Wednesday, October 10, 2012

There's No Teacher Shortage ... We Need Fewer and Not More Teachers ... Then We Can Afford to Pay Them Much More, Too ... Here's How to Do It

We hear lots of noise these days about the desirability of hiring more teachers.

And we also hear that teachers are overpaid or underpaid, and that their retirement plans are too expensive or not generous enough.

Yet one thing is certain. The performance of students in our nation's schools isn't getting any better over time, and our system of public education has become unsustainable financially.

But there's a simple, thoughtful and virtually guaranteed way to solve all of these problems. So let's look at all of this and what to do about it in a whole new way.

Doing old things in new ways is almost always a good idea if we want to achieve meaningful improvement on the status quo. And in education, we definitely need improvement.

The Imaginary Teacher Shortage analyzes the situation and proposes a simple and workable remedy for improving America's long entrenched status quo centered system of education:

"Last week's presidential debate revealed one area of agreement between the candidates: We need more teachers. "Let's hire another hundred thousand math and science teachers," proposed President Obama, adding that "Governor Romney doesn't think we need more teachers."

Mr. Romney quickly replied, "I reject the idea that I don't believe in great teachers or more teachers."

He just opposes earmarking federal dollars for this purpose, believing instead that "every school district, every state should make that decision on their own."

Let's hope state and local officials have that discretion—and choose to shrink the teacher labor force rather than expand it. Hiring hundreds of thousands of additional teachers won't improve student achievement. 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.

For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.

Yet math and reading scores for 17-year-olds have remained virtually unchanged since 1970 .... The federal estimate of high-school graduation rates also shows no progress (with about 75% of students completing high school then and now). Unless the next teacher-hiring binge produces something that the last several couldn't, there is no reason to expect it to contribute to student outcomes. . . .

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. Having better-paid but fewer teachers could also save us an enormous amount on pension and health benefits, which have risen far more than salaries in cost per teacher over the past four decades.

Then there is the trade-off between labor and capital. Instead of hiring an army of additional teachers, we could have developed and purchased innovative educational technology. The path to productivity increases in every industry comes through the substitution of capital for labor. We use better and cheaper technology so that we don't need as many expensive people. But education has gone in the opposite direction, making little use of technology and hiring many more expensive people. . . .

Of course, this productivity-enhancing substitution of technology for labor is occurring outside of the public-school monopoly. Without choice and competition such as from vouchers and charter schools, there is little incentive for the traditional public school system to innovate or economize.

On this we see an important difference between the presidential candidates. Mr. Romney favors voucherizing federal education funds so that parents can take those resources and use them to send their children to schools of their choice. He also favors a decentralized approach that leaves policy decisions to state and local governments. Without federal mandates and subsidies, state and local governments are unlikely to drive over the financial cliff by hiring more teachers.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has a Solyndra-like solution. He's happy to have the federal government pick the "winning" reform strategy of hiring another army of teachers by devoting federal resources to that approach. If it once again fails to improve student outcomes while stifling innovation, taxpayers will be stuck paying the bill."

Summing Up

Productivity results from getting more output from any given amount of input. That means changing the ways we do things. Doing old things in new ways, in other words.

Fewer teachers per student and better teachers for those fewer students would result in improved educational outcomes for our nation's students. It would also enable the teachers to be paid at much higher rates than currently, thereby leading to being able to attract even better teachers.

It would result in a virtuous and affordable circle of rapid and continuous improvement for our kids, our schools, our teachers, our taxpayers and our society as a whole.

And to facilitate all this, experimenting with and then adopting new productivity enhancing technologically enabled teaching methodologies such as the "flip method" (more to come on this in a subsequent post) would cause a quantum leap in the quality and productivity of our educational system.

In basic terms, it's the same road of emphasizing customer focus and quality offerings which is followed by successful competitors in the private sector. It would provide a cost competitive and quality oriented product in a voucher subsidized educational market place where customers and not bureaucrats and teachers unions rule. And where cost, quality and delivery are all that matter.

Now if we can get the bureaucrats and the status quo public sector union advocates out of the way, we'll be able to make some fast, real, continuous and lasting progress with respect to providing a globally competitive education for future generations of Americans.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

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