Here is a story for education geeks everywhere. The beleaguered Detroit school system has lowered teachers’ pay – which is already lower than the suburbs, by the way — and has as many charter schools as traditional public schools. Yet the district is hemorrhaging students and money, according to a story in the New York Times.
These stats were especially discouraging:
Since (Emergency Financial Manager) Mr. Bobb arrived, the $200 million deficit has risen to $327 million. While he has made substantial cuts to save money — including $16 million by firing hundreds of administrators — any gains have been overshadowed by the exodus of the 8,000 students a year. For each student who departs, $7,300 in state money gets subtracted from the Detroit budget — an annual loss of $58.4 million.
Nor have charters been the answer. Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools). It’s hard to know whether children are better off under these “reforms“ or they’re just being moved around more.
Even though Bobb’s efforts don’t appear to be paying off, the Republican-controlled legislature just approved a bill to give emergency managers like him the power to void contracts of public workers, including teachers. Also, there is talk of converting the entire school district into charters, which could generate significant savings since charter schools typically hire young and non-union teachers for less pay and no pensions.
But considering the results so far, I’d like to delve into this discussion: why are teachers respected so little in this country? The bias against teachers couldn’t be anymore obvious than this good food for thought posed by Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times:
Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.
These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.“
Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.
Before crying out that teachers are less important than lawyers or doctors, read this:
One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.
Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.
A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.
Kristof said he is no fan of the teachers union for the reasons some of us have expressed here. It is difficult to fire an ineffective teacher with tenure, and come layoff time, usually younger and enthusiastic teachers are the first to go.
And yes, unionized teachers do receive more generous pension plans than other employees, but that’s because they have practically foregone pay increases. Countries with high-achieving students recognize the importance of strong teachers and compensate them accordingly.
Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found….
Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000 (in the U.S.), would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.
Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.
Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.
I am sure that this essay won Kristof no friends in either the teachers unions or among education reformers. For that, I thank him. What say you?