a service of the Nevada Policy Research Institute


Homogenizing failure

How the educational experience gets spoiled

By Steven Miller

When milk is homogenized, it’s mechanically forced through tiny channels that reduce the molecules of cream to sub-micron size. This disperses them throughout the milk and prevents cream from rising to the top.

In Nevada school districts, also, mechanisms are in place to prevent the cream from rising to the top.

Some teachers, research has repeatedly shown, are much more effective educators of students — regularly producing a lot more genuine student progress than do their colleagues. Yet for decades Nevada school districts have sold them out, refusing to pay them more, other considerations equal, than the most mediocre.

The mechanism through which this anti-excellence policy operates is the rigid, one-size-fits-all pay grid that all Nevada school districts allow the state teacher union to impose. Under those union contracts, seniority and credits from largely sham college courses determine teacher compensation — rather than objective measurement of individual teachers’ actual effectiveness.

When milk is homogenized, it more rapidly spoils, breaks down and becomes rancid. Nevertheless, because homogenized milk is easier for big dairies to ship long distances in paper cartons, almost all of the milk in American stores is homogenized.

Similarly, when a school district homogenizes teacher quality by submitting to the union pay grid, it compromises its faithfulness to the teaching function itself — the district’s very reason for being. Currently, however, district leaders have strong personal incentives to yield to the union. Not only do they escape union-generated hassles — savage personal attacks and school disruptions front-paged in the media — but the damage done to the real victims, the kids, is largely invisible: It’s the educational progress that did not happen.

The collectivized blurring of teacher quality that occurs via the union pay grid is just one instance of how homogenizing failure is intrinsic to our government school systems. The 2003 Nevada legislative session is illustrative. Fearful of losing its control over teacher compensation, the union successfully campaigned to totally block, legally, districts from using objective data on the effectiveness of teachers in their performance evaluations. BusinessNevada has written on this atrocity before, focusing on the role of the state political class in this betrayal of Nevada parents, students and taxpayers. Yet the treason of school administrators was no less shameful, for they chose to lay low, rather than mobilize for the most important education-accountability issue facing the state in decades.

Government school system administrators, when meeting with concerned business leaders, often imply that it’s the unions that tie their hands and prevent needed educational reforms. But in fairness, the public school systems were bastions of mediocrity long before the National Education Association turned itself into a labor union in the 1960s. Much of the reason why the NEA and AFT (American Federation of Teachers) could sell themselves to teachers all across America was that teachers saw themselves as exploited by abusive and unfair administrations. Of course, teachers today, with justice, still see themselves this way. Only now, they recognize they’re exploited by both the unions and administrations, who are in bed together.

Public education’s fundamental problem today is that it remains based on coercion and compulsion — principles antithetical to both the spirit and practice of the life of the mind. After all, to really flourish, human learning — like all forms of inspiration — needs freedom. Yet administrations and unions share a reflexive hostility to free choice in the realm of education. They live in fear of losing the coerced taxes upon which they subsist. They also deeply fear the loss of prestige and status they expect would follow any system where their “clientele” were not financially penalized for choosing more productive, efficient and customer-friendly private sector educators.

Our public schools’ “mediocrity problem” also grows out of the fact that, as tax-based and government-empowered institutions, they are necessarily political institutions. Consider the “stakeholders” a public school superintendent must juggle:

school trustees,

business leaders,

community pressure groups,

the administrators’ own staff people, on whom they depend,

“connected” teachers, and

“connected” parents.

Each of these groups can, if upset, seriously threaten an administrator’s job. Naturally, for public system administrators, balancing and pacifying these multiple, conflicting constituencies becomes the top priority.

At a private, market-based school, however, the priorities of an administrator are quite different. What’s paramount is the satisfaction of many check-writing parents. That translates into a higher genuine emphasis on educational achievement.

Parental choice ensures that “homogenizing failure” can’t long succeed in the private sector.

Thus we need parental choice in all our schools.


Steven Miller is editor of Business Nevada and policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.