Business-Minded Bredesen on the Right Track for Improving “Dropout Factory” Schools
By Drew Johnson Last week, a Johns Hopkins University study labeled 37 of Tennessee’s high schools “dropout factories,” sending the state’s high school principals and state education bureaucrats into a tizzy. According to the report, 14.2 percent of Tennessee’s public high schools failed to graduate at least 60 percent of their students. While the study has been widely criticized for ignoring students who change schools during their high school careers, it still raises an important question. Why do so many of Tennessee’s public schools not make the grade when educating their students? According to the state’s recently released Tennessee Department of Education 2007 Report Card, one in five of Tennessee’s students do not graduate high school in four years. Troublingly, an 80 percent graduation rate would be a dramatic improvement for most of Tennessee’s urban high schools. North Nashville’s Maplewood – the worst performing school in Middle Tennessee – graduated only 56 percent of its students on time. In Memphis – where four schools graduated less than half of their students – the situation is also critical. Higher taxes and more spending won’t fix this crisis or the state’s subpar education system. The Nashville and Memphis school districts already rank first and second in per-student spending. And despite the $9,300 price tag, education outcomes are worsening. It’s time for a new way, and apparently Gov. Phil Bredesen agrees. In a September speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bredesen acknowledged that quality teachers, rather than greater per-pupil spending or palatial hi-tech school buildings, make the biggest difference in educating children. According to state education data, 68 percent of the variation in student performance is explained by teacher quality. Bredesen, a genius in the business world whose personal fortune is estimated at $250 million, appears prepared to address Tennessee’s dropout dilemma by applying his business knowledge to teacher tenure and pay. As Bredesen knows from his years in private enterprise, scrapping the state’s teacher tenure system and installing a performance-based salary system is the easiest way to improve teacher quality and performance. Great teachers should be paid like the professionals they are. The state’s current socialist-style system of teacher pay is based on length of service rather than ability. Good teachers, who are not paid what they deserve, often flee the profession for more lucrative jobs in the private sector. Bad teachers, who are overpaid given the quality of their work but enjoy job security, stay to teach students long after good teachers leave. Good teachers should be paid more. It’s that simple. There’s no reason why the best teachers in Tennessee shouldn’t earn six-figure incomes. There’s also no reason why bad teachers should coast along, making as much as the best teachers in the state, with little threat of job loss. Performance-based pay is a simple yet promising way to address “dropout factories.” Tennessee should remove tenure and install a system of teacher pay based on their students’ educational improvement, beginning with inner city schools that need immediate help. Salaries based on performance will weed out bad teachers and allow good teachers to thrive. Children will have the chance to receive a good education, even in the state’s worst schools. As the twilight of Bredesen’s governorship nears, he has little to show for his time in office besides a few scandals and a cigarette tax hike. Now, free from worries of re-election, this man who wants so much to be remembered as Tennessee’s “Education Governor” can write his own lesson plan for improving education. By applying to education the same hiring and salary practices that made him a success in business, Bredesen can reduce dropouts and revitalize Tennessee’s lagging education system. He can secure his legacy as Tennessee’s Education Governor.