Column Comes Oh-So-Close to Intriguing Case for Education Transformation

Yes, these are crazy days. But a short blog post is better than none at all. And I felt compelled to reply when I read this new Denver Post column by Alicia Caldwell. Not because she is entirely wrong, but because she errs by coming so close to, but missing, a critical breakthrough:

But the truth is — listen up, my free-market friends — enticing top-notch teachers means competing and paying for them. The average teacher salary in Colorado in 2012 was just under $50,000. That’s not much.

Paying teachers more isn’t a popular idea. But getting rid of the mediocre — a non-negotiatiable [sic] first step — and hiring smart people who are star teachers should be.

As usual, read the whole thing. She writes earlier in the piece that, due to challenging student demographics, we should celebrate Colorado’s small gains on national tests because of being so “poorly” funded. (Close to $10,000 per student.)

Compared to a majority of states, yes, we don’t spend as much per student. Real increases over the last 10 years have been small because of the squeeze put on by a big recession — one that hit families’ and businesses’ budgets at least as hard.

To continue to believe that better results would spring up like flowers from the soil if more money were poured on, well, that belies the evidence. Caldwell is right to emphasize the importance of teachers, and is right about the research on what great teachers can do.

But focusing on the average teacher salary isn’t terribly helpful. How does Colorado uproot the mediocre instructors and replace them with “star teachers”? Not by increasing the general salary schedule for all.

Well, how then? By overhauling the tenure law. By implementing true performance (and even market-based) pay programs. By giving teachers freedom to excel as entrepreneurs. But that’s just part of the equation.

What if Colorado were to wisely implement technology so teachers were empowered to expand their reach to more students? Staff roles were redefined, and gaps filled in to make better use of time and match educators with their strengths and expertise.

Caldwell’s comment begs the question: Are there enough star teachers out there? Are we comfortable reducing the overall number of teachers to pay individual achievers considerably more — given the type of environment, the type of system, I’ve just suggested?

And giving students and parents the maximum power to choose, not bureaucrats, does it all require more money? We have no idea, until we seriously try. My guess is if that kind of education system — one in which Kids Are First — were on the table, it could be a whole different ballgame than the one that blew out Amendment 66.