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Treating teachers like professionals key to stopping state dropout crisis

Earlier this month, a Johns Hopkins University study labeled 37 of Tennessee’s high schools “dropout factories,” sending high school principals and state education bureaucrats into a tizzy. According to the report, 14.2 percent of Tennes-see’s public high schools failed to graduate at least 60 percent of their students.

While the study has been widely criticized for not taking into account students who change schools during their high school careers, it raises an important question. Why are so many of Tennessee’s public schools unable to educate and graduate their students?

According to the state’s own 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 many of Tennessee’s high schools, including most urban schools. In Memphis, for example, the situation is reaching crisis levels. Four Memphis high schools graduate less than half of their students.

Higher taxes and more spending won’t fix this crisis or the state’s subpar education system. The Memphis school district spends $9,300 per student in their attempts to educate — second most in the state. Yet the district’s educational outcomes are the worst in the state. State and local officials, try as they may, can’t simply spend their way to educational success.

State educational data may hold the secret for improving education in Tennessee. According to state research, teacher quality explains 68 percent of the variation in student performance. Good teachers, not greater per-pupil spending or palatial hi-tech school buildings, make the biggest difference in educating children.

The key then is to incentivize the best teachers to stick around the classroom and force the worst teachers to leave as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do this is by applying the same common-sense approach to teacher pay that guides salary and benefits in nearly every other profession in America.

Teachers who are good at their jobs should be paid more than those who are not. It’s that simple. State leaders should scrap the state’s teacher tenure and pay systems and install a performance-based salary system – one that treats all teachers like the professionals they are.

The state’s current Communist-flavored system of teacher pay is based on longevity rather than ability. Since they are not paid what they deserve for teaching children well, good teachers often flee the profession for better pay in the private sector. Worse, the bad teachers, who are overpaid for the quality of their work and enjoy job security, stay to teach students.

This simple idea of performance-based pay is a promising way to improve every school, not just the “dropout factories.” Beginning with the inner city schools that need immediate help, Tennessee should remove tenure and install a system of teacher pay based on their

students’ educational improvement.

Performance-based salaries will weed out bad teachers and allow good teachers to thrive. As a result, even children in the state’s worst schools will have the chance to receive a high-quality education.

Drew Johnson is president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee through the ideas of liberty. Visit TCPR online at:


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