Thursday, June 14, 2012

Illogical Attacks on Teacher Compensation

I recognize that criticizing a Wall Street Journal editorial content constitutes going after some of the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, but this one exemplifies the point I attempted to make the other day about school quality:
Invest in education? Federal per-pupil spending rose by an inflation-adjusted 375% between 1970 and 2010, yet test scores in math, science and reading remained essentially flat over the same period. Moreover, much of that money has been directed at increasing the size of the education workforce. Over the past 40 years, public school employment has grown 11 times faster than student enrollment, according to federal data compiled by Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute.
Which is a long way of saying, "the cost of public education has risen over time," and not much else. It certainly tells you nothing either about how many students are in a typical classroom or about how teacher pay compares to that of similarly educated professionals. The assumption appears to be that if the cost of education rises, student performance should also rise, but no support is provided for why there should be any such correlation.

For example, since the 1970's special education has become a huge budget item, and the accommodation of students with other special needs has become a requirement. My mother entered a classroom of developmentally disabled students in the 1970's, and found one student who had a normal intellect. He was blind, and the school district had no other program for him. Today that would be unthinkable - and that's a good thing. Another big cost increase is technology - schools in 1970 did not have computers or Internet. Another, the cost of employee health insurance. It's easy to find huge increases in the cost of education that no one would reasonable expect to increase overall student performance. The emphasis on completing high school results in students with lower test performance remaining in school for additional years - increasing cost while decreasing overall scores as compared to an era when the same student would have dropped out. We also need to consider whether teachers were substantially underpaid in 1970.

But the problem with the argument goes beyond the declaration, "I have two variables, and no evidence that they're related - why can't I see a correlation?" The poor reasoning is layered.

If you believe that we need better teachers, you also understand that we have to attract better candidates into the teaching profession, or at a bare minimum provide better training and support to the teachers who are in the profession. If you believe that taking away teachers' autonomy, job protections and benefits will result in a better pool of teachers, you're a fool - you're driving the people who have options away from the profession. Yet you're no less foolish if you believe that we can reinvent teacher education, attract better candidates to the profession, and retain the best teachers without spending more money. Seriously - it's either invest more in research, training, salaries and support or wave a magic wand, and our nation seems to be fresh out of magic wands.


  1. Aaron, did your mom say whatever happened to the kid who was blind but of normal intellect? That story makes me sad.

    I think teachers probably were underpaid in the 70s, but they could just rely on their husbands, right? We gals are so silly...just working for our Valium money.

    1. That, I don't know. I do know that it was a time of rapid change, so I doubt that the situation remained in effect over the longer term.


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