Parsing (and responding to) New Mexico’s “education exodus”

Recently, the Santa Fe Reporter did a cover-story on the “education exodus” in New Mexico. While not specifically blaming Gov. Martinez’s reforms for the rate of attrition, that would certainly appear to be an underlying aspect of the article. Nonetheless, I responded to the article with the following published letter:

I sympathize with many of the teachers who are frustrated with the conditions in New Mexico’s public schools. Unfortunately, what is lost in this discussion is that teachers are ultimately working for local government monopolies that have long track records of frustrating and failing their supposed “customers” (students and their parents).

The reforms introduced under No Child Left Behind and by both the Obama and Martinez administrations are, in many ways, top-down efforts to increase accountability within those systems. This is definitely second best relative to school choice and free competition in education, but when paired with additional funding, they have mustered enough political support to pass.

Education, as any teacher will tell you, is not a “one-size-fits-all” enterprise. Teaching styles and techniques that work for some students don’t work for others. This freedom and the incentive to fulfill the demands of the marketplace form the basis of a free market.

Unfortunately, when it comes to school choice, the unions that supposedly represent teachers are the leading opponents. Ironically, the most effective teachers would benefit from a more market-based education system. Schools, were they given the freedom (and economic incentive) to pay excellent teachers higher wages would pay those wages. And isn’t excellence what we’re looking for in education?

The important point here is that choice and competition are inherently pro-teacher. After all, teachers are professionals with commensurate freedom and pay tied to success and should be treated as such, not as unionized factory workers circa 1920.

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8 Replies to “Parsing (and responding to) New Mexico’s “education exodus””

  1. Teachers need to decide whether they want to be professionals or production workers. Members of most professions are paid for performance, held accountable for results, and may be dismissed for misconduct or poor performance. Most teachers could thrive in a merit-pay system in which a top teacher could earn more than the principal. However, teachers do not deserve to be treated as professionals so long as they resist merit pay, oppose evaluation, protect the bad apples and insist on being fireproof.

  2. Competition? Really? Doctors achieve their best results when they collaborate. They do not compete with each other for higher pay. Nor are they judged by how many patients are cured. Every patient is different and requires individual treatment. No one blames a doctor when her patient dies after refusing to follow her instructions. If you have an effective way of evaluating doctors, I would like to see it.

    Competition in education? Really? Teachers achieve their best results when they collaborate. Competition with peers for higher pay destroys all incentive to work together. Teachers should not be judged by student test scores. Every student is different and requires individual treatment. It is wrong to blame a teacher when her student fails her class after refusing to follow her instructions, do assigned homework and study for tests.

    No dedicated teacher fears an evaluation process that is fair, statistically valid, understandable, comprehensive and is designed to help her improve. When you have devised such a method please post it here for all to see.

    It is also essential that any evaluation plan only holds the teacher accountable for things that are under her control. A student’s ethnicity and the family’s economic status have been shown to have a larger effect on a student’s academic success than anything the teacher or the school can do. This is not said to excuse poor performance. It is said to stress the reality of the obstacles teachers face. “Competition” and “school choice” do nothing to address these underlying problems and are no more effective than the Lone Ranger’s mythical silver bullets.

    It should be noted that those countries that are excelling in education are doing exactly the opposite of everything we are doing in this country.

    1. Typical that Ken is looking at the issue purely from the teacher’s standpoint and in defense of the teacher. He doesn’t appear to be concerned about the impact on the student and family. Competition does address the issue – parents know if their child is getting a good education and vote with their feet, IF they have the option to do so.

    2. Ken, I’ve been remiss in not responding to your comments. I’m not at all saying that the Gov.’s current teacher evaluation system is what we should be doing. In a competitive system, you’d have multiple evaluation systems that would be put in place. Businesses use different evaluation methods, so would the schools.

      And, no, I’m not asking teachers to compete against each other. Really, it is the institutions that should be competing to best fill the market niches. Obviously, a more competitive system would help insure that better teachers are not only retained, but paid better, while poor teachers would likely be asked to leave with a possibility of training if that is in the interests of both employer and employee.

  3. I agree: collaboration is a key aspect of professional practice. The tricky variable here is the FOCUS of that collaboration. When the focus is about protecting the incompetent members of the group, that approach is BAD. When the focus is about the patient, client, or customer; that is GOOD. The results usually speak for themselves in these enterprises, and blaming outside parties and/or conditions is NOT professional.

  4. Actually, a well-designed merit pay system encourages collaboration by including a team component — but I can understand that this is difficult for educators to visualize because it’s outside their experience and incompatible with the trade-union mindset. Physicians collaborate but also compete with one another, and we will see more of this as the government expands posting of medical quality data.

    Relying solely on student test scores certainly is inadequate, but evaluating professionals fairly is not rocket science: Leading corporations have been doing it for years. Most use a combination of results measurement, supervisory assessment, peer review and even feedback from customers and subordinates.

    Implementing an intelligent evaluation system ought to be possible for schools but will face two barriers: lack of imagination on the part of government bureaucrats, and a culture among educators that resists accountability.

  5. Paul –
    Very good article.
    Unfortunately, the respondents seemed to have missed the real crux of the education issue.
    “Merit based pay”, “accountability”, “competition”, “collaboration”, “test scores”, and a number of other factors are all important components in optimizing educational results. Parents, teachers, unions, concerned citizens, and the political establishment can legitimately disagree on the importance of each.
    BUT, the real issue is WHO, gets to decide! Clearly it should be the parent, who is the ultimate consumer. Just as the patient (i.e. consumer) ought to be able to choose his doctor, so too should the parents be given the means exercise their judgement over the decisions of the polical establishment.

    1. Thanks, I agree with you 100%! Yes, merit pay can be a good idea, but against what measurements? After all, teacher behaviors that are good in one teaching environment may not be appropriate for another. There is no “one size fits all” in education (or in the rest of the free market economy). Thank you for reiterating the point.

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