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
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
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."
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.