Don't meet me in the middle

Over the years -- even though my years in educational administration far outnumbers those spent in the classroom, and even though my forte was history, not English -- I have taught scores, if not hundreds, of students how to write a formal essay.

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Dr. Joseph Graves

Over the years - even though my years in educational administration far outnumbers those spent in the classroom, and even though my forte was history, not English - I have taught scores, if not hundreds, of students how to write a formal essay.

I have taught essay writing to junior high, high school, undergraduate and even grad students and enjoyed every minute and every level of it. Perhaps this is because I love writing. Perhaps this is because I have a great admiration for the classical essay and its highly rational structure. Perhaps this is because I find the ability to write an essay to be the ticket to career success. Or perhaps it is simply that I am an opinionated know-it-all.

Regardless, the essence of learning to write an essay is the thesis statement, that forceful, terse belief statement on the subject matter of the piece. And one of my pet peeves - no, that really doesn't cover it - one of my "leviathan" peeves about student essays is the insipid thesis statement. Rather than condemn capital punishment or uphold it as the paragon of justice, the student offers both its good and bad sides. In doing so, they feel they are being fair or evenhanded when all they are really being is vacillating and spineless.

Unfortunately, such faint hearted weaseling is not the monopoly of the student writer. At times, it even finds its way into the newspaper or periodical editorial, offering not a middle course but a dying ember of ambivalence. Which is why I find it so hard to ever offer much of a middle ground in my columns for The Daily Republic. There is right and wrong in the world, black and white, and the middle of the road is a location suitable only for the bloated opossum or lethargic raccoon, not the editorial writer.

Yet, today, here I am stuck in the middle on the governor's recently proposed blue ribbon committee to study the issue of teacher shortages and compensation levels. On the one hand, I view such an endeavor with a cynical eye, wondering if such a political animal is more about finding real solutions to a serious problem or about putting off the pain that such an obvious solution will bring to the political class. What better way to ignore a problem than by studying it one more time, ad infinitum or at least ad nauseam (the latter, quite literally).


Teacher compensation levels in South Dakota are 51st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The only reason, in other words, that we aren't 52nd is that we've run out of states to which to compare ourselves.

Still, that isn't the whole story. State finance officials point out that while teacher compensation may be bottom of the barrel, funding provided to schools compared to other states is significantly more competitive. Which means, if accurate, that either South Dakota schools are spending money on things other than teacher salaries or that we have serious inefficiencies or just alternative choices in our education spending. An example of the former might be transportation, the busing of all those students across wide expanses of our sparsely populated state both to get to school and to the far-flung school district against whose basketball team we are competing. An example of the latter might be the need to pay a teacher and an administrator in a rural school in which class sizes fall below those that could be more efficiently maintained simply because there are no additional students.

Alternatively, there may be other options for increasing average teacher compensation levels other than the straightforward and endlessly offered by educators and their lobbyists: give the schools more so they can pay teachers more. If schools, for example, were to present more online coursework and more virtual offerings, costs would decline and current revenues could be used to enhance teacher pay. If the state were to offer tax incentives for parents enrolling their children in private schools or homeschooling their progeny, the resulting savings from more parents choosing such alternatives could be used to increase the per pupil support of students who remained in traditional classrooms.

Yet educators don't typically endorse such proposals, leaving us open to the criticism that we endorse only the idea of giving us more money with no changes in how we do things and no rules on how we spend it. This view of educators is reinforced by the fact that we have had our hands out to the Legislature, demanding more money, every year since Dakota was a territory.

So is that image of our state's educators as woe-is-me mendicants due to the fact that we are starving, or because we are mulish monoliths refusing to engage in more efficient means of serving students?

That, to paraphrase Hamlet, may very well be the question. And if it is a legitimate question, then an earnest, steely-eyed commission to answer it is exactly what South Dakota legislators and educators need. In the end, though, it may also be what neither side wants. To paraphrase somebody else, be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. Good people on both sides of this debate may very well be appalled at where the solutions lie.

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