Three ideas for Carson schools: a syllabus; merit pay; parental choice

In April 2005, I wrote an Appeal article on Carson High's failure to teach most of its students pre-Civil War American history, a practice I had verified with a teacher, students and a school board member who had discussed it with administrators.

The district launched a misinformation campaign to cover up its practice. Making the problem public had benefits, though, because Carson High last year began to teach more early American history so it could claim it was doing so all along. While that's false, at least the curriculum was slightly improved because we raised the issue.

Here are three practical ideas to prevent such fiascoes and greatly improve Carson education: 1) promoting accountability by publishing a syllabus (schedule and outline) for each class; 2) merit pay for teachers based on the value they add (student achievement gains); and 3) significant parental choice among schools and teachers within the district.

When I was a community college instructor, I had to give students a syllabus at the start of each semester, specifying the material to be covered in the course, the schedule, homework required, grading standards I used, etc. That requirement made instructors accountable to the college and students, and it also made us prepare timely and well. The practice is at least as appropriate for K-12 teachers as for college instructors.

Students should get a copy at the start of the semester, and the syllabus should be posted on the Internet to give parents and taxpayers direct access to it. Beyond the compelling general accountability benefits of this practice, it would have avoided the controversy and cover up concerning Carson High's American history coverage. The truncating of American history could not have been done in the dark, as it was, and no one could have claimed disappointed unfair surprise when it was revealed. Coupled with parental choice, this proposal would give parents a remedy for poor teachers.

Teachers already should be preparing a syllabus as standard practice, and the cost of copies and web posting would be virtually nothing. This is a prime example of a low- or no-cost reform that would improve education, and it refutes the educrats' self-serving and false claims that nothing can be done without lots more money and taxes.

Merit pay is a basic fact of life in competitive markets, where incomes depend generally on what people and organizations produce for the good of others, not on how well they play politics. It is bitterly opposed by teacher unions and educrats and thus by school boards that would rather cave in to those predatory special interests instead of doing their duty to students, parents and the public interest. It has been implemented some places, usually based wrongly on teacher inputs (degrees earned, etc.), not on the important educational output, student achievement gains.

The right way to do it is to compare the performance level of students at the start of the year (or for continuing subjects, at the end of the previous year) to that at the end of the year. The difference shows the value the teacher has added in a class and can be used as the pay-for-performance basis. It has been done right, for example, at Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock, which has an overwhelmingly minority and low-income - and previously poorly performing - student body.

If a class starts out averaging in the 30th percentile in math at the end of third grade and by the end of fourth grade it has improved to the 46th percentile, the teacher has been quite effective and will be rewarded justly, despite having a below-average class. If a class starts out at the 90th percentile and ends up at the 75th percentile, then the teacher will not be rewarded, despite the high overall score, because he added little or no value.

Parental choice adds the essential market-type competition and incentives lacking in monopolies conferred by government, such as public schools. That lack is the main reason for their poor performance, unaccountability and non-responsiveness. The best system would be parental choice among public and private providers, with tax spending on education following the student. However, parental choice within the public system can be done by the district promptly without waiting for the political consensus that would require.

Choice, too, has been implemented in some places, despite educrat and teacher-union opposition, and it has produced good gains. It has even been brought into the public system in San Francisco, where unions rule absolutely. SF is the model of nearly everything wrong in government, so if even it can get this matter right, then CC can too.

I participate in many constructive volunteer activities to help our schools, and so I know that most teachers care, work hard and welcome changes to improve education, as these three initiatives certainly would. As I pointed out in another Appeal article, there is no meaningful correlation of inputs such as per-pupil funding and student educational achievement. So, people who really care about our children and the public interest will not hide behind special interests' false under-funding claims, but will embrace low- and no-cost reforms instead of excuses to avoid them.

• Ron Knecht, a Nevada University Regent, is an economist, Registered Professional Engineer in California, law school graduate and proud father of a 5-year-old daughter.


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