Monday, August 31, 2009

School politics according to me - part 2

Here's the second part of my current views on school politics. They are not permanent in any way, as I am susceptible to persuasion by facts and logic.

Teacher competence
There's no denying that a depressingly high fraction of teachers are not competent. While providing schools with training budgets for their staff can remedy part of this problem, the basic issue is that the shortage of teachers a while back led to schools accepting teacher students who'd failed basic high school math and other subjects. Worse still, some of the students who'd failed math now teach that very same subject despite being unqualified. Something which ought to be painfully obvious, is that you need to have mastered the subject you teach, at the level you're teaching. No wonder children perceive math as difficult and non-intuitive.

In my limited understanding of how this came to be, it started as a shortage of teachers, during which period the teacher academies accepted pretty much any applicants, irrespective of whether or not they were qualified. Following this, the situation was that a shortage of teachers still existed, but that the schools did not have the necessary budget to hire permanent staff. Hence, many schools depended heavily on temps (not part of the permanent budget), which isn't exactly ideal from the students' point of view, in that there is no stable situation. It ain't exactly the kind of situation which favors optimal quality of teaching either, as temps - knowing full and well that the odds of being hired permanently are abysmally low - had no incentive for going above and beyond and laying down maximum effort.

So what to do about this? One obvious step is to implement minimum criteria for being accepted into teaching academies. Another step is to lose the temps (if that's still relevant) and go for hiring of permanent staffers. A training budget for further education of teachers is also a must, something a lot of politicians appear to be talking about these days. For me, increasing teacher salary beyond its current level doesn't really make sense. Last time I checked those numbers, high school teachers can make more money that Associate Professors, while working less. There are probably teachers out there who claim to be underpaid and overworked, all of whom I'd be happy to compare workloads with. Also, in my experience, there's a very high percentage of local politicians who are also teachers, compared to other professions, which doesn't seem to go with the claim of having a much higher workload than said other professions.

Funding structure
Should schools be funded via national or local budgets? There are some very persuasive arguments to be made for school budgets being run across municipal budgets, most of which deal with flexibility and a closer proximity between decisionmakers and the issues to be dealt with. On papyrus it's a great idea to let the municipalities distribute the budgets as they please.

On the other hand, there's a saying that a small town with lots of money is like a donkey with a wristwatch. Nobody knows how it got it, and damn if it knows how to use it. Every argument that can be made in favor of increased local budget control can be countered with three little words: "The Terra Municipalities" Come to think of it, Trondheim is another example of why increased local control is a really bad idea: Trondheim sold it's power plant to private enterprises with a hyooge profit, which was not distributed or invested locally to stimulate the Trondheim area, but - wait for it - invested in all kinds of stocks and bonds in order to maximize profit fast. Enter the global financial crisis, and Trondheim went from a wealthy municipality/city to being three taxpayers away from having to sell Nidarosdomen to a Saudi Arabian amusement park.

Ironically, the brilliant architects behind this sale were the usually fiscally responsible conservatives in Høyre. Kudos on a job well done, and for demonstrating that municipalities from what I've seen either don't have robust eough economies or don't have the know-how to manage their finances. Clearly, municipalities cannot be trusted to distribute their funding according to what's best for common goods like education. Thus I am in favor of having school funding regulated by the national government.

Another wall of text. More to come.


Anders said...

Last time I checked those numbers, high school teachers can make more money that Associate Professors, while working less.

Hard to check those numbers, since the salary politics are less. But a high school teacher has a 38 weeks per year workload. So for sure they work less on paper.

Trondheim sold it's power plant to private enterprises... (and) invested in all kinds of stocks and bonds in order to maximize profit.

The problem with this is while the people who initially made the investment, might be competent and in controll of the situation. But, this is a long term investement that needs careful monitoring and action needs to be taken when necessary. Which isn't ideal in a situation where the responsible people (politcans) changes and the decisons making is a slow process.

So I totally agree with you, municipals investing in (high profit) stocks is nearly by default a bad decision.

Wilhelm said...

I was hesitant as to whether I should include something about the funding structure in the post. However, this is often where the buck stops - quite literally - due to budget deficits, overspending and/or epic fiduciary misconduct in the municipalities

Anders said...

Well, quality costs. Of course there is a money issue here.

But I got a bit side-tracked by the stock investment/ Terra thingy. You may now return to your regular program.