The Time Has Come to Make Teaching a
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
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.
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.
J. Heller is Chair of the Forum on Education and Morse-Alumni
Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota