March 11, 2005

The Union Label...

Chester Finn makes an astonishing observation on the WSJ Ed Page today, in a guest column entitled Teacher Can't Teach.

Over the past half-century, the number of pupils in U.S. schools grew by about 50% while the number of teachers nearly tripled. Spending per student rose threefold, too. If the teaching force had simply kept pace with enrollments, school budgets had risen as they did, and nothing else changed, today's average teacher would earn nearly $100,000, plus generous benefits. We'd have a radically different view of the job and it would attract different sorts of people.

Yes, classes would be larger -- about what they were when I was in school. True, there'd be fewer specialists and supervisors. And we wouldn't have as many instructors for youngsters with "special needs." But teachers would earn twice what they do today (less than $50,000, on average) and talented college graduates would vie for the relatively few openings in those ranks.

What America has done, these past 50 years, is invest in more teachers rather than better ones, even as countless appealing and lucrative options have opened up for the able women who once poured into public schooling. No wonder teaching salaries have just kept pace with inflation, despite huge increases in education budgets. No wonder the teaching occupation, with blessed exceptions, draws people from the lower ranks of our lesser universities. No wonder there are shortages in key branches of this sprawling profession. When you employ three million people and you don't pay very well, it's hard to keep a field fully staffed, especially in locales (rural communities, tough urban schools) that aren't too enticing and in subjects such as math and science where well-qualified individuals can earn big bucks doing something else.

He then lists three reasons for this, but I'll collapse them into one: Teachers' Unions.

They have not only destroyed the education system -- as a byproduct they have prevented teachers from making six-figure salaries.

(As it's on the paid site, I am going to purloin the entire article. Click "Continue reading..." for the rest of the piece.)

Why did we triple the size of the teaching work force instead of paying more to a smaller number of stronger people? Three reasons.

First, the seductiveness of smaller classes. Teachers want fewer kids in their classrooms and parents think their children will be better off, despite scant evidence that students learn more in smaller classes, particularly from less able instructors. Second, the institutional interests that benefit from a larger teaching force, above all dues-collecting (and influence-seeking) unions, and colleges of education whose revenues (tuition, state subsidies) and size (all those faculty slots) depend on their enrollments. Third, the social forces pushing schools to treat children differently from one another, creating one set of classes for the gifted, others for children with handicaps, those who want to learn Japanese, who seek full-day kindergarten or who crave more community-service opportunities.

Nobody has resisted. It was not in anyone's interest to keep the teaching ranks sparse, while many interests were served by helping them to swell. Today, we pay the price: lots of money spent on schooling, nearly all of it for salaries, but schooling that, at the end of the day, depends on the knowledge, skills and commitment of teachers who don't earn much and cannot see that they ever will.

Compounding that problem, we make multiple policy blunders. We restrict entry to people "certified" by state bureaucracies, normally after passing through quasi-monopolistic training programs that add little value. Thus an ill-paid vocation also has daunting, yet pointless, barriers to entry. We pay mediocre instructors the same as super-teachers. Though tiny cracks are appearing in the "uniform salary schedule," in general an energized and highly-effective classroom practitioner earns no more than a feckless time-server. We pay no more to high-school physics or math teachers than middle-school gym teachers, though the latter are easy to find while people capable of the former posts are scarce and have plentiful options. We pay no more to those who take on daunting assignments in tough schools than to those who work with easy kids in leafy suburbs. In fact, we often pay them less.

Instead of recognizing that today's 20-somethings commonly try multiple occupations before settling down (if they ever do), then making imaginative use of those who are game to teach for a few years, we still assume that teaching is a lifelong vocation and lament anyone who exits the classroom for other pursuits. Instead of deploying technology so that gifted teachers reach hundreds of kids while others function more like tutors or aides, we assume that every classroom needs its own Socrates.

Despite all that, and to their great credit, most teachers are decent folks who care about kids and want to help them learn. But turning around U.S. schools and "leaving no child behind" calls for more. It also requires passion, brains, knowledge and technique. Federal law now demands subject-matter mastery. Such qualities are hard to find in vast numbers, however, especially when the job doesn't pay very well. Yet fat across-the-board raises for three million people are a pipe dream. (Adding $10,000 plus benefits to their pay would add some $40 billion to school budgets.)

Maybe we can't turn back the clock on the numbers, but surely we can reverse the policy errors. With hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs now turning over each year, at minimum we should insist that new entrants play by different rules that reward effectiveness, deploy smart incentives and suitable technology, compensate them sensibly, and make skillful use of short-termers instead of just wishing they'd stay longer. And this time let's watch what we're doing.

Mr. Finn is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Education Posted by John Kranz at March 11, 2005 4:51 PM

Wow, great article. How about abolishing the old 9 month school year? How many of our students still have to harvest crops in the summer?

Posted by: Silence Dogood at March 11, 2005 5:58 PM

What -- force teachers to get by on only six weeks vacation?

Glad you liked it, it blew me away. One small detail that captured me was the call to end the incestuous certification of teachers. I have a few friends who would like to teach, would be good, and would be able to live on the current salary structure. Two have taught in other states; all have college degrees. Yet none of them want to spend two years becoming "re-certified" in Colorado.

And the segment on using technology to handle larger class sizes. If we *have* to have a Dept. of Education, can we at least get this guy to run it?

Posted by: jk at March 11, 2005 7:14 PM

In response to Silence: "More than you think Mister urbanite." Two summers ago I met three young adults from Kansas, two boys and a girl, who travel the western plains with the father of one of them earning a living as custom grain harvesters. (I missed them last summer for some reason. I think I was out of town when they harvested my neighbor's field.)

On top of that, those of us who grew up in climates that have a cold season to go along with the warm summer would have staged a popular revolution if forced to attend school in June and July. Shame on you! ;)

Posted by: johngalt at March 12, 2005 10:37 AM

What about the highly skilled professionals who go into the profession for the right reason (the OUTcome rather than the INcome)? I am a 23 year old teacher who has been in the work force for 2 years teaching a special needs class. I am deemed "highly qualified" according to state law and am dual certified in two states...not to mention, I have spent countless hours taking and passing 8 different tests for certification. The article did a good job making teachers look like we are motivated by the amount of money we make. True teachers know what they are getting into when they go into the field. We know it is not a high-paying job, we know it is going to be tough, we know our own teaching philosophies are going to have to take second seat to school budgets and state law, but more importantly, we know why we continue teaching...the children. Someone once asked me (on an interview actually) why I wanted to teach. I didn't say "because I like kids" or "because I want to help people". I simply replied, "It is my calling." True teachers, empty wallets and all, have a gift. I chose to use my gift to benefit students with special needs. My reward at the end of the day is not whether my prescription gets paid for, or whether I can visit a specialist with only $10.00 in my pocket. It is not being able to pay my rent on time or have a few extra dollars to get take-out. My reward is seeing one of my students succeed in something. I do agree with the article when it states that more people would be attracted to the profession if it paid better. However, it would not attract the right teachers; those who we may not want our own children to have as a teacher...those who are motivated by the income instead of the outcome.

Posted by: A.M. at March 13, 2005 4:26 PM

Just one more case any of you were wondering. My $42.00 prescription is not included in my health insurance. My co-pay is sometimes more than $10.00, and my rent is not always on time.

Posted by: A.M. at March 13, 2005 4:32 PM


Thanks for the comment.

I think it is great that you have found your calling and that you work in an important field and that it gives you satisfaction.

I make the assumption that you are a very good teacher -- why shouldn't you make good money? Would you rather manage a little larger class and get paid more and have access to better equipment?

I am also curious whether you feel the certifications you have worked so hard for are valuable or "just something you have to do."

Many of my relatives are teachers and I have nothing but respect for you and them. I just feel that the good teachers could have a better satisfaction without the union involvement.

Posted by: jk at March 14, 2005 1:52 PM


First off, thank you for the positive comments.

To be honest with you, in my field of working with students with special needs, I think smaller class sizes are more beneficial. With a class of 4-6 students I am able to direct my attention to the students that need it most. I am happy with my small class. To better prove my point, let me share a personal experience with you (and others who read this). When I was student teaching, I was assigned to a special education class in Philadelphia. The class had one teacher, no assistants, and 11-16 students at a time in grades K through 3. Let's assume that the teacher got paid a salary of 35,000 per year. One may think that is too little for a class as challenging as that. However, if the class size was cut in half, the salary would be well worth it. The teacher would be able to teach each individual student better and really hone in on the children's specific needs. With large classes, general ed or special, students often slip through the cracks.

In response to my certifications, I do not feel they were something I "had" to do. Pennsylvania is one of the most difficult states in which to obtain certification, with 6 or more tests to pass. New Jersey only requires one test for general ed., and no test for special ed. Besides having the certifications make my resume look good, I feel that they have not only boosted MY pride and confidence, but also that of my district for having hired me.

I hope this has answered some of your questions.


Posted by: AM at March 14, 2005 8:10 PM

True teachers do have a gift, but I see their empty wallets as an effect, not a cause. Must a teacher suffer for their craft, and is this a prerequisite for being a good teacher? Private industry has thrived on the concept that compensation is a motivating factor, not a bribe to sell out. I worry that we cannot continue to fill our schools with teachers motivated by a calling. The level of education and expertise required to be a teacher, to say nothing of the importance of the work should command a better salary.

But then again, the growth in salaries in industry for the past few decades has been mostly due to increased productivity, a rather technical way to say doing more work with fewer people. The law of economics would indicate that teaching needs to see the same productivity increase to see the same salary increase. Harsh, but reality. I certainly do not have all the answers, or perhaps even any good ones, but what about using some of the methods of industry? Utilize technology - teleconference a language arts teacher for example into many classrooms simultaneously. Yes, something is lost without the human touch but which is better, a dynamic energetic teacher on video or bored downtrodden one in person? Use double shifts - half the class size for 5 intensive hours a day and each teacher teaches two 5 hour shifts to get the same number of students through the class. Outsource - take some of the drudgery of paper grading and assign it to part time assistants - stay at home parents with some ability and aptitude perhaps? Then meet with those assistants to communicate pupil progress. I suspect most teachers can assess a student's performance and identify areas for improvement without slogging through grading each and every assignment.

I wish basically AM that we could provide you more than just our gratitude. Being paid well for your work does not diminish its importance.

Posted by: Silence Dogood at March 15, 2005 2:05 PM


You sound like a very educated person in the field of economics. I am curious...where did you get all this knowledge about the economy and industry? Where do your solution theories come from? Was all this from a dynamic energetic teacher or a downtrodden one? How many kids were in the class?

I would like to address your idea of having the assistants take home paperwork and do the grading. That may work, IF the only method of measuring students' successes were from pencil and paper tests and papers (and even with those, teachers have their own way of evaluating). Teachers take advantage of the many methods of assessment. When they assess their own students, they are better able to pinpoint the area of difficulty and help fix the problem. It would be like standing in a courtroom for six hours presenting your case to a judge, but having the stenographer decide if you are guilty or not guilty. One more question for you...what economic theory states that one should get paid more for doing less work?

With regards to your idea of teleconferencing classrooms instead of having a live teacher, I would like to know what you would do with students with behavior problems. Hire a babysitter to sit there? Let me share my knowledge with you about elementary education philosophies. If you look at the developmental theories of psychologists in the field, you will find that at the elementary level students are motivated by pleasing others. They thrive on getting personal attention and creating positive relationships with their role models. They search for approval from adults, thus developing their self esteem, and later, their character and personality.

Five intensive hours a day? I assume you mean one hour for each subject...reading, math, science, social studies...and one for lunch? Where does character education fit in? Social development? Creative writing? Library? Computer class? Recess? Physical education? Art? Music? Are you thinking kids should go to school for 10 hours a day to fit it all in? Should kids start adopting early the 10-12 hour work day like parents often do? Have you thought about attention span? ADD or not, it is difficult for kids to be productive for more than an hour without some kind of break...snack, lunch, recess, choice-time, sustained silent reading, etc.

What's your next outlandish idea..paying teachers commission according to the letter grades students get on tests??? Before you say that is a good idea, consider students with special needs in regular ed classrooms that do not test well or students who are just bright enough to figure out that if they fail a test from a teacher they dislike, they can really screw her/him over with their paycheck...

Do more research in education rather than economics. Maybe that will change your solution ideas...


Posted by: AM at March 17, 2005 8:14 PM | What do you think? [9]