How to get better teachers.

Posted Jan 27, 2003
Last Updated May 31, 2007

Think about your teachers in elementary school. They were so smart. They knew everything about anything. They were brilliant, strong, and perfect. Now get on the phone and call your teachers from elementary school. Try to have a conversation with them about politics, literature, or psychology. Maybe they aren’t quite so brilliant.

Let’s examine who becomes a teacher. The average SAT scores of high school seniors that intend to pursue Education as an intended area of study in college was 483 verbal and 481 mathematics in 2001, compared to average scores of 506 and 514 (Digest of Education Statistics 2001). There were only three fields of study with lower scores: Home Economics, Vocational, and, frighteningly enough, Public Affairs. These are C+ or B- students, and they want to be the teachers. Contrast this to the 580-600 range of students wanting to study Philosophy, Engineering, and Physical Sciences.

Why do the students with higher scores (which most educational facilities, both secondary and post-secondary, consider to be “higher quality”) choose to be engineers and doctors, while the C+ students decide to be teachers? There are many reasons commonly given in education journals. Education programs are easier to get into. The field of education is bigger. Teaching is an easier job. People with lower grades are more suited to education, because they are more patient with students who have hard times learning. Some of these reasons hold some truth, but they are all symptoms of the real problem: money.

Money is said to be the root of all evil, and in this case, lack of money is causing the problem. The average salary earned in 1994 by full-time school teachers was $36,498 (Digest of Education Statistics 2001) while a entry-level chemical engineer earned $48,929 (Salary.com). So what’s $12,000, really? Well how about a senior chemical engineer at $80,000 or a surgeon at $204,722? The truth is that teaching is a middle class job. The average yearly wage in the US was $29,814 ( NEWS for North Dakotans), so teachers are a bit better off than your typical check-out clerk or stocker. But they make about the same as assistant managers at Applebees.

Local government has tried to make teachers better, but they haven’t succeeded. The typical plan of action is to introduce higher standards of testing and accountability for teachers. The logic is that hard tests will weed out the bad teachers. This is true, to a point, but what has really happened is that there are just less teachers. Here’s a test that follows the same logic, go to the dumpster behind your local pizza place. Now pick out only the very best pizza you can find in the dumpster. Imposing rigorous quality standards does not make the pizza better. The same holds true to the pool of teachers. School districts have tried to make teachers better. This involves motivational speakers, common planning times, and teacher training seminars. This is a lot like pulling the pizza out of the dumpster and pouring hot sauce on it.

The only way to get a decent pizza is to go into the store and pay for it. The only way to get better teachers is to recruit from a better pool of students. And the only way to draw from that pool is with higher wages. If we paid teachers doctor-sized wages, we would have doctor-caliber people as teachers. The other symptoms would go away. Education would be a more competitive field, programs would get harder, and so would admission standards. There would more prestige involved – your dad would say, “Be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher.” Teaching would become a profession. And with it would come professional schools (eight years to be a teacher – think about it), stricter entrance standards (the ECATs?), and the prestige that the position deserves. Remember, doctors save lives, but teachers build them. With better teachers, we would be a better nation. So get to it, policy makers, voters, politicians. But what do I expect really? Public affairs scored even lower than education.

Andrew Penry has a BS in Music Education and a BA in Chemistry He scored 1580 total on his SAT.

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