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SALT LAKE CITY — While Americans are waiting to receive the first shipments of the iPhone 5, the Chicago teachers' union strike continues into its second week. The teachers' union is seeking a 29 percent salary increase over four years. For Chicago teachers who currently make an average of $74,839, compared to median household income in Cook County of $45,922, the increase would put teachers at an income level almost twice that of their students’ parents.
Meanwhile, those parents are at wits' end trying to contain the more than 4,000 students running footloose and fancy free across Chicago while school is out. It’s enough to create empathy for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual.
What makes the strike most suspect, though, is not the union’s salary demands, but its opposition to merit pay. At a time when China is producing more than a thousand engineers for every one American engineer (China was expected to graduate over a million engineers in 2011), Chicago teachers are balking at any kind of measure that will examine whether their methods and skills are actually educating students. According to the Wall Street Journal:
"Teachers won big, however, on what they really care about (other than money), which is limiting the degree to which student test scores count in teacher evaluations. Student performance will count for only 25 percent starting this year, moving up over the next two years to 35 percent. This leaves the rest of the evaluation to the kind of subjective judgment that has long kept the worst teachers firmly in place."
In other words, there’s no penalty for poor teacher performance and no incentive to improve, either. On the other hand, there’s clearly plenty of motivation to take a week off for the picket lines. If the strike works, union teachers’ compensation will grow significantly.
What may not improve, however, is student learning. Maybe we should be taking a page from the Steve Jobs playbook that created the iPhone and how he wanted to apply revolutionary change to education to keep America competitive.
Steve Jobs, no conformist himself, saw the rise of teachers unions as directly in opposition to the purpose of schools and the breaking of the unions as the beginning of education reform.
In Utah, perennially short on education funding, the debate over raising teacher salaries is governed more by competition for state funds with other worthy projects. It should be no surprise, then, that Utah’s solutions have included a grab bag of innovative solutions that seek to integrate technology, on-the-job training and choice.
Earlier this year, the Utah legislature passed SB 248, the Smart School Technology Act. Developed in cooperation with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the idea behind the law was that using technology properly in Utah's public schools will train students to be better prepared for the modern workforce and to enter higher education ready to compete. Further, a skilled workforce and quality schools are great branding for state business recruitment and retention efforts.
Under the Smart School Technology Act, Dixon Middle School, Gunnison Elementary School and North Sevier High School were selected to test a program that puts iPads in the hands of every student and teacher. Created by iSchool Campus, a Park City-based education technology company, the program involves a flat-screen TV and an Apple TV box that networks all of the devices. In addition to placing technology in students' hands, the programs is school wide, provides training to teachers and has robust Internet security to protect students from harmful material.
Other innovations begin before children enter school. My daughter is in a preschool program called Upstart, a pilot designed to be used at home in the year before children start kindergarten. Participants are given a computer program on a dedicated external hard drive that plugs into a home computer. For 15 minutes a day, children use "Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me" to learn the alphabet, numbers, vocabulary and science. We are two weeks into Upstart and already my daughter is showing increased vocabulary, knowledge of letters and numbers and interest in learning. I see it as a direct result of the program.
On the other end of the spectrum, serving high school students, Granite School District has a career and technology education program that Granite spokesman Ben Horsley calls “world class.” Students work directly with businesses in highly technical career paths that “provide a boost into their college and career pathways.” Serving 3,000-plus students across Granite School District, the program introduces students to more than 55 specialized career pathways from bioengineering to robotics.
Lest we forget, Utah is at the forefront of language-immersion programs, with the National Security Administration providing supporting funding to start children learning Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and French as early as 1st grade.
From technology in the classroom to technology at home, each are innovations that Steve Jobs might admire and approve of, efforts by Utah educators and legislators to try new ideas and new technologies to increase student success.
At the end of the day, though, Jobs did not see technology, nor the lack of technology, as what would make or break a student’s education. It was choice. Technology won’t work to improve education until we solve politics to allow more choice in education. “It's a political problem,” said Jobs.
"The problems are sociopolitical. The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the National Education Association and the dropping of SAT scores, and they're inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system."
Choice, then, is the last piece of the equation. A recent study by researchers at the Brookings Institution and Harvard University found that students involved in voucher programs were 24 percent more likely to enroll in college as a result of receiving a voucher. Teachers and schools who have incentive to compete, to use technology and to improve their skills are better educators. And better educators create better students. Why, then, does Utah lag behind other states in providing parents with choice in their children’s education?
The paradigm of a teacher standing in front of a classroom at a chalkboard is a relict of the past that the Chicago teachers union is fighting to retain. A great tool circa “Little House on the Prairie,” the blackboard should go the same way as the one-room school house. More pay alone, with insufficient merit requirements, does not improve schools. A better solution is found in merit pay, technology integration and school choice.
Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas, and restaurants. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org