A Graph Worth

A Thousand Words

In view of the nation's teacher shortage—one that will probably get worse in the coming decade—someone publicly suggested recently that we draft young people into teaching just as we used to draft people in to the Army.

The fact that this was a serious suggestion reveals a lot about pubic perceptions of the educational process.

Personally, I shutter to think of the impact of an army of reluctant and ill-equipped people forced into classroom duty would have on our schools and on our children.

Yes, we have major problems with our education system: ill-equipped teachers, violence, students who graduate without basic reading and math skills, etc.

Although there is no shortage of finger pointing associated with these problems, probably the most telling "clue" to our problems is conveyed by the following graph.  

But, as I'll point out, this may not be a simple cause-and-effect situation.

In case you are interested, engineering tops the list with a starting salary of about $43,000 a year.  This is followed by computer science, math/statistics, chemistry, business administration, accounting, sales/marketing, and, finally, teaching with an average starting salary of less than $26,000 a year. (American Federation of Teachers, June, 1999)

Although teachers commonly claim they are "not in it for the money," in this country "the money" largely determines professional respect, privilege, and life style.

Students know it, parents know it, and, yes, even teachers, know it.  

Salaries in professions like engineering and computer science are adjusted upward as needed to attract qualified candidates.  

In teaching, salaries don't readily respond to the needs of the marketplace.

Rather than raising salaries to attract and hold better candidates, standards are often lowered to allow in less qualified candidates—something that businesses could never do and hope to remain successful.

Tying Teacher Pay to Performance

Unlike business where success is rather quickly measured in dollars and cents, success in teaching is difficult to measure.

But it's not been because we haven't tried.

There have probably been more studies on teaching effectiveness than any other single subject—largely due to the fact that subjects are close at hand for graduate students looking for Master's and Doctoral studies.

Maybe not surprisingly, most of these studies have typically relied heavily on evaluations by students.

As a result of all this study we've found out a number of things.

    1. Teacher ratings done by students largely come down to teacher personality.  

    Teachers who are popular with students, (often for reasons that have little to do with what's actually learned in the class) get the highest ratings.

    In one case a teacher rather consistently got the highest teacher ratings in the school. This teacher was particularly good at telling fascinating "war stories."

    It wasn't until after graduation when these students were trying to compete for jobs in this competitive field, that they discovered that most of what they had learned was no longer relevant.

    They had been masterfully entertained, but not educated.

    We know, for example, that parties, field trips, and classroom fun-and-games are popular with students.  

    One university teacher handed out teacher evaluations during a classroom party at a point when everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves.

    If we tie teacher pay to this type of  teacher "success," we could easily develop a system where what went on in classrooms had about as much of a relationship to educational quality as Neilson ratings do to quality TV programming.

    2. Peer evaluations of teaching competency are not much better.  They have led to an emphasis on professional politics, "in-group" and "out group" rivalries, and in some cases even envy-based sabotage.  

    When it comes to competition for pay and promotions we are talking high stakes, and even professionals have been known to act in less than exemplary ways.

    3. The fact is, the long-term effects of what goes on in a classroom are not immediately discernible or measurable.  

    For one thing, there are too many intervening variables in "success," however that's measured.  

    Classroom learning that "sticks" and is able to make a positive difference in the life of a person probably can't be measured for a decade or two—if then—even if we could agree on a way to measure it.   

    4. If we tie teacher pay to student progress tests, will not teachers be tempted to ignore most everything else and just "teach to the test?"

    We see that this practice is rather widespread now, where in some cases almost everything that is taught is designed to prepare students for standardized grade-level or graduation tests.

Today, almost half of new teachers leave the profession within five years.

 Even more disturbing is data that shows that it's the "best and brightest" teachers that are most apt to leave the profession (as measured by scores on Scholastic Assessment Tests).

Are Unions Helping or

Hindering the Profession?

Although unions were thought to be a way for teachers in public schools to improve their personal and profession status, we've had strange responses from unions on some key issues.  

For example, unions have actually been opposed to higher teacher salaries in some cases.  It appears that unions fear that "supply and demand" concepts would weaken their power in the profession.  (USA Today, June 14, 1999)

Unions have also opposed stipends designed to attract scarce special education teachers, saying no matter how great the need, it would be unfair to teachers in other disciplines.

Unions have been opposed to relaxing credential standards to allow highly-qualified people into the teaching profession.  

This includes retired individuals with a wealth of real-world experience and middle-aged men and women with a proven ability to relate to young people who would like to make mid-life career changes.

And, of course, we don't need to get into union and political opposition to national testing—even though, with all its shortcomings, it represents our only hope for a uniform yardstick in comparing student achievement.  (Not to mention generate data that would open the door to solving many problems in education.)

Interestingly, when you cut through all the rhetoric opposing national testing, you come down to the simple fact that a lot of people would just as soon not have this kind of data available.

Does any politician want it known that his or her state or district is educationally unattractive to companies, or less than desirable to young couples looking for a good place to raise a family?

Or, possibly just as important, do they want it known that after all their political rhetoric about improving education, their students still rank below students in other states or districts.  

And, of course, in such a discussion it's not politically correct to bring up such intervening variables as race and economic conditions.

Cause-Effect May Be Effect-Cause

At first it might seem that the economics illustrated in the graph above is the cause of the majority of problems in education.  

But it maybe it's the other way around.

Possibly it's the problems in public education that are largely responsible for the economic plight of teachers.  To name just a few:

  • The fact that we can't agree on our educational goals, much less find a way of determining if our students are reaching them.
  • The fact that our fear of failure,  heightened by such things as the threat of school vouchers, keeps us from to admitting or even wanting to find out about our failures—or, allowing students to fail, even though they can't read well enough to fill out a credit or employment application, or find England on a world map.
  • The fact that teachers (and unions) resist letting teachers in special disciplines lead the way to higher salaries in the profession by getting stipends and extra benefits.  

A friend of mine who works for a mini-conglomerate quickly supports moves for raises and added benefits by employees in other branches of the company.  

Rather than fearing others would move ahead of him, he knows that once they got these benefits it will be much easier for his division to be brought up to the new standards.  

So why not let them go through the trying process of  breaking the new ground?

Although things may not be quite the same in public education,  if the unions have any role, it should be one of providing strong leadership in establishing unity in educational goals, supporting national assessment, stemming the erosion of teacher competency and certification, and supporting free marketplace compensation.

This might be one place where unions through their national clout could put the needs of this country's youth first, and, at the same time, dispel some widely-held beliefs about their self-serving and regressive policies.

Too often the order of priority for the allocation of resources within our educational system starts with the interests of an array of administrators and then gradually filters down to the students--instead of starting with the things that are needed to best serve the needs and interests of students.

During these times of budget cuts, we often see these educational priorities clearly demonstrated when the first things to be sacrificed are the needs of students.


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