Schools don't need more public school employees--they need principals like Ben Chavis

September 16, 2010

John Stossel's excellent piece yesterday, "Money is not what schools need," cites CATO education expert, Andrew Coulson, who shows that over the past 40 years schools across the nation have been hiring personnel at nearly ten times the rate of student enrollment.  

This pattern of adding adult workers to the schools in hopes of raising student achievement is also true for Washington state. Student enrollment in Washington between 1998 and 2008 has increased by 3%, while the number of public school employees has increased by 11%.  

Policymakers in Washington are committed to adding yet more staff to schools (see HB 2261 and "prototype schools") and hoping this huge additional expense (estimated at between $3 to $5 billion new dollars) will improve student achievement.  But adding staff has not led to improvement in test scores in the past--why would we think it will do so in the future?  

A cynic would say that legislators continue down this path because adding staff is acceptable to the various interest groups which control education in Washington.

As Stossel reports, more staff, more money, is not what schools need.  They need principals like Ben Chavis, who leads Oakland's American Indian Public Charter School. Students here are overwhelmingly poor and minority---98% of his students qualify for free lunches. This school has class sizes that are the same as, or larger than, classes in other public schools. Only one-fourth of Mr. Chavis' teachers are certified by the state of California.  His school is not new and shiny. He rejects teacher evaluations and setting goals for teacher performance.  And yet his students have the fourth highest test scores of any school in the state.  

In the words of John Stossel, here is how Mr. Chavis does this:

Money, Mr. Chavis insists, is not the answer. "My buildings are shacks compared to their schools, but my schools are clean, and we'll kick all their asses."

He scoffs at the establishment's solutions to the education problem, such as teacher evaluations.

"I don't do no teacher evaluations. All I do is go into a class, and if the kids ain't working, your ass is fired. (Most principals) sit for hours and say, 'Is he meeting this goal, is he meeting' -- I just go to class, and if the kids are not working ..."

This is tough language for the delicate ears of the education establishment.  But it effectively communicates the contrast between leaders like Ben Chavis who are given the tools they need to act, and school principals in Washington state.  

Here in Washington, if the kids in a classroom are not working, nothing can be done about it, unless you count as a solution a two-year process (costing $200,000) for the removal of weak teachers. Two years in a child's education is an eternity, and can set a child behind for life.  

Washington's legislators won't even consider changing the laws which grant lifetime tenure to teachers and principals.   And school principals must use teachers certified by the state of Washington, even though only 40% of those teaching math and science either minored or majored in math or science in college.  

Legislators should work on allowing charter or innovation schools in Washington, so our own Ben Chavises can emerge and create schools where students can achieve.  Adding more public school employees to the payroll is a solution which has already failed our students.  It is time to focus on what works, not what is acceptable to the education establishment.