Too many (underpaid) teachers?

Hey, fellow teachers. Feeling a little too relaxed after the Fourth of July weekend? Here’s an opportunity to raise low blood pressure. Today’s Wall Street Journal includes an article by Cato education scholar Andrew Coulson stating that “America has Too Many Teachers.” (By the way, in my last post I contended that I’m not really a libertarian. Coulson – and Cato – are the genuine article.)

I’m posting a link to the article, of course. But just in case you don’t get past the first paragraph of this article before your head explodes, let me suggest one argument that Coulson, in this paean to private schools and educational choice, fails to make – but that AEI’s Rick Hess has made repeatedly.

The huge expansion in the teacher workforce relative to student enrollment has swelled state budgets . . . but not teacher salaries. Basically, we’ve chosen as a nation to focus on teacher quantity more than teacher quality, and teachers have paid an economic price.

Okay, now I’ll quote from the article at length, in case non-subscribers can’t get access:

President Obama said last month that America can educate its way to prosperity if Congress sends money to states to prevent public school layoffs and “rehire even more teachers.” Mitt Romney was having none of it, invoking “the message of Wisconsin” and arguing that the solution to our economic woes is to cut the size of government and shift resources to the private sector. Mr. Romney later stated that he wasn’t calling for a reduction in the teacher force—but perhaps there would be some wisdom in doing just that.

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

Here’s the link:

I’ve quoted from this article before, but here is Rick Hess’s commentary on the same topic:

Our massive, three-decade national experiment in class-size reduction has exacerbated the challenge of finding enough effective teachers. There are other options. Researchers Martin West and Ludger Woessmann have pointed out that several nations that perform impressively on international assessments, including South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan, boast average middle-school class sizes of more than 35 students per teacher.

To improve schooling, the U.S. has adopted the peculiar policy of hiring ever more teachers and asking them each to do the same job in roughly the same way. This dilutes the talent pool while spreading training and salaries over ever more bodies. As Chester Finn wryly observed in Troublemaker, the U.S. has opted to “invest in many more teachers rather than abler ones.… No wonder teaching salaries have barely kept pace with inflation, despite escalating education budgets.” Since the early 1970s, growth in the teaching force has outstripped growth in student enrollment by 50 percent. In this decade, as states overextended their commitments during the real estate boom, the ranks of teachers grew at nearly twice the rate of student enrollment. If policymakers had maintained the same overall teacher-to-student ratio since the 1970s, we would need 1 million fewer teachers, training could be focused on a smaller and more able population, and average teacher pay would be close to $75,000 per year.


  1. G Burden

    It is worth remembering that a high percentage of parents of students in Japan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea pay between 10 and 20% of their family income for private tutoring that lasts for hours everyday after school. Many people who are unaware of this practice also argue that these countries pay less for public education and therefore get more for their tax dollars. It should be intuitively obvious that the arguments over class size and tax dollars spent on public education puts American education in a bad light if you ignore the significant amounts of money families in these Asian nations spend on private tutoring that commonly lasts two to three hours each night.

    • Mary McConnell

      I haven’t seen the 10 – 20% income figure (it seems a little high), but it’s certainly true that Asian parents are more likely to hire tutors. Here’s a very interesting blog posting on this topic by Jay Mathews, who writes for the Washington Post.

      But this raises an interesting question. Does reducing class size by a few students really replicate the tutoring experience? Or might we be better off by hiring, say, bright college students or college-educated stay at home parents to tutor kids during or after school?

      One of my daughters has tutored math for years, both as a volunteer during high school, college, and law school, and as an employee of a California school district. As a college student she worked first as a volunteer and then as a paid teaching assistant to an elementary school teacher who taught reading and language skills superbly to her largely Hispanic and low-income students . . . but by her own admission struggled with math and science. For minimum wage this fourth grade classroom – and fourth grade teacher – gained a college student who had taken many years of advanced math in high school and college. My daughter loved working with the kids, and thought this job beat the usual college job alternatives. Seems like a win-win for everyone.

  2. Yak_Herder

    “Basically, we’ve chosen as a nation to focus on teacher quantity more than teacher quality, and teachers have paid an economic price.”

    In Utah we’ve decided to focus neither on teacher quality nor teacher quantity. We are, however, doing a great job of increasing student quantity. 🙂

    Maybe we should take a stronger look at increasing student quality.

  3. Purple Daisy

    While class sizes in Asia are larger, their students also know their stuff. In Korea only the top 2% of the class will make it to university. That’s how competitive it is and why ther parents sacrifice to get them extra tutoring. Also, thy don’t push their kids through if they cannot pass the level tests like we do here. Even in South America their policy is the same. Our assessments mean nothing because the students know they will move on. Give a teacher a classroom of 35 students who have built a foundation, worked hard, and know their stuff and the possibilities are endless! Of course a teacher will be able to teach them and manage them as a class. We have to fix one problem before we an begin to takle another one.

    • Mary McConnell

      Actually, lots more than 2% of Korean students make it to university. Indeed, the Economist ran an article earlier this year citing South Korea as an example of the PROBLEMS of attempting to pursue college for all. Here’s the URL for my blog post on the subject, which includes a link to the Economist article.

      Nevertheless, you make a valid point. If students know that they can get into college, or at least some colleges, without making much effort, then many students will decide that making little or no effort is a smart strategy.

      Here’s the URL for my earlier post:

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