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Friday, January 14, 2011

School Academics: Is A New Building Very Effective?

Wake of $400 Million Measure J:
Why Couldn't Alternatives To Building A New School Have Been Investigated?

If you talk with educators from anywhere outside Emeryville about the steps needed to effectively improve student academic performance, topping the list will always be the same two items: smaller class size and attracting better teachers.   Way down the list will appear new school facilities.  This wisdom is universal, yet here in Emeryville were going to do the thing that's way down the list, not the things on the top of the list.
We're going to build a new school, and ironically that will stop us from improving academic acheivement by killing any chance of hiring more and better teachers.

The two most effective ways to improve schools can only be achieved by spending money on teachers and that can only be done by the citizens electing to tax themselves more.  A new parcel tax could provide the money needed to help hire more and better teachers but in the wake of the recently passed $400 million Measure J Emeryville bond initiative, it's highly unlikely that Emeryville citizens will be up for another tax for the schools anytime soon.  After the existing parcel tax voters approved a few years ago and then the Measure J mandated new school building, the public's good will has probably reached its limit.

Unfortunately, the Emeryville power elite didn't allow differing ideas that might have averted this absurdity.  All the high minded talk from the city council and the school board about improving education and doing right by the children didn't leave room for this critical dissenting view: How about if we try the two ways at the top of the list that have been shown to most effectively improve student achievement?  Instead, the forces that wanted to build a shiny new edifice stopped any such debate and the city marched headlong into committing to build a new facility.  Those with dissenting views were literally not permitted to gain any position of decision making power, and groupthink replaced debate.

Educators Guide On How To Improve Academic Achievement:
  1. Smaller class size
  2. Hire quality teachers
  3. Something else
  4. Another thing
  5. Whatnot
  6. Flotsam
  7. Jetsam
  8. Incidental
  9. Immaterial
  10. Build a new school facility

It's easy to see how this happened.  The city council, with its ossified 25 year, ready for retirement majority, wanted a "legacy project", a grand edifice on which they can hang a prominent bronze plaque extolling their virtues.  Let's face it; building a beautiful new civic building is sexier than the quiet and humble work of hiring more and better teachers and let's face it; there's no way to hang a bronze plaque on the hiring of teachers.

All this is now water over the dam.  We've set our course and building a new school is what it's going to be.  The incessant Measure J campaign noted that the new school will help attract qualified teachers and there's no doubt some truth in that.  Many teachers will likely appreciate working in the new facility.  But it's not as effective an attractant as better pay is.  Not nearly so.  We may get some improved ability to attract better teachers but at a cost of $400 million to the Emeryville taxpayers, it's inefficient in the extreme.  It's a bad deal all around.

Be it in national politics or local, the public can always benefit by applying a healthy dose of scepticism whenever moneyed interests or the power hungry propose grand schemes, ostensibly set up for public benefit.  A sceptic might question if there are hidden agendas at play whenever large amounts of public money are flashing around.  With the entire power elite in the tank for Measure J,  Emeryville could have benefited by a little scepticism from the residents.

This unfortunately is all academic, so to speak, for there's no turning back now.  All we can do at this point is to hope against hope there will be a strong uptick in academic achievement for our sub par little school district.  Since we've torpedoed our best options, hope is all we now have.


  1. This is a dilema. Cutting down classroom size will lead to more classrooms that will have to be built unless enrollment is limited to just Emeryville students. Most parents in Emeryville that can afford it send their kids to private schools, such as one recently departed city councilman did. Next, to fire incompetent teachers and hire new qualified teachers, good luck in explaining that to the teachers union. We would all be better off if they got rid of the Emeryville school system and just give a check to parents so that there could be a choice for the less affluent in this city.

  2. The way to hire better teachers is NOT to engage in a pogrom of firing of "incompetents". Remember, the idea is to build capacity for the school district to attract better teachers. The ONLY way to do that is to offer higher pay (and benefits) and more job security. Depending on teacher altruism (and masochism) is not rational. We want our district to send out the message to potential hires that at Emery, the pay is good and we don't have spasms of politicized teacher firings.

    Put yourself in their position; you spend $100,000 on a fancy degree, incur a huge debt and face low pay with horrible job security. We need to offer a better environment for teachers to be able to hire better teachers.

  3. I believe Brian is correct that the way to better student performance is to attract and retain the most competent teachers. So, let me understand Brian's logic: 1) EUSD needs to raise the educational achievement of its students, and the best way to do that is to get better teachers. 2) The way to attract highly competent teachers is to pay them better and give them more job security. 3) Therefore we will pay all teachers, including the less competent ones, higher salaries, and give all the teachers, including the less competent ones, more job security? With this I do not agree. To get more competent teachers you hire carefully, motivate them (with good leadership, incentives including pay and recognition), monitor their performance (in the classroom and by student outcomes), support them well (with good materials and supplies, adequate facilities, proven technology where appropriate, and teacher training and mentoring), and in the case of individuals who still can't perform at the expected high level, push them out the door, gently if possible but firmly if necessary. The private schools mentioned do this. They hire and fire for performance. (And almost all of them have much more humble facilities than those already enjoyed by Emeryville students.)

  4. To find and keep good teachers doesn't necessarily mean that you have to pay higher. Most teachers in private schools get paid way less than public school teachers. Good grades come from good students and parents who care.

  5. The easier you make it to fire teachers, the less job security and the harder it is to attract top shelf teachers. This doesn't mean we allow total incompetents continue to keep their jobs, it means we make sure our school district offers the best job security in the region, not total security. Teachers will be attracted to the district that offers the most security (and highest pay), especially those that don't politicize the hiring/firing policies.

    It's better in the aggregate to add new top teachers into a mix with existing not so good ones than it is to engage in a firing pogrom and then try to hire better ones as replacements. In addition to the advantages I pointed out, not-so-good teachers in a culture of excellent ones will tend to improve.

    For the record, Emery pays their teachers less than the regional average. This is not going to be easy to fix since we have used up the voters good will. I see low teacher pay at Emery extending out for quite some time, an albatross for the district as they attempt to bring up academic performance. The second commenter's statement that good grades come from good students is a given.

  6. How many bad teachers are in place? What would be the incentive for "good" teachers to come to our school district and replace them? More money? Probably not. Altruistic idealism? Perhaps, but those sentiments don't necessarily produce good teachers. Young, bright Teach for America interns can often fill gaps, at least for their two-year commitment. during which time their student loans get paid off for them. A majority of them quit after that. So who are the good teachers that will come to Emeryville?

  7. #1 Emery USD has excellent teachers.
    #2 Emery USD struggles to keep class sizes as low as possible, typically ensuring class sizes here are lower than both the county and state averages.
    #3 New facilities don't just mean shiny floors. They also mean science labs with working bunsen burners, a library that can hold more than 1000 books, a regulation track, seismic safety, and so much more.

    Trust me, the kids are worth a lot more than "$400 million". I'd consider it a bargain.

  8. RE: the last commenter-

    #1 If Emery USD does in fact have excellent teachers (qualifiable) then it's an accident: the district here pays teachers below the average. Just think how much better they would be if we paid higher than average. Consider how much bigger the drawing pool of teachers would be at hiring time. Prudent public policy should not rely on accident.

    #2 If Emery USD spent more money on teachers, then we wouldn't have to "struggle" to keep class sizes low.

    #3 If you re-read the article you'll see I'm reporting how a lack of dialog with dissenters produced a climate where only building a new school could be entertained. All the stuff you mention is wonderful it's just not the most effective way to drive up student academic performance; the goal stated by the district.

  9. As a school employee, I can tell you right now, this building does not have the infrastructure to handle a modern high school. The district does need new facilities. However, Measure J was not the way to do it.

    The school has plenty of good teachers, there are maybe 4 or 5 that need to go. What the school does not have is decent leadership at the top. The superintendent and the principals are not doing a good job. They don't provide clear leadership, and they don't take ANY disciplinary measures against staff who don't perform or fail to follow procedures.

  10. To the last commenter, if in fact you are a school employee, I seriously question the validity of your criticism of the district leadership. More often than not, employee criticism is based on limited information from a self-centered perspective, i.e. you are probably ignorant and selfish. Perhaps if you possessed any leadership capacity, you would be doing more to help the district rather than simply anonymously posting empty rhetoric. Spare the air . . . shut your mouth!

  11. Wow, Eye on Emery's comments sure seem bitter.