What the candidates didn’t debate: Do we really need more teachers?

My guess is that many of you will already have seen today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Imaginary Teacher Shortage.” The author, University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene, argues that President Obama and Governor Romney were too quick to agree that America needs to hire more teachers (although he also points out that Romney would leave these decisions up to states.)

He then highlights statistics that I’ve published on this blog before.

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 National Association of Educational Progress test scores are stagnant, and the high school dropout rate refuses to budge.

Professor Greene also notes that teacher salaries haven’t risen anywhere nearly as much as teacher numbers, and that

There is also a trade-off between the number of teachers we have and the salary we can offer to attract better-quality people. As the teacher force has grown by almost 50% over the past four decades, average salaries for teachers (adjusted for inflation) have grown only 11%, the Department of Education reports. Imagine what kinds of teachers we might be able to recruit if those figures had been flipped and we were offering 50% more pay without having significantly changed student-teacher ratios. Having better-paid but fewer teachers could also save us an enormous amount on pension and health benefits, which have risen far more than salaries in cost per teacher over the past four decades.

Anyway, there’s nothing new here, but the op-ed offers a concise summary of an argument that our presidential candidates apparently don’t want to make. And yes, I know that class sizes are higher in Utah. But as Utah taxpayers grapple with where and how they spend additional education dollars, they should think about whether it makes more sense to boost teacher hiring . . . or boost the state’s low teacher salaries. Yes, I know that many of my readers will want to check “all of the above.” But if we have to choose, where do you stand?


  1. howard beale

    I am going out on a different limb and say in Utah they need to do both (hire more teachers and raise teacher salaries). We need more teachers to lower the ridiculously high class sizes and to attract and retain these teachers, we need to pay teachers higher wages…

    • Mary McConnell

      As you noted, I anticipated your response. But seriously, which of these alternatives do you think should receive a higher priority? Even if we answer all of the above, Utah will not have unlimited resources.

      This is not meant to be a snarky or unsympathetic question, by the way. But it’s an issue that teachers around the country are going to have to confront. While I’ve really tried to avoid union-bashing, I’d note that teachers’ unions get more revenue as membership increases. This may be an issue on which union and (current) teacher interests are not fully aligned. This is also true if we moved toward a smaller number of higher-paid teachers and more paraprofessional assistants, which is another way to address the problems of large classrooms.

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    Mary this is such interesting information that has puzzled me for some time. I am so intrigued by the numbers and wish I could have a peek into a 1970’s classroom to see how it was done. Clearly, things must have been different in some basic ways for teachers to manage larger classes, handle the larger load of assignments to grade, etc. I was in Jr. High in the early 70’s and High school in the later 70’s, and I do know that we had fewer assignments, more emphasis on note taking and tests, and generally were held to be more responsible for the information that was being taught (the best teachers challenged us, supported us, but did not spoon-feed us).

    We have been focusing at our secondary schools on building those types of students. Yes, we focus on building effective teachers too, but we think the key is in building a type of learner that can sit through an entire period and attend to what is happening. Who can take effective notes, and participate in the class discussion because they have a working knowledge of basic facts that we have taught them to mastery. Students who are excited about “showing what they know” on quizzes and tests. Students who can write quick, coherent essays using the arsenal of knowledge they have gained. Students who can speak articulately to defend their knowledge and conclusions.

    If all classrooms were filled with these independent, resilient learners we could have fewer, higher paid teachers – the best of the best – and the system would be greatly improved, in my view.

    We have found encouraging success so far in creating these students, both in Draper and In West Valley City. It can be done, even in Title 1 schools at 76% free/reduced lunch with 55% ESL students. But it is a CONSCIOUS, intentional institutional objective.

    • Mary McConnell

      I think you’re onto something. Student attention spans do seem to be shortening. There’s considerable neurological research suggesting that exposure to constantly changing images actually alters brain patterns. (A good book on the subject is Jane Healy’s Endangered Minds.)

      But I wonder whether you’re right that we had fewer assignments back in the good old, bad old days. (As you know, I’m a similar vintage.) There’s strong evidence that students today receive fewer writing assignments, or at least fewer long writing assignments. And I think that these assignments are also less carefully graded, perhaps in part because a younger generation of teachers didn’t have the grammar and usage drilling that we received.

      I do think there are alternatives to smaller classrooms that capture some of the benefits of higher teacher/student ratios. My own experience working as an online (writing instruction) partner with AP teachers, for example, has made me a blended classroom proponent.

      Good luck with your efforts to improve student attentiveness. I’d love to have you tell us more.

      • Carolyn Sharette

        Mary thank you for the response and reminding me to clarify about fewer assignments. I am just relying on my memory, so that should be understood here – and it isn’t always entirely accurate when going back 30 years! But what I remember is having “meatier” assignments – essays, interviewing people to get diverse perspectives and writing their response and OUR responses to them, and lots of studying the notes from the day (and we took LOTS of notes).

        I am speaking of high school here, and it seems we had far fewer short assignments that nowadays seem to be used to fill a quota of the number of assignments in a term to help students (having lots of assignments allows students to catch up, or make up, for laziness).

        This trend toward many assignments (of less value in my opinion) makes it really very hard on teachers with all the creation of the assignments, grading them and inputting of grades.

        As I recall my High School (in Michigan) I remember notebook checks (to help us develop our note-taking capabilities, check lab work), quizzes, tests and papers. I don’t remember endless “worksheets” (I really don’t remember any) which seem to be a staple in many schools and which keep teachers focusing on less effective teaching activities.

  3. Diplomad thediplomad.blogspot.com

    An issue not frequently raised is what these teachers actually do once employed. I have noticed in our local schools an ever-growing cadre of administrators who come from the ranks of teachers. Our schools have principals, sometimes several vice-principals, and apparently endless numbers of counselors and advisors. Teachers seek those jobs because they are better paying and get them out of the grind of daily teaching.

    • Mary McConnell

      Yes – note the other, similar comment. I worry that you’re right, too, about teachers looking for ways to stay in the business while getting out of the classroom. Universities often rotate professors in and out of administrative positions (such as department chair or dean), sending them back into the classroom after an administrative stint. Maybe that’s a model that schools should consider embracing.

  4. Matt Johnston

    Actually, I thought about this a long time ago, that smaller class sizes server to keep salaries artificially low. I put my ideas here (http://mattjohnston.blogspot.com/2005/10/bigger-classes-are-better.html).

    But the cynic in me also notes that the push for a larger teacher corps serves to increase the relative political power of teachers’ unions (think of the difference between saying “we represent 3.25 million teachers” versus “we represent 2 million teachers”) and serves to give the unions a built in bargaining issue in that “teachers are not paid what they are worth.”

    The fact is, states can hire a large number of new teachers, but No Child Left Behind notwithstanding, you can have everyone one of them be a “high quality teacher” as we don’t live in a Stepford World. The more people you hire, the less you can pay them, it is a simple matter of economics.

  5. John R

    Two things about this. First, in the same time span indicated, there has been a tremendous growth in special education services. Half the staff in some high school buildings are special education teachers, many of whom have just ten or twelve students (necessarily so). So the number of teachers can grow significantly without impacting the general classroom.

    Second, many districts report as “teachers” anyone with an education certification, meaning that they also are including administrative staff. This also increases the number of teachers but does not have any effect on the general classroom.

    • Mary McConnell

      Excellent point, but I think if anything it reinforces the message of the Wall Street Journal op-ed. School staffs have ballooned; teacher salaries have stagnated. I completely agree that some trimming of administrative staff should get much higher priority than increasing class sizes. I’d note that the Catholic school system, where I’ve taught, gets by (and indeed gets consistently better results with disadvantaged kids) with a much, much smaller administrative infrastructure.

      But let’s be fair to administrators: Some of this administrative growth is a response to burgeoning legislative and regulatory requirements. That’s one reason why I was intrigued by the article I posted today, which argues that principals should be given more power and authority . . . and not more micromanagement. I’d be curious to know what you think of her argument.

  6. cas127

    Teachers’ salaries vs. Numbers of Teachers –

    Unions and school district management are purchasing political *power* when they hire more teachers (old fashioned political patronage) – hiring *fewer* in order to increase average teacher compensation does not fit in with their corrupt political calculus.

    Thus we see the educational (and political) results that we have.

    Beginning, middle, and end of story.

  7. John R

    There was a time in education when the “principal” was the “principal teacher.” That person was the building’s educational leader. Now, thanks to the legislative and regulatory requirements you mentioned, they are mere paper pushers with delusions of being an educational leader. Quantity of paperwork generated is not a measurement of leadership.

    But none of that is at the core of the problem. Why is it that after thirty-plus years of educational reform, scores and graduation rates either remain the same, or are falling? Every few years a new group emerges with the claim that THIS TIME, they’ve got the solution. And yet things do not get better in the long run.

    The problem is not with our schools. The fault lies with us, the parents. We are the ones who allow our kids to play video games instead of doing homework. We are the ones who do not have the time to follow up on our children’s activities. We are the ones who allow them to eat junk. We are teh ones who try to be their friends instead of their parents and guardians. We are the ones who have abandoned our responsibilities to government employees — and then are shocked when it doesn’t turn out the way we wished.

    Shame on us.

  8. Micha Elyi

    Take a look at California’s 1990s experiment in hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes. It has been an expensive failure. Why? Because increasing the number of teachers doesn’t increase the number of good teachers much, the talent pool is only so big. But it greatly increased the number of mediocre and bad teachers. Oops. Also it tended to concentrate mediocre and bad teachers in the already poorest-performing schools. Double oops.

    • John R

      To increase the quality of applicants to any job, you need to increase the pay and benefits. Basic economics and every successful businessman understands this and applies the concept to his own hiring practices. Increasing the number of employees without also taking measures to increase the quality of applicants is just foolish.

      • Mary McConnell

        I agree, which is why I’ve been arguing that it makes more sense to devote incremental education resources to improving pay (and, as several commentators have noted, schools could scrounge up more money by eliminating some of the administrative bloat that plagues lower as well as higher ed.)

        Still another issue is the composition of pay. Right now pay is heavily tilted toward generous pensions. This encourages the more risk averse to enter the profession, and discourages a path that I think may make sense for many individuals and schools: a teaching career that spans a decade or less. There’s considerable evidence that teacher effectiveness peaks relatively early, and that burnout is common. Indeed, this helps drive the administrative bloat that we’ve been discussing on the blog. I also think schools might benefit from attracting experienced professionals seeking a fulfilling second career (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that this was my own path.)

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