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What Leave No Teacher Crisis Honestly Addressed!

Washington politicians in both parties love to say they’re for educational "testing" and "standards" and "accountability," but nearly every state had already adopted such systems before the feds congratulated themselves for adding another bureaucratic layer in the much-touted No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But the new law largely punted on the teacher crisis in our poorest neighborhoods, which any serious attempt to leave no child behind would make its first priority. Indeed, this is one of the few things on which researchers across the political spectrum agree: Half of the achievement gap facing poor and minority students is due not to poverty or family conditions but to systematic differences in teacher quality. "Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education," Alan Bersin, the superintendent of schools in San Diego, told me, "the maldistribution of quality instruction is the key determinant of underachievement in large urban school systems." Despite lofty pledges, our latest "education president," and the Democrats assailing him, are shooting blanks.

Start with President Bush. His No Child Left Behind Act tells states "thou shalt have a quality teacher in every classroom" by the end of the 2005–2006 school year. But this command can’t change the facts of life in poor urban and rural districts. Republicans would ordinarily recognize this as a question of market economics—the supply of good teachers who will work in difficult conditions with challenging children isn’t adequate at prevailing salaries. "They may as well have decreed that pigs can fly," Wayne Johnson, who runs California’s teachers union, has said. California and other states have tried to wiggle out of this unfunded mandate. Not that they’re proud of this, for who wants to admit that they can’t scare up enough decent teachers for the kids who need them most? But if forced to comply, and stick only with teachers who pass muster under normal definitions of "qualified," class sizes in the toughest districts could rise to 50 or 60. In the triage environment of urban schools, this route is almost certain to make matters worse.

It’s hard to imagine a more demoralizing presidential dodge: Mandate the politically appealing result (and take credit for having addressed the problem) while offering no cash to poor districts to make it a reality. Then, to add insult to injury, make the penalty for noncompliance a cut in existing federal funding, putting the goal even more beyond reach than it is today!

But that spirit captures the symbolic nature of Bush’s entire education agenda. Republicans love it because its pseudo seriousness and media appeal neutralizes the traditional advantage Democrats have enjoyed on the schools issue, while its no-cost emphasis on testing and accountability doesn’t divert money from the tax cuts they want. The GOP knows that poor districts lack the tax base to do more on their own. Yet they hide behind lofty-sounding commitments to "federalism" and "local control" to justify denying poor schoolchildren federal cash that might make a difference.

Bush’s other teacher quality "initiatives" similarly fail the seriousness test. Because of coming retirements and rising enrollments, 2 million teachers must be recruited over the next decade. It’s either a crisis or opportunity, depending on how the nation handles it. Laura Bush, a former teacher herself, is a wonderful voice to lead this crusade. By all accounts she brings sincerity and passion to the cause. But the symbolic "agenda" the White House has cooked up for her is laughably unequal to the challenge.

Mrs. Bush first touts "Teach for America," which brings graduates from elite universities into inner-city classrooms for a few years, and turns them into lifelong advocates for schooling. It’s a fabulous program. But its scale doesn’t begin to deal with the magnitude of the teacher gap. In its first eleven years it recruited a total of 6,000 teachers.
But America now needs to recruit 6,000 teachers every eleven days. Program founder Wendy Kopp, who is grateful for the White House’s support, doesn’t pretend otherwise. "We’re not at all the answer to the broader problem," she told me.

Then there’s Mrs. Bush’s other pet program, "Troops to Teachers," which helps military personnel move to the classroom when they leave the service. Again, it’s a great idea, but it delivers only about 650 teachers a year. We need 200,000 a year. Mrs. Bush’s big push has been to raise funding for "Troops to Teachers" toward $30 million a year from $3 million. If you’re the White House, you boast of the "tenfold increase." If you pull out a calculator, you’ll figure out that at today’s rate it would take 300 years for the Bush administration to recruit enough veterans to fill the teaching gap we face over the next decade.

The average teacher, despite low pay, spends about $500 a year out of his or her own pocket for classroom supplies. The president’s response to this shameful burden: a tax deduction under which some teachers can deduct a portion of the money they’ve spent for these purposes. Sounds nice at first, but on reflection it’s an absurd halfmeasure. Would Bush offer soldiers a tax deduction for ammunition they had to buy out of their own pockets — or would he insist that they have the equipment and resources to do their jobs right?

Bush might say that when it comes to schooling, money isn’t everything, and he’d be right. But how about when it comes to creating incentives for young Americans to enter a teaching profession where the starting salary now averages $29,000 and rises to only $43,000?

Every free-market fan knows that you get what you pay for. When the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, New York, pays teachers with a masters degree and five years of teaching more than $60,000, and New York City pays her counterpart in the 40s, is there really a question about where most of the top talent goes? Given this context, it’s hard to see Bush’s deeds as being anything but a moral mockery of his words.

Democrats have predictably been willing to spend more money on the teacher challenge, but their "plans," too, have been more symbol than cure. In the last presidential race, for example, both Al Gore and Bill Bradley proposed a mix of college scholarships, loan forgiveness, and bonuses for some people who teach in high-need areas. Gore, to his credit, proposed that federal money be used (for the first time) to give a $5000 raise to many urban teachers. Other Democrats, doubtless inspired by the fact that teacher unions are among their top campaign donors, have weighed in as well. California governor Gray Davis made teaching a focus of his early agenda, offering some bonuses to teachers at high-achieving schools that later budget woes forced him to renege on; Senator Charles Schumer of New York once cobbled together the inevitable "Marshall Plan" (including mentors for new teachers, grants for training, and small federal bonuses for math and science teachers). As the 2004 presidential campaign unfolded, North Carolina senator John Edwards talked about paying college tuition for students who commit to teach in tough schools for five years; Representative Richard Gephardt packaged similar ideas into a call for a "Teacher Corps." Still, none of this has added up to anything that would make, say, a 22-year-old engineering grad swap the $60,000 salary she can earn in a technology firm for $29,000 at the local school. "I don’t think $5000 across-the-board increases are going to accomplish much," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents big urban districts.

Meanwhile, when Democrats attack President Bush for underfunding his plan to leave no child behind, they unintentionally mock their own seriousness. Democrats fault Bush for failing to provide the additional $6 billion for poor schools that he had pledged, as if this figure represented some meaningful assessment of what it would cost to address these schools’ challenges. But national k–12 spending is roughly $400 billion; within that amount, teacher compensation comes to around $100 billion. Does anyone really think $6 billion, sprinkled (as it would be) among everything from salaries for teacher’s aides to capital improvements to teacher training, amounts to a serious attempt to address these schools’ problems? While the money would doubtless do some good, honest Democrats have to acknowledge that blasting Bush over this shortfall is more about political symbolism than serious problem-solving.

Just as important, Democrats have been unwilling to challenge union practices that would make spending on schools more effective. Teacher unions have resisted calls for "differential pay," for example, defending instead their traditional "lockstep" pay scale under which salary is determined entirely by the academic degree a teacher has earned and the number of years the teacher has been in the classroom. This compensation scheme ignores the obvious reality that certain teachers—such as science and mathematics graduates—have more lucrative options than those who studied, say, physical education. It also makes no room for rational attempts to link pay in some way to performance or student achievement. In addition, teacher unions make it notoriously difficult and costly to fire bad teachers. The Democrats’ unwillingness to urge sensible reforms on one of the party’s most powerful interest groups bolsters the conservative case that more money for schools would simply be wasted.

The depressing reality underscored by our teacher woes is that today’s high-profile education wars are largely a sideshow. For a decade now, most of the oxygen in the schools debate has been consumed by the standards and accountability movement, and by structural innovations like charter schools and vouchers. These ideas all have merit, but they can’t trump a larger truth: If we can’t lure hundreds of thousands of talented teachers into the nation’s toughest schools, all the "systemic" reforms in the world won’t make much difference.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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