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Your choice: students, parents, teachers

Imagine that you are leader of a community foundation that somehow has come into enough money to spend multi-millions of dollars to improve your local school system. But there is a catch. You may only spend this fortune on only one of the following groups — parents, students or teachers. Which one would you choose?

As farfetched as it might sound, there are efforts under way in various places that are doing just that. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, it is parents that are receiving the attention. Across America, enormous resources are concentrated on students so that “…no child will be left behind.” In Finland the focus is on teachers. Is one approach better than another?

Once upon a time an instructor gave her students an examination from a test bank instead of her usual mixture of discussion, fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice and matching questions. Later, there was a review of the examination and the instructor asked if there were any questions or comments. One student replied, “We deserve a harder test than that. Our parents pay a lot of money to send us to this school and we should be challenged in the classroom.”

Taken aback, the instructor had a sudden realization: Although the faculty at the school was very good, it was the quality of students that made the school so highly-ranked and sought after.

Education or economic development?

Perhaps such an idea was the impetus for an anonymous donor to fund “Kalamazoo Promise,” an initiative that will pay full tuition at a Michigan public college or university to any student who attends a Kalamazoo or Oshetemo, Michigan public school from kindergarten through the 12th grade, according to an article in the March 10, 2006, issue of The Wall Street Journal. Students who attend for the four years of high school still get 65% of their college tuition paid for. The Kalamazoo project is in effect spending money on parents because it is saving those parents college tuition. So what’s going on here?

This is actually an economic development project designed to revitalize Kalamazoo. Instead of spending money on incentives to create jobs or to improve physical infrastructure the idea here is that good public schools create demand for real estate in those school districts and that good public schools can be created by enticing parents of school children to live in the district. According to the Kalamazoo Public Schools Web site, “there is a strong correlation between overall academic achievement and a community’s economic vitality and quality of life.”

The premise of the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind program is that students who are not being served by their schools may transfer to a better school and that schools must show continual improvement or “…run the risk of reconstitution under a restructuring plan.” In other words, schools must improve their service to existing students.

Then there is Finland. According to an article in the March 25, 2006, issue of The Economist, Finland now “…has the best schools in the world. Finnish 15-year-olds have the highest level of mathematical skills, scientific knowledge and reading literacy of any rich industrialized country.” That is certainly amazing given that in the 1960s Finnish schools were as poor performing as the average European secondary school of today. So what happened?

Finland changed its entire system and focused on teachers, according to The Economist article. It delegates responsibility to teachers and gives them plenty of support. One Finnish headmistress said that it is all about getting good teachers and then giving them freedom.

Thorough discussion

Many in the United States say that teacher quality dropped as women entered the professional workforce in the latter part of the 20th Century, and that low teacher pay plays a part in getting the best available teachers. Women once considered the career of teaching an attractive profession because their other work opportunities were limited. For a more thorough discussion on this aspect, read a report by Dr. Peter Temin, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It can be found on the Web at http://www.educationnext.org/20033/8.html.

Because education is such a complex and serious enterprise, it might seem rather ludicrous to suggest that any one initiative can have a profound effect. Nevertheless, it is certain that public schools have a profound effect on communities’ economies and quality of life.

What works in one community will certainly not work in every community. For example, rural communities may not find the same benefit in a Kalamazoo Promise-type project if they do not have jobs nearby. It may be hard to entice good teachers with money and support if there is inadequate housing.

Nevertheless, communities would do well to do everything possible to explore ways to continuously improve their schools regardless of whether the focus is on parents, students, teachers or something else.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com and his Web site is www.philhardwick.com.

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