What Money Can Buy

The Times has an article up about a charter school which is using high salaries to attract high-caliber teachers, and the article asks if higher pay for teachers would make for better teachers. I’m sure B has a few thoughts on this as well, but I simply couldn’t resist commenting.

It’s so like Americans to think that throwing more money at the problem will create a solution.

I think that the issue is not that America is somehow rife with bad teachers, but that our entire educational system is horribly mismanaged. Certainly, higher pay and benefits will encourage more people to become teachers, because people will see that the teaching profession is respected and taken seriously, but this problem is so much bigger than just giving teachers more money, and it is fatally simplistic to imagine that raising teacher salaries will magically fix the American education system.

For one thing, the article focuses specifically on a charter school, and as we all know, charter schools have their own issues, making it kind of hard to generalize about public schools when you’re really looking at charter schools, which are a cracker of a different grain. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for giving teachers more money…

…but I also think we need to look at the lives their students lead. It’s hard to be a good teacher when you have poor material to work with, and I think we can agree that children who grow up in violence prone areas are not the greatest material. Neither are children with parents who have not completed educations themselves, kids who don’t grow up in homes with books, kids who are too hungry to focus on school, kids who are being abused by family members, or kids with major untreated health problems.

If you care about education, you also need to address these issues, you need to create advantages and generate interest in them, rather than just educating people who are willing to go to great lengths to access educational tools. This charter school may be working to attract low income students, but that’s just rescuing a few from mediocre education, not making a positive change in the community. And the generous salaries proposed in the article are not realistically replicable in other places, making the school nothing more than an expensive experiment, not an educational model.

And you need to look at the quality and maintenance of school facilities. It’s kind of hard to teach effectively with toilets overflowing, or in a school which constantly goes into lockdowns because it’s in a sketchy neighborhood. And how can children learn in facilities which aren’t up to date? You can’t teach chemistry without a lab, or history without a library, no matter how great a teacher you are. I’m willing to bet that this school is going to be equipped with state of the art facilities, which will definitely stack the deck, in terms of results.

Yes, good teachers will provide a better education to their students, and I agree with the article: a crappy teacher won’t become better just because he or she has a small class and lots of technology. But I think that most people go into the education field at this point to educate, not to make money, and star-power salaries might be a good way to attract people who are more interested in the money aspect, and less in the educational aspect. Is it possible that the plan will actually attract worse teachers, because it will alienate really good, hardworking teachers who are struggling in awful schools in totally backwards districts?

I would also love to see a return to classics education, because I am a firm believer in Greek and Latin. Going to school used to be harder, with more serious demands made from students, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Americans may be able to take tests well, but we can’t conjugate verbs in languages other than English (and even then, things get hairy). Americans can’t find major world powers on a map, and they are often woefully ignorant of world history. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I think that a thorough grounding in history and classics gives people tools to succeed.

It’s not about memorizing dates to me, it’s about learning cultural context, allowing you to understand why people do the things they do. I’m glad to see a nod to this in the article, but I’m not sure that getting rid of electives is the best way to approach this. Electives are valuable, because they let students explore areas of interest, encouraging them to develop skills which they might put to use later.

I’m also curious, as always, about how the school plans to measure performance. Standardized testing seems to be the method of choice, rather than something like how successful graduates are after a few years in the world, or how teachers themselves think that their students are doing. Standardized testing also seems like such an American approach to the issue, expecting everyone to fit neatly into little boxes for assessment. Woe betide the student who is a poor test taker, or the innovative teacher who departs from the prescribed curriculum to give children real world lessons in material which interests them.

It’s not just teachers that need higher wages, it’s schools that need better funding, and this article seems to ignore this issue to focus on a single magic bullet. Bad call, in my opinion, and that’s a pity, because American needs to wake up and start making education funding a priority.

2 Replies to “What Money Can Buy”

  1. i just wanted to respond to one quick point. at one point you said that you thought people were entering the educational field to educate, not to make money. i agree with that, but that doesn’t mean the converse is necessarily true, which i think is the more fundamental issue:

    people (who would be exceptional teachers) are not entering the field because they can’t make enough money.

    i would be a great teacher (note the modesty?), but i won’t enter the teaching profession here, because i would have to take a paycut down to about 33% of my income in order to do so in this district. that’s simply not worth it. many people who could be exceptional teachers but want to, say, own land, simply can’t find the profession viable, and so stay out of it.

    ultimately, i think i agree with the premise of this article, while also agreeing with some of your points.

    the main reason we diverge, i think, is illustrated in your conclusion, when you note that schools need better funding, not a magic bullet. i think we can all (i suspect even the authors of the article) agree that schools need better funding. but they don’t have it, and are unlikely to see much better funding (even under a dem administration) in the near future — education simply is not a priority issue among the electorate this cycle.

    that makes the question, then, how can we best maximize the poor funding we currently have? and i think paying teachers more, even if it means drawing away from other resources, is a good answer. ultimately, teachers are the foundational resource a school has, and improving that just makes good utilitarian sense. because i think it is accurate to say that a school that has the best physical plant and supplies but lousy teachers will have lousy students, whereas a school with a weak physical plant and low supplies but exceptional teachers will not. the teachers might bemoan their lack of supplies, and the students might miss out of some opportunities, but a good teacher sitting in an empty concrete room will impart more education than a bad teacher surrounded by all the educational marvels of the ages.

    additionally, although please note that this is not the foundation for my argument, as it is more open to interpretation, i think it should be considered that teachers often spend (sometimes substantial) portions of their income improving their students’ access to materials and experiences. this increases as the teacher salary does, as one can see by looking at higher-paid districts. teachers will sometimes purchase books, fund field trips, etc. out of pocket. and while this isn’t ideal, we don’t have an ideal system. and we may as well give them more money to use for things like this, since i at least believe teachers are much better suited to decide what their students need than most administrators.

    that’s it for me. i of course agree that america needs to fund education, and i agree we need lots of it, and quickly. but we don’t have it, so in the short term i think increasing teacher salaries is a strong idea.

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