Ed Schools Flunk Again

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The Education
Schools Project was started in 2001 with the intent to study teacher-training
programs. The final report (written by Arthur Levine, a former president
of Columbia Teacher's College and available at EdSchools.org)
has just been published. It reaches some dismal, albeit unsurprising,

to the report, something like 75% of the nation's schools of education
are incapable of training first-rate teachers. Most teachers are
educated in ed programs that have the lowest admission standards
and the academically worst professors. Indeed, the report observes
that there is no agreed upon general set of standards about what
makes a good teacher. Unlike medicine, law or engineering schools,
where roughly the same material is taught nationwide, in education
there are a mishmash of approaches. This encourages screwy approaches
to teaching, like the "whole word" approach to reading
and the "fuzzy math" and "discovery-based learning"
approaches to math instruction that have been so disastrous.

The report's
conclusions strike me as tepid at best. It advocates more in-classroom
training. Fine. It also advocates paying teachers the same sort
of salaries that other professionals get. This sounds reasonable,
until you remember that they don't work under the same conditions
that other professionals do. Start with tenure: do (say) widget
engineers have jobs virtually guaranteed for life after just a year
or two on the job? Hardly: their jobs are contingent upon performance
forever — they can be fired after even twenty years on the job,
if what they design or build can't pass the performance tests.

Second, their
salaries are pegged to the market. A new discovery in widget technology
suddenly makes widget engineers high in demand? Then suddenly their
salaries go through the roof, and widget engineers wind up being
more highly paid than other engineers. If a decade later some new
technology makes widgets obsolete, the widget engineers are canned
unceremoniously, or are forced to go back to school to learn the
latest new technology. Not so teachers — even if the demand for
good math teachers is greater than that for history teachers, they
are all paid roughly the same.

Third, the
pay of other professionals is pegged to relative skill or performance.
The best widget engineers get the highest salaries in a company,
or else they get lured away by competing companies. Their salaries
are proportionate roughly to their production. But in K-12 at least,
teachers unions have blocked merit pay, or made it meaningless.

Fourth, there
is the matter of solid educational attainment. Engineers, lawyers,
scientists, and medical doctors have the highest grades and test
scores, and get degrees that are appropriate — few engineers have
degrees in education or P.E., and no doctors can practice without
an M.D. On the other hand, even high schools are filled with history
teachers with not even a B.A in history, math teachers without even
a B.A in math, and so on.

If we are
ever to see salaries for teachers approximate the other professions,
we would first have to see a wholesale change in the structure of
the school systems in this country. We would have to have full consumer
choice in education, so competition could take place. We would have
to eliminate tenure. Non-performance would result either in probation
or outright dismissal, no matter how long the teacher had been employed.
Moreover, schools would have to have carte blanch to set different
salaries for different types of teachers, so if math teachers are
in short supply, a school could pay them however much more it had
to get them. But if later there was a shortage of history teachers,
then their pay would rise and math teachers' salaries might go down.
Also, different skill or performance levels would be differently
compensated. Finally, we would require that every instructor (at
least in high school) possess at least a Bachelor's degree in whatever
subject he/she taught.

One wonders
if the people working on the Education Schools Project would entertain
these changes. The free market works — but it's a bitch. Just ask
any career engineer.

9, 2006

Jason [send him mail]
is a writer, businessman and university instructor. He resides in
San Clemente, California.

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