Sunday, March 04, 2007

The right's education fantasy

This LA Times Op Ed makes some good points -- and some completely wrongheaded ones:
There are two main problems with our pool of teaching talent. The first is that it's badly distributed. Schools are mostly funded locally, which means rich districts can easily afford to pay teachers more than poor ones. Tough cites a study of schools in Illinois that found the highest-quality teachers concentrated in the richest schools and the lowest-quality teachers concentrated in the poorest schools.

This is the unavoidable result of making schools raise most of their funding locally. The only way to change this insane system would be to fund schools at the national level.

The second problem is that teachers in general are massively underpaid. Two generations ago, teaching was able to attract a lot of highly skilled women because they were excluded from most professions on the basis of their gender. But as workplaces have opened up to women, schools have lost this vast pool of artificially underpaid talent.

If you want highly skilled teachers who work investment banker hours, we have to pay them like — well, if not quite like investment bankers, then a lot more generously than we pay them now. This is the point most conservatives refuse to accept. They think you can supply the schools with dynamic, extremely hardworking teachers while paying them a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere. They believe that market incentives apply to everything in the world except the market for teachers.
Regarding distribution of teacher talent, yes, part of the problem is the suburbs often pay more than cities, but we're actually spending MORE per pupil in urban areas than any other type of area, and are spending the most in some of the most failing school districts in the country (  In addition, the data is overwhelming (see even WITHIN school districts, where pay levels are identical, the "best" students get the best teachers, while those students (wildly disproportionately low-income and minority) perceived to be the "worst" get the dregs in terms of teacher quality.  This of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the "worst" students get the worst teachers, so they don't learn anything, fall further and further behind, and are even more likely to be labeled as the "worst" and therefore get even worse teachers.  So, this conclusion is totally wrong: "The only way to change this insane system would be to fund schools at the national level."  This is a very dangerous statement, in fact, because schools aren't ever going to be funded at the national level so it would be easy to just give up.  As some of the slides show, there are MANY things that can be done to improve overall teacher quality without funding schools at the national level.
As for Chait's second point that "teachers in general are massively underpaid", he presents not one shread of evidence to support this assertion.  In fact, as this presentation shows (, teachers are quite well paid in general.  The problem is HOW they are paid.  As this report from the Center for American Progress shows (, teachers who went to the best colleges, majored in tech and had the best aptitude scores used to be paid more, but that's now disappeared -- teacher pay is now nearly 100% in lockstep, based on two things that generally DON'T matter in terms of student achivement: tenure (after the first two years) and certifications.  To be clear, I'm all in favor of higher teacher pay, but only if it's linked to: 1) teaching in the toughest schools; 2) teachers in shortage areas like math and science; and, most importantly, 3) measurable gains in student learning.

The right's education fantasy

Conservatives' model for improving schools relies too much on high expectations, and not enough on money.
December 3, 2006, LA Times

MY WIFE spent a few years teaching in a mostly low-income elementary school. The main thing I remember her telling me was that parental involvement was a near-perfect predictor of her students' performance. The kids with active parents did well, and the kids with disengaged parents did poorly.

The great bugaboo of education reform has always been the role of parents. But if a child's family determines his educational future, then there's not much point in trying to perfect the school environment. Or so it would seem.

 Subscribe in a reader