Thursday, May 10, 2012
I just finished listening to an interview with Marc Tucker, the author of the book Surpassing Shanghai.
He compared our reform efforts in the US to the things that successful countries are doing. The resulting message is that reformers on the right and the left are both wrong. We don't need to spend more money and we don't need to let market forces disrupt the system. What we need are 1) high standards for all children (and a commitment to spend more money on those that are hardest to educate), 2) a quality curriculum with matching materials, assessments and teacher preparation, and 3) high quality teachers.
I want to focus on number 3 for a moment because I think it is a huge challenge. Tucker said that in successful countries, teacher training programs are highly selective and teachers are paid an amount comparable to other professionals, like lawyers or engineers.
Is this possible in the US? One of the main problems as I see it is that in the US people can make a lot of money by being an engineer, lawyer, or doctor (more than in most other countries). Take this chart, for example.
The difference is not quite as stark in every other profession, but the main point remains. Most other countries don't have as much income inequality as we do in the United States so it is (relatively) easy to make teacher pay competitive. But income inequality in this country is not going away anytime soon.
McKinsey did a study on what it would take to encourage graduates from the top third of their college class to go into teaching. The results were not exactly encouraging. Teachers currently start at an average of $49,000/yr and top out at around $67,000/yr. The result is that about 23% of teachers are top third graduates. If we increased the pay range to $65,000/$150,000 we could get a whopping 37% of new hires from the top third.
People simply don't respect teaching as a profession, and the pay is just part of it. Teachers are seen as babysitters. It is stressful. The first few years are brutal. In some circumstances there is a lot of pressure to spoon feed students material to improve standardized test scores.
Luckily for our students it turns out that there are a significant number of very competent and intelligent people who overlook all of this. But lets face it. They are not the majority. And we have a system designed around the teachers we have. They create the culture and drive expectations.
That is why I don't think we can model our education system after that of other successful countries. I think we need a complete overhaul. Contrary to Mr. Tucker's advice, I think we need to unleash market forces and disrupt the status quo, because otherwise I see no hope of getting bright people into the profession on a massive scale. The United States really is different than Singapore, Japan, and even Canada.