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The importance of teachers

Adam Newman | Monday, October 1, 2012

When I was a freshman in high school, my history teacher shared a story in class about a person who was interviewing for a teaching position. Instead of providing her actual credentials, the interviewee lied and said that she attended Harvard and used her friends to pretend to be Harvard admissions officials and other references. Without hesitation, I blurted out, “Why would you become a teacher if you went to Harvard?” This was a rude comment for many reasons, none more so than the fact that the teacher telling this story went to Yale.

Unfortunately, my reaction is one that most Americans share. Our society guides the best and brightest into highly-respected fields like finance, law and medicine, while looking down on those who enter education. Moreover, it is perceived that students who go to top schools are above the teaching profession and that those who become teachers would not be able to succeed anywhere else. As the saying goes, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.”  

Even though teachers may have a low status in society, there is no doubt of their importance. Stanford economist Erik Hanushek, America’s most respected education expert, has found that a teacher in the 90th percentile of quality can increase the income of a class of 30 students by roughly $750,000 over a lifetime, relative to a teacher in the 60th percentile of quality. Even though a strong economic case can be made for recruiting more talented people into education, only 23 percent of America’s teachers graduate in the top third of their college class, while the best performing countries such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore recruit virtually 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their college class.    

Turning the teaching profession into a highly-respected profession will mean tearing down what former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein calls the “three pillars of mediocrity.” The first pillar is “lock-step pay,” where teachers are paid based on the number of years they have taught and the degrees they hold instead of on their performance and the subject they teach. This effectively creates such low pay for entry-level teachers that many are dissuaded from the education profession and also fails to compensate teachers with highly sought-after backgrounds in science and math.

The second pillar is “tenure,” the rule in American education that makes it logistically impossible to fire a teacher for merit, usually after four years of service. This provision keeps ineffective teachers in classrooms and makes it harder for younger teachers to enter the profession. Tenure eliminates incentives for teachers to maintain high performance and creates professional complacency.   

The final pillar is “seniority,” the rule that teachers who are the last hired are the first fired, even though research shows seniority is not a factor in teaching effectiveness after five years. As states have been forced to balance their budgets, many young teachers have been laid off without any regard to their effectiveness.   

If these three pillars can be replaced with a more flexible labor market that pays high salaries to effective teachers, while working to push out poor and mediocre performers, slowly, the profession will become more respected. It will begin to draw a superior talent pool, allowing American education to evolve from a national disgrace to an institution that can turn around what is seemingly a nation in decline.

Many critics of these reforms, known as “traditionalists,” usually point to a million factors to improve education rather than teacher effectiveness, most notably poverty. The argument goes: “Eliminate poverty through government aid and education will improve.” This is often used as an excuse for the failure of American education. While welfare programs do have an important role in our society, we know that they are more geared towards redistributing wealth than creating it. A quality education, on the other hand, can give people the skills and knowledge necessary so that they are less dependent on government, something both Democrats and Republicans want to see. As the saying goes: “Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.”  

There are perhaps few professions more important in our society than teaching. But as long as the three pillars of mediocrity exist, American education will never allow America to live up to its full potential. If we can break the three pillars of mediocrity, eventually high school students won’t question why someone would attend Harvard to become a teacher – they will declare openly that they want to go to Harvard so they can become one.

Adam Newman is a senior political science major. He can be reached at anewman3@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.