Teachers for the New Century

Thursday, January 30, 2003

How can we improve education in the United States so that the new century will not end as the last did, with the United States falling consistently behind other countries in student performance? The answer, in a nutshell, centers on teachers. Without improving the average quality of our teachers, there is little hope of improving the system.

There are clearly some very able teachers in the U.S. educational system. A number of studies have shown that they have large positive effects on students. But research also shows that teacher quality has declined over time. Part of this decline, ironically, reflects reduced discrimination against women. Fifty years ago, talented, educated women had few options other than teaching, and the schools were filled with highly qualified and able teachers. Today, college-educated women have moved into other occupations, and the supply of high-quality talent available to the teaching profession has declined.

A recent study by Caroline Hoxby at Harvard University found that, among public school teachers, the average SAT scores upon entering college fell in the 35th percentile in verbal and the 44th percentile in quantitative skills. This means that the people who are educating our next generation come on average from the lower half of the college achievement spectrum.

This is no surprise. Teachers are not paid very well, and many talented potential teachers have other options. National data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau (Current Population Survey, March 2002) reveal that teachers work about 6.5 percent fewer hours a year than typical college graduates but earn salaries that are 36 percent less than the average for college graduates.

Why are teachers so important? Since most education in this country takes place in classrooms where there are many children, disruption by one child imposes penalties on other children in the class. The evidence suggests that child behavior is very sensitive to teacher quality. Data from Texas provide authoritative evidence that good teachers improve the quality of the classroom experience and raise performance scores.

The biggest obstacle here is that teacher quality is not closely related to any characteristic on which salaries are based—for example, work experience or academic degrees held by the teacher. The solution is to have a large pool of applicants, a flexible turnover policy based on teacher performance, and higher teacher salaries to attract the pool and compensate for a reduction in job security.

A number of other policies have been suggested, and some implemented, that actually adversely affect teacher quality. The reduction in class size mandated for early school grades, for example, resulted in an increased demand for teachers without a corresponding increase in salaries. As a result, teachers had to be drawn from an inferior pool. The increased demand for teachers in the more desirable suburban schools prompted the flight of quality teachers from disadvantaged districts. They were replaced by newer, less-qualified teachers, which widened the school quality gap.

There are two reasons for concern. First, schools are failing badly for some subgroups of the population. Second, education has been demonstrated conclusively to be very important both for a country’s economic growth and for raising the wages of individual citizens. Each year of schooling is associated with about a 10 percent increase in subsequent annual earnings.

In most industries, firms that perform badly are replaced by other firms. However, most education is provided publicly and is protected from the market. This suggests that more competition is needed, with accountability as the guiding principle. Accountability happens automatically in a market context because if a producer does not provide quality goods, the market holds him accountable by eliminating profits.

More competition is needed in the educational arena. Despite the lack of a profit motive, there is some hope. Although vouchers are not widespread, movement toward vouchers and pressures from private schools have forced states to look carefully at charter schools and other alternatives. But the reality is that the public school system will be with us for years to come, and it is important to make that system stronger. Allowing more choice, so that students could move from failing schools to more successful ones, would be helpful. The money could follow the students, allowing failing schools to be replaced by more successful administrators and teachers, who would take over the same physical classrooms.

To improve our schools in the twenty-first century, it is first necessary to attract more high-quality teachers. This can only be done by improving their compensation and by introducing a kind of marketplace accountability into the system. At the same time, competition should be allowed to prevail so that the weak aspects of the educational establishment can be eliminated, enabling the best part—talented, well-prepared teachers—to flourish.