Guest column: Reading, writing and accountability

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By Dave Trecker

Pelican Bay

It’s back to school and a good time to take stock of what’s happening in the changing world of education.

Merit pay for teachers is one of the biggest changes. Newark, New Jersey, just handed out $1.4 million in bonuses to public school teachers rated “highly effective” and to those teaching difficult-to-staff subjects. Not everyone was happy. The teachers unions, which believe in accountability only when there is none, wanted bonuses for everybody, regardless of performance.

Standardized tests are becoming the norm. Forty-one states now use some form of standardized testing, and most link results to teacher evaluation.

I recently talked with a middle school teacher from California who thought Florida Gov. Rick Scott is a Neanderthal and tenure was a God-given right. But she loved Common Core — the math and language arts standards for each grade. Forty-five states, including Florida, have adopted Common Core.

Charter schools are proliferating. Fourteen states have passed laws easing the requirements for chartering. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of charter schools has more than doubled in the past ten years. (Naples just opened its first charter school.)

Teacher retirement standards are changing. Illinois, staggering under high debt, offered senior teachers the option of “buying” early retirement. Many did. That allowed the state to replace them with younger, lower-salaried teachers. Cornell economists reported that, as a result of the buyout, “the median retiring teacher with 27 years of experience was replaced by a teacher with less than three years of experience.” An unintended consequence: Student achievement improved!

Exit testing is catching on. With grade inflation rampant, employers are having trouble measuring the value of college graduates. So next spring seniors at 200 colleges will take a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment that rates “critical thinking skills.”

Why more testing? A 2010 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities showed only one in four companies think two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for employment. Several major companies, most recently Google, reported grades had little to do with job success.

Online education is growing. A less-expensive alternative to classrooms, “Open Online Courses” are widely available and can be watched at the students’ convenience. A variant is real-time teaching where professors lecture to a camera, and students watch on their computers simultaneously. Last month two University of Texas professors began streaming a psychology course to some 1,000 undergraduates.

Government funding is changing. Disgusted with high college costs and student debt, President Barack Obama says federal grants should be based, at least in part, on how effectively schools prepare students for employment. Job preparedness may be the new touchstone.

All of this is good, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Though not perfect, our higher-education system is still the best in the world. A tour guide in Russia recently told me, “Everybody wants to study in the United States. That’s where the best schools are.”

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