The Better Teacher Illusion

For decades public education has been under funded. The schools are under funded in the sense that the increases in funding have not matched the increases in students. There should be no debate about this but I feel the need to point this out. Class sizes have been increasing. Funding for art and music is nearly non-existent and now even science and technology budgets face greater scrutiny. With all this known to the point that mentioning it seems trivial, how is it the prevailing wisdom that the problem with schools today is the dreaded teacher union?
Over many decades public schools have fallen into disarray. The primary reason has been budgetary. Mayors, governors, and the federal government looking to trim budgets have given public schools hair cuts time and time again. The problem is no matter how much you cut education cost a ton of money. Education will always be expensive because it is a labor intense job. No matter how you slice it, you need physical bodies to do the work of teaching. This is no minor thing in fact it is contrary to many industries in the private sector. A large number of our gains in society over the last few decades have revolved around getting less people to do more work. This translates to needing to spend less on labor year over year. Education on the other hand, as with most services, has a fixed overhead in labor. So while occasionally some new thing will come along to make the job a little easier, this rarely results in the need for fewer teachers.
The main problem from a business stand point is labor cost generally increase over time. No matter what inflation will drive up the cost of labor. The problem is no one wants to pay for this natural increase. We have grown so accustomed to the price of things going down over time (mostly due to technological advancements), it has become completely unpalatable to pay more for the same year over year. So while there have been increases in education budgets, these were not on par with the rise in the cost of labor. The result was year after year less of the budget went to improving schools, buying supplies, and making sure the kids have all they need to succeed because the cost of labor ate up larger pieces of the pie.
After generations of this we are left with an education budget stripped down to just paying for teachers and barely keeping the lights on. No one wants to pay for supplies and teachers, so we pass laws that allow teachers to write off the money they spend on class supplies for their students. In essence asking teachers to subsidize the cost of education out of their own pockets, or put another way, volunteer to take a pay cut for the kids. Yet now even this is not enough every state is cash strapped, and all the schools despite taking up large amounts of the budget are bad.
Enter the reformers. The reformers come in with tons of pilot programs, with tons of enthusiasm, and more importantly tons of parents who care about their kids education and are desperate for something other than the under funded programs of the past. Like I said in I’m not waiting for superman, I’m looking for infrastructure, It’s the parents that have a greater influence on the students success than the not so new ideas put forth in these charter schools. Still, you may say, you can’t argue with results, right (unless of course the results are dubious)? Well yes results however they’re achieved seem like a good thing, but the primary argument the reformers make is that teacher tenure has prevented schools from getting rid of “bad” teachers. The argument being schools are overburdened with horrible horrible teachers that are preventing students from learning. While it is true that tenure tends to come with increased job security, the other main benefit of tenure is increased salary. So the question becomes which is more likely are our schools filled with bad teachers who can’t teach to save their lives and thus created a union to prevent their rampant incompetence from costing them their jobs, or are our schools filled with teachers with 10 plus years of experience and as a result are at a higher pay grade then their untenured brethren?
A new school filled with untenured teachers (read new teachers) is a school with lower labor costs, which means more money can be spent on supplies. At best this is only a temporary solution as starting salaries for teachers are abysmally low. After a few years labor cost would eat into the resource budget and these schools would begin to slip. At worst this is a recipe for turning Teaching into a McJob. By this I mean the pressure to keep labor costs low will force the requirements to achieve modest wage increase to unobtainable levels and drive many teachers out of the profession after a few years. As is it is difficult to attract people with the educational requirements when their wages are compared to wages with equal educational background. This would have a devastating effect on education in this country.
Our education system is on the ropes. Our schools are literally crumbling in many places. I believe we can turn things around, and changes need to happen. But the notion that all we need to do is get rid of the bad teachers and we’ll solve our problems is the equivalent of sticking a finger in a tiny hole of a dike while the river behind it swells and overflows.

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