Greene: We don’t need more teachers

“Hiring more teachers won’t improve student achievement,” writes Jay Greene in the Wall Street Journal. “It will bankrupt state and local governments, whose finances are already buckling under bloated payrolls with overly generous and grossly underfunded pension and health benefits.”

In 1970, public schools employed one teacher for every 22.3 students, according to federal data. In 2012, we have one teacher for every 15.2 students. Math and reading scores for 17-year-olds have remained virtually unchanged since 1970, writes Greene. High-school graduation rates are stuck at 75 percent.

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you’re liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

There is also a trade-off between the number of teachers we have and the salary we can offer to attract better-quality people. As the teacher force has grown by almost 50% over the past four decades, average salaries for teachers (adjusted for inflation) have grown only 11%, the Department of Education reports. Imagine what kinds of teachers we might be able to recruit if those figures had been flipped and we were offering 50% more pay without having significantly changed student-teacher ratios.

Unlike every other enterprise, public schools have not invested in productivity-enhancing technology, Greene writes. Outside the monopoly, charter schools such as Rocketship Academy in California and Carpe Diem in Arizona are using computers to provide individualized instruction while “teachers are primarily tutors, problem-solvers, and behavior managers.”

While Gov. Romney would leave education policy to state and local governments, President Obama proposes a billion-dollar “master teacher corps” with a goal of producing 100,0000 additional math and science teachers in the next 10 years. It’s “a Solyndra-like solution,” writes Greene. The federal government would pick the “winning” reform strategy.

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  1. Those “average students per teacher” numbers are misleading. There are plenty of people categorized as “teachers” who do non-teaching (administrative, or peer-coaching, e.g.) tasks.

    15.2 students per class? I wish! My high school math classes have *double* that.

    • It’s not only that. The explosion in special education is also sucking up lots of teachers and funding.

    • A new teacher’s salary is covered by what… the average cost of educating three or four kids for a year?

      My child’s school has two teachers in every classroom. Eighteen kids, two certified teachers both with Montessori credentials. If you make it a priority, you can do it – but you do have to choose between teachers and students, and lavish facilities, fancy administrative offices, multiple layers of bureaucracy, and the like.

      For-profit charter schools focusing on profits want to substitute computers for teachers? How fascinating. What about private schools that have to serve parents as opposed to shareholders.

      “Educational technology is still in its infancy”? No, that was thirty-plus years ago when the university lent my school a computer with a low-resolution green screen and an acoustic coupler. Or a few years later when it acquired an Apple + and some educational software. You don’t get to disregard the fact that the promise has not lived up to the hype by pretending that the grown man living in your basement is still a baby – you can’t educate kids with vaporware.

  2. And math and reading scores of 17-year olds have done well to stay unchanged; think of how many more students are staying in HS instead of dropping out; the much higher proportion of students who are ESL or minority; etc, etc.

  3. Jay Greene, never met a teacher he couldn’t stand, or a child who didn’t resemble dollar signs.

  4. I would very much like someone to find the real student-to-teacher ratio numbers, removing all the special ed. and non-teaching “teachers” from the equation.

    I would also like someone to find the numbers of special ed. students who have been able to get the education that they were denied before the 1970s and recalculate test scores and graduation rates removing all those special ed. students.

    THEN, I’d like someone to figure out how many students used to drop out when we let kids “fail” all the time and remove the test scores and graduation rates from our calculations of the pool of students we’re now keeping in school.

    THOSE numbers would be relevant and interesting in the context of how many teachers we do or don’t need.

    I believe that special ed. kids have a right to a free and public education. I believe that it’s good that we try to keep kids in school. But those beliefs skew the data in a big way and I’m really tired of having people heave crappy data into the debate because schools are trying to do the right thing. Believing in kids’ potential shouldn’t be punished by people who probably don’t know the basics of the statistics they’re using.

    While I think it’s possible we don’t need more teachers, I also think that flawed reasoning to get us to that point makes it impossible to make good decisions about what we do need. Show me good, solid data that doesn’t deflate when I poke at it, and I’ll agree to try almost anything to get my students to succeed.

    • Patti, to put it simply, the graph is misleading. Most people who point to the graph, “costs are way up but performance is only modestly improved (note that by weighting the Y-axis differently you can turn that slight increase into a massive rise – it’s easy to mislead with a graph), never mind that the one has little to do with the other. If I graphed the budget deficit against the compensation paid to Members of Congress I would get a scary looking but meaningless graph, which I suppose I could email to Pajamas Media sites where it would be posted as proof that even a small increase in congressional pay results in massive increases in the deficit.

      Although the author of the linked article hopes to change things, certain tasks in our society are not performed well by computers or robots. Where they are, or where automation is otherwise possible, we can see huge productivity gains and a reduced number of man-hours to provide a product or service. Where they’re not, we’ve seen costs go up without a similar rise in productivity – because a man-hour remains a man-hour.

      A surgeon can only perform so many surgeries in a day, a lawyer can only draft so many briefs in a day, a dentist can only install so many crowns in a day, and a teacher can only teach so many lessons and students in a day. We can dream of a fantasy world (or is it a dystopia) in which computers do much of the teaching, but we’re a very long way from turning that ‘dream’ into a reality. Until then we need a large number of teachers, who need to be paid a sufficiently attractive wage and benefits package to convince them to enter and remain in the profession, and they will continue to be “productive” at roughly the same level.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        No doubt the graph is simplistic. One reason people like Jay Greene put it out there is that it is a direct rebuke to what most people in education said for decades, “We know how to teach anyone. What we need is more money. Give us more money and students will do much better.” The graph shows that particular hypothesis has been falsified.

        I think that realization is a step forward. The question now is what do we do?

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Of course, a weak version of the hypothesis hasn’t been falsified: ““We know how to teach anyone. What we need is MUCH more money. Give us MUCH more money and students will do much better.”

          However, since just about every government in the United States is looking at very large long-run deficits as it is, this is not something that is ever going to be tested.

          We need to decide exactly what we want to do and what we can do, given the resources we are likely to have.

      • “by weighting the Y-axis differently”

        What a marvelous formulation if your intent is to deceive.

        Of course the Y-axis is weighted differently. The point of the graph is to illustrate a correlation between different quantities.

        And the hopeful assertion that “certain tasks…are not performed well by computers or robots” flies in the face of a quite relentless record of tasks which computers and robots have come to perform very well indeed.

        So, what is it about teaching that puts the task inherently beyond automation’s reach?

        In fact, computers have been quite capable of taking over significant elements of the teacher’s job for quite a while and, as is usual with automation, mostly the least attractive parts of the job – attendance, record-keeping, lecture, testing – the scut-work of teaching. I assume making tick-marks in an attendance book isn’t one of those tasks that only a human being can perform? The question then is why have these onerous but necessary tasks not fallen to automation?

        The answer lies in a different question; why should they?

        Why should school districts pursue technological solutions that would free a teacher’s time to pursue those tasks which are presumably those that computers and robots can’t do?

        • lightly seasoned says:

          There is little difference, productively speaking, in putting a check in the gradebook and a check on the computer for attendance; likewise, entering grades. There is time savings at the end in calculating those checks and numbers, but that’s been happening for quite a while. Any time saved there has been more than lost in oceans of new paperwork. I do use computerized essay grading, and it has a long, long way to go before it saves me only more than a fraction of the time normally spent.

          Now, the internet has managed to make me enormously more productive in other ways. Being able to google up ideas for lesson plans, keep in contact with teachers around the world to swap lessons with, etc. has saved me untold hours and increased the quality of my teaching significantly. My students use social networking to more efficiently prepare for tests and essays. I’ve seen my daughter work on a group project where they’re skyping and working jointly on something in the cloud simultaneously. All great stuff.

          Technology does have an important role to play in education; it just can’t do everything.

          • Oh, there’s an enormous difference in putting a check in a gradebook and relentlessly pursuing every opportunity to leverage the technology to maximize the productivity of the human beings for those tasks to which technology either isn’t suited or isn’t suited yet. The latter is how the use of technology is viewed outside the public education system.

            *A* teacher may get tired of doing the same, stupid tasks but to the organization they work for it’s no burden at all and certainly not a waste of talent. After all, it’s not like a competing school district might hire away the teachers who would rather be teaching then doing the things a computer could do. Even the notion of teachers being hired away due to superior skills is kind of a silly notion so why would a school district want to ensure their skills aren’t wasted? If all the worthless paperwork starts to become a sufficient burden the solution is to hire a few more teachers then cry “poverty” to the tax payers.

            Gratifyinginly, that cosy situation’s in the process of changing most distinctly for the better.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is an important question whether it is possible to improve the “productivity” of teachers. There have been productivity improvements in medicine and law. Better surgical instruments and techniques have significantly brought down the price of lasik surgery. Much legal work is now done by computers and paralegals.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      The same sorts of things done by computers for attorneys are done for us, too. I dearly miss the the purple smell of the mimeograph machine, but the copier is far more efficient. And I don’t miss typewriters. My SmartBoard does a lot of things more efficiently (although the dang lightbulbs cost a fortune, so they’re not cheap).

      We don’t get any support staff (which is not technology), but I do use education student interns from the university behind us. That makes it possible for me to teach two separate AP classes, plus freshmen, and be the department chair and curriculum coordinator for my building/district. I’m quite the bargain :).

  6. >If I graphed the budget deficit against the compensation paid to Members of Congress I would get a scary looking but meaningless graph

    What makes you think this graph would be meaningless? It would tell us than an ever-better-compensated congress was steadily becoming more irresponsible. How is that not relevant?

    From this page:

    we learn that students with disabilities make up less than 15 percent of the student population. If the average class has 25 students and the average disabled class has 4 students, then the overall student-teacher ratio has only been lowered from 25 to a bit under 22. Hardly a drastic reduction and nowhere near the reduction cited in the article.

    Even if you make it one teacher per student, it only lowers the ratio to a bit over 21. Clearly, anyone with a calculator can see that class sizes are significantly smaller now than in the 1970s.

    My second grade class was considered a bit large, but the school was crowded. There were 31 kids in that class, but I don’t remember Ms Kiesler complaining…

  7. (Mike): “Jay Greene, never met a teacher he couldn’t stand, or a child who didn’t resemble dollar signs.
    Why submit content-free libel that serves only to identify the libeler as a defender of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel? Greene himself is a teacher, after all, and his blog often publishes laudatory posts on schools that successfully challenge the cartel’s abusive system.

    (Aaron): “…a teacher can only teach so many lessons and students in a day.
    This presumes the conclusion. Ken Burns (__The Civil War, __Jazz__, __Baseball__) is probably the most productive History teacher who ever lived in the US. Each of his lessons reached thousands. While current technology initiatives often serve only to generate padded contracts for consultants and hardware vendors, technology has enhanced the education industry (consider movable type and books). The current State-monopoly school system lacks any incentive to deploy technology effectively.

    “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment can answer. In public policy experiments take the form of decentralized policy regimes (i.e., federalism) and competitive markets in goods and services.

  8. What do you mean by “the” corporations? There are lots of corporations. Some, like textbook publishers, parasitize the $500 billion US K-12 tax-generated revenue stream. Unions, even “public sector” unions like the NEA, AFT, and AFSCME, are corporations. Churches are corporations.
    Your conspiracy theories are hilariously uninformed.