Thursday, July 28, 2016

Getting What We Pay For in Our Schools

In September of 1971, I was a 24 year-old third year teacher sitting in the auditorium of  Bristol Junior-Senior High School with my teacher colleagues. Our new superintendent, Dr. Michael Zotos, was up on the stage with transparencies and an overhead projector showing our school district's ranking, based on test scores, against the 12 other school districts in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bristol, a small, working class school district with considerable poverty, ranked in the middle of the pack. The superintendent found this concerning.

As a newly minted member of the Bristol Borough Education Association's negotiation team, I had some data, too. I raised my hand.

"Dr. Zotos, I see that the test scores show that we are about average in achievement across the county. Is that correct."

"Yes. As I have shown here."

"Isn't it also true that Bristol Borough teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the county?"

"Yes, from what I saw reported in the papers, that is also true?"

"Well then, Dr. Zotos, couldn't we say that the taxpayers of Bristol are getting a very good bang for their buck?"

"Why, yes, I suppose that is true."

I tell this story today, because forty-five years later research shows that this "bang for the buck" is still true. A report from the Brookings Institute yesterday cites a recent study by Erik Hanushek and others on teacher cognitive ability in literacy and math around the world. Now normally I am very suspect of research on education done by economists and especially research on education done by economist Erik Hanushek, who is the father of value added measures (VAMs) and fire your way to excellence. While I am circumspect, however, I think their is information of value in this study.

The findings of the study can be summarized as follows. As measured on the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, American teachers are about in the middle of the pack relative to other college graduates in the United States when it comes to literacy and numeracy. In literacy, teachers score slightly above the norm. In numeracy, teachers score somewhat below the average.

But the researchers also looked at teacher salary compared to other college graduates. What they found was that compared to the other 23 countries in the study, American teachers rank dead last in pay in comparison to other college graduates in their own country. In the US, teachers earn 20% less than the typical American college graduate. In Finland, teachers earn 12% more than the typical Finnish college graduate.

In other words, the taxpayers of the United States are still getting a great bang for their buck. Our teachers are overachieving. As the Brookings Institute's, Dick Startz put it,

American teachers don't have the great basic skills we'd like them to have, not compared to the rest of the world they don't. But, we way underpay for the skills they do have (emphasis mine).

Of course, there are many caveats to be applied when we look at this study. Teaching is a much more complex activity than a simple cognitive standardized test can measure. Teachers need superior non-cognitive skills as well as cognitive skills. Teachers need huge reserves of emotional intelligence and empathy. Cognitive ability is but one measure of the overall abilities of a teacher. It is also true that money is not a chief motivator of teachers.

Still it is clear that in the United States we have tried to do education on the cheap and it is costing us in many ways. In this country we are offering teachers a bad deal. Go to school. Earn professional credentials. Come out and go to work for 20% less than your college classmates.

You would think that corporate education reformers, with their market driven ideology, could figure this one out. In order to attract more highly qualified teachers, we need to pay more from the start.

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