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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Money Is Not the Answer—People Are

By Guest Blogger — May 01, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jacob Pactor. Pactor is an English teacher at Speedway (Indiana) High School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Educational Leadership, and a former Teach Plus Teaching Fellow.

My legislature passed a budget this week and then adjourned until January. My governor called it “a historic commitment to our traditional K-12 schools.”

According to The Indianapolis Business Journal, “Lawmakers touted their 2015 meeting as an ‘education session'—in large part due to the budget. It allocates an additional $460 million for K-12 education, which provides a 2.3-percent increase in both fiscal years 2016 and 2017.”

It’s lipstick on a pig. And it’s lip service that will move education nowhere. When questioned on salary, teachers often say it doesn’t matter. It’s a ridiculous conversation, but a valid point. A $70,000 teacher will not necessarily have better relationships with students than a $40,000 teacher. Teachers who care will. More money—alone—will not a commitment make.

Great teaching will. Plato, the first great teacher, helped people understand that shadows don’t just appear on cave walls—they originate outside the cave, reflected via light. Socrates taught via intense questioning, which requires the student to have an equal and exhaustive stake in the process. Even though Socrates was executed, his Socratic method lives on (nearly one million times via Google). To go forward, we must remember where we started.

From our earliest times, we have falsely adored dynamic teachers. And then killed them. I loved Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society. I wanted to be that teacher, speaking truth to power. But all he did was create his own benevolent cage. He didn’t change the system. He didn’t empower his colleagues. He didn’t beat down the walls of his private school and take his approaches to the masses. Sure, he said a few good, memorable lines. But cage-busting? He couldn’t handle it.

Earlier this week, I argued that we need a vision statement for education in this country. A look at Indiana’s legislative session provides another example why. Language in HB1638 will move the threshold for possible takeover of failing public schools from six to four consecutive years. Concurrently, the biennial budget (HB1001) limits remediation funding in districts to a 1% cap of district revenues—regardless of student need. Taken together, the state wants schools to improve faster, but with fewer available resources. Why? How? What trainings or resources are provided? Who is going to lead this work? What happens if a school spends 1.3% and avoids a takeover?

How will we measure that student or school success? Test scores. How much do we pay for state assessments? Nearly $50 million. (The full Brookings Report on state spending on assessment systems is here.) For the same money, we could hire at least 1,000 more full-time teachers. Or provide an unrestricted $170,000 to Indiana’s districts for local instructional needs. Funding and assessments are important. But is this the best usage of our money? What return on our investment do we receive?

As a classroom teacher, I value the formative information assessments provide. If they weren’t required, I would still use them. So would teachers who want to hone their craft or improve their students’ possibilities for success. It really should be a non-starter.

So what is Indiana doing to recruit and retain more teachers? What language did this legislature pass that brings teachers into the fold? None. A proposed $200 tax credit got halved. And even if it didn’t, what’s $200 compared to $50 million to a private company to make assessments that don’t provide data in real time? What’s $200 in a climate that says teachers aren’t valued as professionals? What’s $200 when some schools can’t recruit teachers in high-needs areas?

Rick Hess’s The Cage-Busting Teacher is fantastic advice for current practitioners. I am happy to be in recognized in it.

In Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick starts with the story of Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill. Well, why doesn’t Sisyphus just give the rock a huge push, jump out of the way, and walk up the hill without it? I mean, can we get rid of the cage altogether? It doesn’t impact teaching and learning if Indiana has an elected or appointed superintendent of schools. Yet, we spend our time and resources fighting a battle that makes no difference—zero—in how a teacher interacts with a student or how a student learns and applies new knowledge.

We only need two things to have great education: students and teachers. Everything else helps, but only if used properly. After all, Plato taught in a cave. And Socrates taught via conversation. We don’t need technology or fancy schools or high school sports. It’s all ancillary. We need great teachers and students committed to the hard work and humility that defines true immersive learning. Getting to that point would be the truly remarkable investment in education.


I thank Rick Hess for the opportunity to guest blog and for showcasing teachers as cage-busters. I would not be the educator I am had it not been for my great teachers. Teachers like Mrs. Decker, who wrote extra comments on my papers, or Mr. Brown, who stayed late every day for nine weeks so I could answer pre-calculus problems on the chalkboard, or Mr. Farley, who made science fun and rigorous. Thank you, again.

--Jacob Pactor

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.