POSTED ON DECEMBER 21, 2011:
School House Talk
A breakout strategy for Tulsa public
Some weeks ago I had the colossal pleasure of watching Martin Scorsese's new film Hugo. This spectacular movie chronicles the world of an orphan -- a kid who lives an exciting, if uncertain life as the hidden master of the giant clocks at the Montparnasse train station in a sort of alt-history Paris of the 1930's. Hugo is also an impassioned look at genesis of movie making at the dawn of the 20th century; a striking mediation on how a child can become an outsized contributor.
What if American schools and dare I say it, Tulsa schools consistently created an electric learning space like the lucid world in Scorsese's Hugo?
It Can't Come Too Soon
There is a Feb. 14 school Board election in Tulsa. This would fill a vacancy in District Five, the one that contains Edison High School and Eisenhower, Eliot, Lanier and Wright elementary schools, is in play. The candidates are Dr. Leigh Goodson, an OSU vice president for research/institutional development and Dr. Bruce Niemi, an educator, public policy specialist and a career-tech/workforce development guru.
Jobs are in short supply, so choose wisely. The loser may be working next to you at McDonald's.
Goodson looks to be a admin/quant jock--somebody who is especially adept at math, statistics and the world of managerial systems, while Niemi is a former state legislator and a deep player in the workplace/school nexus. I have not met Dr. Goodson but (disclosure) count Dr. Niemi as a close friend: I intend to interview both candidates for an upcoming article or two in UTW.
As many of our readers may know, Oklahoma is at the bottom of the bucket in terms of student performance and school teacher pay.
Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) has undertaken a massive school consolidation effort to lower expenses and improve instruction in low enrollment/underutilized schools. The project is a contentious, somewhat surgical effort to create a leaner, more agile system by closing down "surplus" schools and "pooling" students and teachers. As it happens, the lower expenses from this effort are even more critical than imagined: the State has dropped Tulsa's state funding by an amount nearly equivalent to the local savings achieved through the consolidation effort.
1) A huge number of Tulsa teachers -- maybe a plurality are working two jobs to make ends meet -- splitting their focus and compromising their ability to do pre- and after-school student work, planning and self improvement.
2) The quitting rate among new teachers -- that is, the share of these folks who don't stay after a 3-5 year tenure, is huge: and it is probably astronomical among the crop of teachers who are most effective. Again, voters and customers of the system can decide that.
3) Higher compensation works? Recently our country used it to recruit a revered, if problematic, "counterterrorism" police force, similar to that of the late Roman Empire. It's now easy to forget how bad officer and enlisted troop retention rates were before 9/11 -- now officers and non-commissioned folks, in a passel of critical specialties make great money. Do our educators need to become mercenary soldiers to be paid well?
Educational scholar Linda Darling Hammonds has written about teacher quality as a wheelhouse goal: I watched her talk recently about same in the new documentary film American Teacher, director Vanessa Roth's, Matt Damon-narrated show. The film was graciously hosted here some days ago by the Metro Chamber. Hammonds says that until the '60s, accomplished black people and talented women had very constrained opportunities. Accordingly these folks gravitated by default to teaching. So at the middle of the last century America's public schools had a bounty of workers.
With the late 1960s, with the women's liberation movement and the civil rights revolution produced a fevered migration: bright women and black people with great talent moved into other professions, apparently giving up on education. Today Tulsa teachers are an interesting mix of committed veterans, idealistic new comers and a scoop of brilliant practitioners -- all subject to the corrosive burn out we associate with police work, some forms of medical practice and military duty.
A Break Out Project
Imagine a school that pays all teachers $125,000 to start: The Equity Project (TEP) charter school, a 480-student middle school in New York City that opened in 2009. This new school aggressively exploits the centrality of teacher quality to student performance: and early student achievement results are stupendous. The Project operates using a skeletal teaching staff of about 25.
Public schools in Tulsa are funded overwhelmingly by taxpayers, people with property. But there is another avenue.
Oklahoma City, in 2001, asked and secured voter approval for a $700 million sales tax fueled package, the "Maps for Kids" project, for the Oklahoma City School District and a host of surrounding schools. This package included new schools, computers and buses. Tulsans have funded such improvements via bond issues: a big one was overwhelmingly approved by Tulsa voters about two years ago and, at more than $350 million, was the largest package in state history.
A powerful, if politically explosive way to augment compensation for Tulsa's public school teachers might entail emulating OKC's "Maps for Kids" project. But using the new sales tax dollars, unlike OKC, to dramatically raise teacher salaries.
Tulsa school administrators and union officials could map out a game changing teacher pay model: a model that would augment teacher pay by $25,000 to $35,000 -- not matching the TES School's $125,000 but making it possible for Tulsa master teachers to make far more than the low 50's that comes only after a 25 year tenure and a PhD!
Doing a dramatic salary ramp-up wouldn't address a big passel of other TPS problems -- some of which have-head busting complexity. But a "rad compensation" project would surely have a tremendous impact on retention, teacher motivation and our ability to recruit top-notch candidates.
After good parents, teachers are the most important professionals in our society: most Tulsans would tell you so -- will we ever match this easy sentiment with action?
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