06 May 2011

More on Teaching

An old friend posted a link to this article published by the New York Times. I take exception to some of the arguments made by the authors, specifically that simply paying teachers more would increase performance. A similar idea was floated by the mayor of Newark, NJ last fall, (link and comments here).

Wages are set by the market, and they are already distorted by the teachers' unions. Arbitrarily and artificially inflating wages would no more lead to better results in the classroom than increased wages for soldiers would have won Vietnam (to use the authors' analogy to the military).
The 20% of teachers who leave urban school districts (no source for the data is provided) are replaced by others willing and able to do the job at the wage provided.
The authors cite the old trope of equivalency between other jobs for which "degrees are required." Since when and why are bachelor's degrees required to teach elementary education? When was a primary or secondary teaching job ever considered a sole breadwinner job?
They also conflate aggregates and apply them to specifics (The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.) First, which salary prices the teacher out of home ownership, the beginning or the final? Teachers in small, rural communities, of which this country has thousands, probably don't make enough to purchase an average home in LA or New York City where the supply of housing is limited. But then, most of the people who also live and work in those communities probably can't afford to buy a home in those 32 metropolitan areas (again, this is tough to tell though, because the authors don't cite a source for the data).
Further, I can only say that in my school district (not affluent) teachers with more than 25 years make more than $100k. This doesn't include the fact that, yes, they do get summers off and have a pension that is nonexistent in the private working world, guaranteed by current and future taxpayers. They also went on strike a few years ago because the district wanted them to contribute 7% to their healthcare costs, up from 2%. This, according to the union and therefore the teachers that refused to work, amounted to an unacceptable "wage cut" because the automatic wage increases in the proposed contract wouldn't be a bottom line increase in wages.
Oh, and they are about to go on strike again.
I am not "anti-teacher." There is an obvious advantage to having personnel around who have experience and wisdom and who know how to do a specific job better than someone with identical training and desire but no experience. There is also the added benefit of the mentoring that takes place. But there is also a limit on that cost, and the wage structure in many school districts exceeds that cost.
To go back to the authors contention that we don't blame the soldiers for failure during war, I would agree. We blame the government. Schools are not performing well. Performance has declined (in aggregate) while costs have increased at a pace far ahead of inflation. So, let's blame the government for getting involved in education. I know a lot of public school teachers, and they all argue that tenure (dismissed as "worthy of debate" in the piece) is necessary because of the political, and thus capricious, nature of school boards. This also is an argument for eliminating government as the provider for this particular service.
Let's allow parents to decide where to send their children. Allow them to decide where they feel they would get the best return on their investment. This would allow for many more schools. Allowing more people who want to teach to do so. Teaching is a noble profession; this would lead to more people teaching. This is good, no? It would also lead to reduced costs for taxpayers.
Teachers' unions are against this because they know that even if teachers decide to unionize at a private institution, they will not be able to get the wages and benefits they can from a purely public-run institution because, by necessity, privately held firms are budgeted and run more efficiently. Or they disappear. This doesn't mean public school have to disappear, but the unions don't want the option of sending a child to another school because they know which option most parents would take.
Competition and choice will improve the American education system. Merely throwing more money at the problem will not fix it. The logic employed by the authors is fatally flawed.

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