FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - The Time Has Come to Make Teaching a Real Profession

Spring 2001



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The Time Has Come to Make Teaching a Real Profession

Kenneth J. Heller

Education is now in the national spotlight. Sifting through the clichi?and rhetoric from all parts of the political spectrum reveals a consensus. Providing an improved education to the future generations is necessary to ensure the future existence of our country. This is not exactly a new insight. What's the problem? In a word, it's teachers. We don't have enough of them, they are not well enough prepared, and they allow classroom conditions that impede student learning. Teachers are not only the problem, they are the solution and, in fact, the entire ballgame. Teachers are by far the most important element in the education system. Despite decades of effort and many millions of dollars, no one has yet devised a teacher independent curriculum or technology that works for even a sizeable minority of students. Of course teachers need curricular tools and adequate facilities but first the well-prepared teacher must exist. Resolving important issues such as vouchers, charter schools, computers in the classroom, bilingual education, high stakes testing, racial or gender segregation, or even the teaching of evolution is just reshuffling the cabin assignments on the Titanic. One arrangement or another might optimize passenger comfort but the iceberg will still sink the ship. The ship of education is already grinding on the iceberg of a shortage of well-qualified teachers in most areas of the country.

Sometimes an important problem has a simple solution that can actually work. Our economic system has developed a successful mechanism for dealing with such a workforce shortage. Whether in hospitals, brokerage firms, industry, or pro basketball, salaries respond to market forces. If we recognize that teachers are important, we cannot simply fill those positions with warm bodies that can be trained. Competent people have many career choices within our economy. Professions compete for their potential workforce with a salary that compensates for the working conditions and qualifications required relative to other professions that are equally desirable. Below a threshold level, a profession does not get enough qualified people to survive. As a country we are clearly below the threshold for teachers. For example, one of the most recent national studies looks at the problem from the point of view of national security and concludes that:

"First, we must raise salaries for teachers, science and mathematics teachers in particular, to or near commercial levels. As long as sharp salary inequalities exist between what science and math teachers are paid and equivalently-educated professionals make in the private sector, the nation's schools will lack the best qualified teachers in science and mathematics." From Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change, Phase III Report of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century.

Of course, there are always a few people so dedicated to the goals of a profession that nothing else competes at any salary level. The teaching profession always gets more than its share of these dedicated, talented, hard working, and well-qualified people. However, no profession requiring large numbers of members can survive by relying only on that small population. Our policy makers invent incredibly clever ideas to avoid a direct solution to the problem. For example, why not identify these talented and dedicated teachers, publicize them, and have other teachers emulate them? It does not seem to occur to our leaders that nothing else in our economy works that way. Most other teachers can't copy these master teachers because they are not the same people. In all likelihood they are not really the right people for the job. If the education of our children is so important, why bet the future on such high-risk plans? We must encourage the right people to get the right preparation from the beginning. This means paying a salary that will attract the type of people we want to be ordinary teachers. How do you determine this level? In our economy you let the market decide.

The only question should be, can we afford the solution? One can make an educated guess at the correct salary level by identifying another large profession whose ordinary members have a demonstrated successful performance under stressful conditions.

MONEY_BAG.gif (1505 bytes) The comparison group that comes to my mind is mechanical engineers. On the whole, the mechanical engineering profession keeps this country running and progressing. Mechanical engineering seems to attract about the right number of people to keep up with the demands of industry. The quality and preparation of mechanical engineers is adequate for industry purposes. Mechanical engineers have to master many skills and have a wide range of knowledge. They must learn new skills at a steady pace keep up with ever changing jobs. These professionals must work with others that are not of their choosing to produce a product to the specifications set externally under the pressures of deadlines and budgets. They are very practical problem solvers. I am not saying that the people who now go into mechanical engineering would necessarily make adequate teachers. However, the level of skills and performance is similar to what we demand of teachers. You might argue that teaching is more stressful, has a more important outcome, and demands a wider range of skills and knowledge than a mechanical engineer, but one has to start somewhere.

To begin the market iteration process, one needs to determine the salary difference between mechanical engineers and teachers. Then one can determine if the country can afford the salary adjustment. Instead of looking up the detailed statistics, let's approach this as a "Fermi problem". Salary levels are determined by local conditions for both teachers and mechanical engineers. The median mechanical engineering salary in 1996 was about $20,000 higher than the median teacher salary in 1998. How many teachers are there in the country? There are roughly 17 students for each teacher. How many school age children? There are nearly 60 million children between 5 and 19. That means there are about three million schoolteachers in the U.S. If we raise every teacher's salary by $20,000 plus another 50% for fringe benefits and increased classroom support that these professionals would demand, we get $90 billion per year. That is a lot of money, but it could be phased in over a number of years. For example, first the starting salary of teachers could be raised by $20,000 while raising the salaries of all other teachers just enough to keep ahead of the starting salary. In other words, salary compression. Still, every teacher does get a significant raise. The next year, begin to undo the salary compression starting with the second year teachers until all teachers have the $20,000 raise (in constant dollars). It is still a lot of money, but the country can afford it. Assuming a linear increase in national teacher salary expenditure for 10 years gives $0.45 trillion or about 28% of the $1.6 trillion tax reduction being proposed. Less than 1/3 of the proposed tax cut would fix the fundamental problem of our education system. Of course there are details to work out. The tax reduction is for the federal tax but teachers are paid by state or local money. Block grants to states undertaking this salary increase could be used until a more permanent tax shift from federal to state or local taxes is implemented.

Won't this plan raise the salary of existing teachers? Paying more for the some old thing. Won't many of the teachers entering the profession with higher salaries be the same people who would have gone into teaching anyway? Yes, but we have to start somewhere. Attracting more and better-qualified people into teaching, means offering a reasonable and stable salary scale that is known to people when they begin to make career decisions. Most people make career decisions between the 8th grade and college. It will take about 6 years for such people to get into the system and their impact will probably not be felt for at least 10 years. This would be the fastest large-scale positive effect on the education system that has ever been achieved. With a professional level salary scale, we can require professional level qualifications. This could be a 5 or 6-year program that would have the depth of a regular college major in addition to practical teaching courses and carefully supervised classroom practice provided by a college of education. As with any profession, teachers would be employed for a full year. Teaching is the only profession I know, outside of sports and the arts, that tells its practitioners to find another type of job for 3 months a year. This is not very attractive to those who desire a stable family life. After all, families eat and pay bills all year round. There is plenty of work for teachers to do when they are not in the classroom. There is curriculum to plan, textbooks to review, new technology to implement, and new techniques to learn. With teachers employed for a full year, we could even increase the classroom time for children and make a different distribution of it through the year. Most of us don't need our children for 3 continuous months to tend the crops.

As a country we have a unique opportunity to solve an important and pervasive problem that has progressed to a stage that it is apparent. The solution requires no new knowledge, no research programs, no large-scale government programs, no complicated implementation bureaucracy, and no assumption of spontaneous human behavior changes. Making teaching a profession with competitive salaries will not be the end of educational reform but the beginning. Just as in other segments of our economy, the professionals who enter teaching will create a demand for improvements in curricula, technology application, and classroom conditions. The country has the means; all we need is the will to succeed.

Kenneth J. Heller is Chair of the Forum on Education and Morse-Alumni Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota