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Opinion: Don’t trust school reform to Legislature that dabbles once every 30 years


An expert in school data, Jarod Apperson looks today at the efforts and direction of the governor's committee charged with reforming how we pay teachers and fund schools.

Apperson has met with some members of the funding committee to present related data. He has also written several pieces for Get Schooled  on the education issues.

After reading the Get Schooled blog Thursday where teachers voiced concerns about proposed changes in the state salary model, Apperson sent me an email, "...I've thought a lot about the reforms being considered. I'd been meaning to write my thoughts down and seeing today's Get Schooled article got me motivated to do it."

A graduate of NYU in both finance and accounting, Apperson is pursing a doctorate in economics at Georgia State University, focusing on education data analysis. He writes the Grading Atlanta blog and serves on the board of the public, non-profit charter Kindezi Schools .

I agree with the central theme of his comments: It makes no sense to rely on the Legislature for a deep-dive reform of education. Lawmakers have neither the expertise to address what are complex questions nor the ability to respond with agility and accuracy to the fast-changing education landscape, witnessed by the fact the funding formula they're attempting to revise goes back three decades.

By Jarod Apperson

Georgia leaders are now evaluating a change in the way public schools are funded.

Our current funding system, introduced in 1985, is complicated but the crux of it can be boiled down to this:  about 63 percent of the money earned is based on needs of the students served while 37 percent of the money is driven by characteristics of the teachers employed, incentivizing schools to hire teachers who fit certain profiles that the state deems more valuable.

A state-level incentive structure makes sense if legislatures are incentivizing schools to do things that lead to greater achievement, but it is inefficient if the state is incentivizing things that don’t work.

The evidence suggests that Georgia’s Legislature is not very good at prescribing education approaches, and the current incentive structure implemented by the state does not align with what we know about the relative value of training and experience.

For example, there is clear evidence teacher experience matters, and year-to-year improvements are particularly dramatic early in a teacher’s career. A fifth-year teacher is substantially more effective than a rookie.

If the state’s incentive structure were strategic, it would give teachers large raises in the first five years. Instead, Georgia teacher earnings grow a paltry $2,036 over that period, or about 1.5 percent a year. That’s measly compared to the early-career salary growth seen in other skilled professions like technology, accounting or engineering.

Rather than paying teachers substantially more as they gain valuable early-career experience, the state offers huge incentives for something that does not lead to greater student achievement: advanced degrees.

In Georgia, it takes 14 years for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to reach the starting salary of someone with zero experience and a specialist degree.  This emphasis on advanced degrees over experience is not strategic. It doesn’t benefit students and doesn’t make teaching a more attractive profession. Instead, the only real winners from this scheme are the degree-granting institutions that collect tuition from Georgia’s teachers.

It is clear the current approach misfires, but the deeper question facing the funding subcommittee is whether the Legislature has the expertise and nimbleness to insert itself in setting strategy at all.  I don’t believe it does.

Just as our state has been poorly served by the current structure, a new plan mandating unproven pay-for-performance or other strategies du jour would be equally misguided.

Instead, the state should set the bar for what students need to learn and fund schools based on the needs of their students, leaving strategic decisions to the school leaders who know more and can react as new evidence arises.

Education is a dynamic profession. We know more today than we knew 30 years ago.  We will know more tomorrow than we know today. Financial incentives in a dynamic profession should not be dictated by a Legislature that revisits its strategy once every 30 years.

Just like we wouldn’t rely on a medical treatment prescribed by a doctor in 1985, Georgia should no longer educate its students based on what a group of legislators thought made sense 30 years ago. Reform is needed, and with the governor’s efforts, there is a real possibility of meaningful change.

Our state should fund education in a way that acknowledges the Legislature’s lack of expertise and takes advantage of the field’s dynamism rather than holding the profession hostage until a group of 236 women and men under the Gold Dome update their consensus once every few decades.

 

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.