More vs. better teachers

Improving teacher quality requires trade-offs, writes Chester Finn on Gadfly. If we keep hiring more teachers, it won’t be possible to hire better teachers. Quoting a paper by Stanford education economist Susanna Loeb, he writes:

As for Loeb’s policy recommendations, three are noteworthy. First, the importance of targeting reforms at hard-to-staff schools and hard-to-fill teaching posts rather than laboring to make across-the-board changes in this immense enterprise. Second, differentiating among teachers on criteria that matter in the labor market (e.g. subject specialty) rather than treating everyone alike. Third (and perhaps most controversial), lowering entry barriers to teaching rather than raising them.

But one huge point shines through Loeb’s data, though she does not dwell on it: For at least half a century, America has invested in more rather than better teachers. Between 1955 and 2000, the number of K-12 teachers in the U.S. almost tripled while school enrollments rose by about fifty percent. Instead of paying more money to a relatively smaller number of people, we chose to pay lots more people a more-or-less constant wage. Surely America would have found it easier to recruit, hire, and place better educated and more generously compensated instructors in its public-school classrooms if we hadn’t set out to hire so many millions of them. Budgets (and labor pools) are finite. Choose guns or butter.

. . . The unions don’t want to hear about tradeoffs, however. Also present on my panel at the MSU conference was a senior staffer from the American Federation of Teachers who made clear that she and her organization demand cake AND ice cream AND fudge sauce AND a cherry on top. She said that America ought to (a) hire still more teachers (to reduce class size further), (b) pay them all more money across the board, (c) pay yet more in added incentives and rewards for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and scarce specialties (which differentiation she insisted can be done via collective bargaining) and, along with all that, (d) boost preparation requirements, elevate entry barriers, and strengthen training opportunities so that teaching becomes more of an honored and coveted profession.

Also on Gadfly: While 86.7 percent of would-be teachers pass Michigan’s certification test on the first try, all the teacher-training institutions in the state report their graduates have a 100 percent passing rate. Education schools have made passing the test a graduation requirement; students who complete their training but fail the test aren’t counted as graduates.

About Joanne


  1. Why not remove the students that don’t come to learn? Should eliminate the hard to staff schools.

  2. “While 86.7 percent of would-be teachers pass Michigan’s certification test on the first try, all the teacher-training institutions in the state report their graduates have a 100 percent passing rate. Education schools have made passing the test a graduation requirement; students who complete their training but fail the test aren’t counted as graduates.”

    Joanne, I get the feeling you think this is a problem. Do you? It seems reasonable to me. In Illinois a prospective student teacher can’t even student teach without passing the appropriate subject-matter test.

  3. I’ve seen some of the questions on the teacher qualification exams, and they were of such a softball nature that I think it should be turned around:  prospective teachers should have to pass the general-knowledge exams to enter ed school.  Why should state universities spend public money to train someone who obviously hasn’t learned much of anything?  Let them take their remediation in community college.

  4. “Joanne, I get the feeling you think this is a problem. Do you? It seems reasonable to me.”

    Michael, I hope that you’re not a teacher. But, I suspect that you are.


  5. The union leadership, of course, have a financial interest in more teachers: that means more dues coming into their coffers, and thus more bloated union officer salaries, perks, etc. Whether they’re good teachers or bad teachers is completely irrelevant to that bottom line.

  6. Hi Joanne,

    The comments from the AFT make it ever so clear why edcuation in our country is doomed to languish in mediocracy and failure. Their objectives are tied neither to financial reality or the improved education. Rather, they will demand ever more money while producing an ever lower level of educated adults.

    And they will blame it on everybody except themselves.

    I know that there are many wonderful teachers. I only wish they had the gumption to demand that their unions would place education above the protection of

  7. I got a bit emotional while writing my last post. I should have proofread it before I hit “Post”. Oh well, one sentence should have read “improvement of education”. And the final unfinished comment should have ended “inadequate – or downright poor – teachers”.

  8. If you read the introduction on Gadfly, you’ll see what the problem is — “For years, all 32 of Michigan’s teacher-training institutions reported that 100 percent of their graduates passed state certification exams. However, a report from the Michigan education department found that those pass rates actually ranged from 66 to 97 percent for first-time test takers.”

    It’s like saying “100% of the teams with winning records won more than half their games.” That’s not very useful information.

  9. Bill Leonard says:

    Gee, another surpise. The teacher’s unions say, yet again, “trust us, and give us more money” (i.e., don’t ask for results, don’t ask for any measure of teacher competence in subject matter or teaching ability, don’t ask for any reasonable way to eliminate the incompetent from the ranks), just give us more money to “educate” (and enroll in union ranks) more teachers, while simultaneously allowing us full control over curriculum. Yeah, right.

    And the union skates continue to be stunned and amazed at the anger and outrage of the concerned public of parents, potential employers and others.

  10. Doc, I asked a civil question, and you responded like an idiotic ass, which I suspect you are.

  11. Sandra answers Michael’s question: Teacher training institutions in Michigan have been reporting (and bragging about) meaningless statistics. What’s more relevant is whether people who’ve spent a year in a teacher training program can pass a certification test: The pass rate ranges from 66 percent to 97 percent, depending on the training program.

  12. I thought Michael was questioning whether Joanne thought it was a problem that students aren’t counted as graduates if they don’t pass the test.

    And he’s right, that in itself isn’t a problem. It’s like any exit exam.

  13. John Kerry has pledged to give the teacher’s unions everything they want. Want more money? You’ve got it. Want more teachers? Got that too.

    Whatever you want, baby, you’ve earned it by getting me elected. The kids be damned. All my kids went to private schools in europe.

  14. Mike in Texas says:

    This is a direct quote from the Gadfly article,

    “”for every 20 additional students enrolled in America’s K-8 schools in the last 10 years, we hired three additional elementary school classroom teachers.”

    Notice there is no mention of the fact that most schools only consider “elementary” to be up to the 5th grade. Also, there is no statistic comparing the number of students to teacher attrition rates.

    Other factors can contribute to the need to hire new teachers. For example, in Texas classes for 4th graders and below are limited to 22 students. If you begin the year with 21 students in every class, and you have 5 classes, it will only take an additional 10 students, assuming no students leave, to force you to have to hire another teacher.

    For ESL programs this statistic can be further skewed. In Texas if you have 20 children at your school whose native language is the same non English language you are required to provide a native language teacher for them. If you begin the year with 19 students in an ESL class and you get one more you have to hire another teacher.

  15. It’s simple. If you want to attract better talent, offer better compensation.

  16. Robert, that’s only half of the winning formula. You’ve also got to measure and require competence and results, and fire those that don’t measure up. Otherwise, high pay and job security regardless of performance creates a beacon for underperformers. Yes, it will also draw in some good people, but they can’t compensate for all the damage done by the others.

  17. Laura’s right: that was my point. If students can’t pass an exit exam, they don’t graduate. I thought you people wanted that. BTW, if you don’t like the quality of the exam, that’s another point entirely, as Kimberly Swygert will tell you.