Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Too Many Cooks

We need more teachers! We need more teachers! Really? Jay Greene on The Imaginary Teacher Shortage:

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, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress. 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.

Most people expect that more individualized attention from teachers should help students learn. The problem is that expanding the number of hires means dipping deeper into the potential teacher labor pool. That means additional teachers are likely to be weaker than current ones.

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you're liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

Greene goes on to mention another problem with simply adding more teachers: if the pool of funds available to pay teachers doesn’t increase at the same rate as the number of teachers does, it naturally will mean lower pay for teachers. So not only does adding more teachers water down the quality, it also results in good teachers not getting paid as much as they should. Instead of blindly calling for “more teachers!” why not try a model with fewer, higher quality, and better paid teachers?

Over the last forty years, we’ve tried to throw more money and more teachers at the education problem and the results have been dismal. Doing more of the same will not change the outcome.


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  2. Interesting perspective. I am a former high school math teacher, and I like to think that I was a good one. I observed two main issues relating to the students lack of progress in math. First, a societal acceptance of math illiteracy. I heard many intelligent and educated adults say "I never liked/did well in math either, it's too hard". This is a message to the students that it's ok to fail. Second, too many teachers had soft 'math education' degrees versus 'real' math degrees. I taught in 3 different high schools, and I was the only one with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics (meaning I had many more credit hours of hardcore theoretical and applied math courses compared to my colleagues). There is a huge difference in understanding of elementary math concepts when you have more experience with the more complex material. And if the teacher doesn't have a better grasp of the material, we can't expect the students to excel. Bottom line - the field of mathematics has been dumbed down and society accepts it - and this supports the perspective of your article as well.

  3. If people really wanted more teachers, there are any number of qualified people out there--my brother with an MS in math from Berkeley, a local supermarket manager my family knows--to hire if they're willing.

    Kinda like the engineering shortage. I know a lot of former engineers working in finance, actuarial science....if companies were willing to pay, there is no shortage.