Ed Schools Flunk Again


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, conclusions.

According 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.

November 9, 2006