Friday, March 11, 2005

Chester Finn has some interesting ideas on why teachers aren't paid more. There are just too many of them.
Over the past half-century, the number of pupils in U.S. schools grew by about 50% while the number of teachers nearly tripled. Spending per student rose threefold, too. If the teaching force had simply kept pace with enrollments, school budgets had risen as they did, and nothing else changed, today's average teacher would earn nearly $100,000, plus generous benefits. We'd have a radically different view of the job and it would attract different sorts of people.

Yes, classes would be larger -- about what they were when I was in school. True, there'd be fewer specialists and supervisors. And we wouldn't have as many instructors for youngsters with "special needs." But teachers would earn twice what they do today (less than $50,000, on average) and talented college graduates would vie for the relatively few openings in those ranks.

What America has done, these past 50 years, is invest in more teachers rather than better ones, even as countless appealing and lucrative options have opened up for the able women who once poured into public schooling. No wonder teaching salaries have just kept pace with inflation, despite huge increases in education budgets. No wonder the teaching occupation, with blessed exceptions, draws people from the lower ranks of our lesser universities. No wonder there are shortages in key branches of this sprawling profession. When you employ three million people and you don't pay very well, it's hard to keep a field fully staffed, especially in locales (rural communities, tough urban schools) that aren't too enticing and in subjects such as math and science where well-qualified individuals can earn big bucks doing something else.

He points to several culprits including the "seductiveness of small classes" and all the requirements that we have placed on schools to have specialty teachers for both special ed and for electives. I just don't think we're ever going to turn back the clock on that. And, as a teacher at a charter school that aims to have small classes, I find that I like the opportunity to get to know students as individuals and to spend more time grading individual papers. however, I don't think that my in-class teaching was much different when I had 29 students or now when I have 20.

My objection would be more to huge schools and school districts where rules for the district are decided impersonally at some big administrative building. When I taught in Wake County Public Schools there was hardly anything that came from central office that was of a help to us. I love being at a charter and having the administrators make decisions quickly right there within the school. They can adapt to new situations immediately and devise strategies that are just right for our school. If something doesn't work, it can be changed right away instead of having to go through several layers of approval. Now that I've taught at a big school and had one child go through a high school that was over four times as large as our charter, I see such an advantage of having a small school. The principal knows the name of almost every one of our 500 students. Every student can have a close relationship with one or more of his or her teachers. The college counselors each have about 40 students that they are responsible for and they spend hours with each one helping their charges get into the schools of their dreams. So, my answer to some of the problems that Chester Finn highlights are small schools, preferably charters, rather than small classes.