Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



October 2009

Short On Good Teachers

Written by , Posted in Education, Labor Unions

Michelle Obama is warning of a coming teacher shortage. Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute disagrees, noting that even if a million teachers retire in the next four years, we’d still have a lower pupil/teacher ration than we had in the 1970’s. I agree with him that a shortage of total teachers is not one of the problems we face in education, but there is a shortage of good teachers.

There are several reasons why there are not enough quality teachers. Because public schools operate outside of normal markets, the provision of education is highly inefficient.  A lot of money is wasted on things that do not increase education outcomes, while there is little pressure to invest in the most promising areas for increasing performance.  One such area is teacher quality.

Good teachers improve student performance, yet those with the best skills and experience find teaching salaries to be woefully inadequate compared to what they can make in the private sector.  School systems looking to hire teachers also undervalue subject matter knowledge and overvalue education degrees. A system of choice would encourage schools to place more appropriate value on the importance of quality teachers, and the result would be greater competition to attract and retain high performing teachers. As an example, The Equality Project Charter School recently opened in New York and offers a starting salary of $125,000 for its teachers. Impressively, the new charter is able to do this while receiving the same per pupil funding as the city’s public schools.

Another obstacle to filling schools with quality teachers is the unparalleled political clout wielded by teachers’ unions.  In many places it is simply impossible to fire teachers for incompetence. Thanks to union influence, teacher rating systems – where they even exist – are a joke, routinely finding the most incompetent teachers to be “satisfactory.”  Unions also strongly oppose merit pay, so despite the compelling evidence that shows the importance of effective teachers, the current system does next to nothing to reward effective teaching.

Unions are only able to dictate school policy because schools are governed through a political process. With a more market oriented system, where parents held the power of accountability instead of politicians and their appointees, union influence would wane, good teachers would be offered more competitive salaries, and students would be eminently better off.