Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In Praise of Teachers (if not their unions)

To get another perspective on the public union issue, read Chris Farrell's article in Bloomberg Business Week about the real problem with tenure and teachers' unions. Teachers' unions have pushed for job protection and pay raises based on seniority, not ability.

Teachers have valid concerns about capricious principals and the difficulty of measuring good teaching, but firing ineffective teachers would clearly benefit some students. In many states, a teacher who has taught for three years becomes eligible for tenure. Once a teacher has tenure, it is very difficult and costly to fire him/her.

"In New York City, the cost to fire one incompetent tenured teacher is about $250,000, said Education Department spokeswoman Melody Meyer [in 2008]. She said that of 55,000 teachers on staff, 10 were fired last year" 

As many others have pointed out, the long term growth and wealth of the U.S. depends on our producing educated workers. Demonizing teachers is not in our own self-interest. We need to draw top graduates into teaching. We also need to be able to fire under-performers, regardless of how long they have been teaching. Top work needs to be rewarded with top pay.  These are the real issues that need to be resolved with the unions. 

To take two excerpts from the Farrell's article:

"Consultants at McKinsey figure that if the U.S. had closed the achievement gap with the best-performing nations from 1983 to 1998, America's gross domestic product could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher than it actually was in 2008. To put this in perspective, during the recent recession the U.S. economy fell about $1 trillion short of its output potential."  So every year, education shortfalls are costing us more than the recession.

"Hanushek figures replacing the bottom 5 percent to 8 percent of teachers with average teachers would move the U.S. toward the top of international science and math rankings."  

The prestigious Teach for America Program has made it cool for graduates of top colleges to become  teachers - and produced impressive results in the classroom. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, talks about the importance of recruiting the best students into the teaching profession.

In addition to reforming teaching contracts in public schools, charter schools and vouchers to private schools, are likely to be a part of the policy debate in the next decade.

Ideally, all public sector unions will face pressure for a stronger link between pay and performance. We need to reward qualified workers in government too (and to fire under-performers).  We want bright, well paid Wall Street regulators who aren't waiting to jump ship for lucrative private sector jobs.

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