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Short Term Thinking, Long Term Failure

Any other public school educators getting tired of being told you’re overpaid?

State and local politicians are loudly claiming teacher pay and benefits are bankrupting their governments, and a long parade of “experts” on the talking heads channels have declared us to be wildly over compensated (at least compared to the divine private sector), greedy, and don’t forget lazy.

Many of those same people make lots of noise when international comparisons of test scores show our students ranking in the middle of the pack but ignore other statistics showing teacher pay in the US also ranking low when compared to Finland, Korea and other industrialized countries.

They also want to change teacher compensation formulas to pay them based on changes in test scores, the so-called “value add” system, despite there being no evidence that such formulas (or the tests themselves for that matter) have any validity when it comes to student learning.

On the other side of things, one lone voice, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, tries to make the case for raising teacher salaries, starting with the common reasoning that, if we want to improve schools, we need to attract more talented, better educated people to the profession.*

However, his better argument, one that needs to be made more frequently, is the long term benefits that comes from investing in good teachers and good schools.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

During the economic mess of the past three years, we were told that the million dollar bonuses being paid by the likes of AIG, Bank of America, and other financial service companies were necessary so that they wouldn’t lose talented people.

The same “talent”, of course, that created the incredible risky investments that cause the crash in the first place.

Anyway, you rarely hear anyone saying anything about paying to retain talented teachers and principals, despite all the talk about them being the key factor to building a “world class” school system.

That’s because most people running business and government in this country are totally fixated on short term gains – the next quarter’s profits, the next election – rather than paying for long term public investments, ones that pay off in 10, 20, 30 years.

It’s why our roads, bridges, and public transportation systems are falling apart, why we continue to rely on increasingly expensive and scarce fossil fuels for energy, and why our school system is stuck with a 1950’s industrial model in this hyperlinked information age.

Considering that too many people in this country are worried about their day-to-day issues, I’m not optimistic about the short term thinking of our “leaders” changing anytime soon.

But something about our national attitude about planning for the future does need to change.


*Kristof weakens his case somewhat with the line “as measured by SAT scores” but that’s another rant.

1 Comment

  1. kwest

    I agree totally. This comes up every few years – teachers only work 9 months out of the year, those who can’t do, teach, etc. I come from a family of teachers. They work harder and longer hours than anyone I know.

    It’s amazing to me how seemingly educated, smart people I know can say the only way to attract and keep talented employees is pay them more – except teachers. Pay them less. I fear for our country’s future.

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