comparable private sector jobs in their fields, an economic incentive is necessary to keep them in the classroom when they might instead transition to the boardroom.
Finally, we need to address the upcoming teacher shortage. According to Sam Dillon of the New York Times, "Over the next four years, more than a third of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers could retire." This means that we will be loosing our most experienced teachers at a time when our educational system is already in crisis, leaving potential student teachers with far fewer resources for obtaining the full year of classroom experience that Compton proposes. Much of this shortage is a result of early retirement incentives given to older teachers to alleviate budget crunches in local school districts. To replace these retiring teachers, we will need the aforementioned financial support for post graduate teacher education more than ever.
Changing our educational system boils down to economics and politics. While our politicians often bemoan the current state of our educational system at election time, they fail to put the necessary funds into educational development when making fiscal decisions. They rely on business donations to make it in the political arena and can't afford to alienate the people who put them in power. Therefore, business interests are considered before those of individual constituents, and businesses simply don't want to pay to educate the populace. The only thing that will effectively change this viewpoint is a real effect on the bottom lines of corporate interests. When corporations are unable to find qualified, educated individuals to fill positions, then they will begin to see the need to change. In an employer's market, such prevails at the moment, this will take time. It may represent a profound misplacement of priorities on the part of politicians and the companies that pressure them, but nevertheless it's realistically the nature of the situation.
In the meantime it is up to schools, organizations, and individuals to continue expressing their concerns to their governing officials. While business pays for elections, only people can vote (and recall) our elected public servants if they fail to perform. In order to initiate educations reforms for teachers, we must make our politicians perform in the best interests of our children and our future.