October 9 2012

The Truth about the "Teacher Shortage"

Charlotte Hays

The hilarious Saturday Night Live skit on last week’s presidential debate made fun of President Obama’s seeming solution to all ills: hiring more teachers.

“So your plan, then, is to hire more teachers,” says an incredulous “Jim Lehrer” on SNL. “As many as it takes,” replies the clueless “President Obama.” Even when he is not having a bad debate night, however, the president often talks as if we are a nation desperate for more teachers.

Jay Greene, a professor at the school of education at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal debunking the notion that there is a teacher shortage. It should be noted that, in the debate, Governor Romney signed on to President Obama’s call for more and more teachers—he just recognized that these are decisions that should be made at a state or local level.

Greene writes:

Let's hope state and local officials have that discretion—and choose to shrink the teacher labor force rather than expand it. Hiring hundreds of thousands of additional teachers won't improve student achievement. It will bankrupt state and local governments, whose finances are already buckling under bloated payrolls with overly generous and grossly underfunded pension and health benefits.

For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.

And this:

Most people expect that more individualized attention from teachers should help students learn. The problem is that expanding the number of hires means dipping deeper into the potential teacher labor pool. That means additional teachers are likely to be weaker than current ones.

With regard to the quality of teachers, I'd like to add my two bits: I have been appalled by the bad grammar and logic of teachers who have made news lately because of their attempts to stifle dissent about President Obama. I do not want to hire more people like teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely, who told a student he could be arrested for “disrespecting” President Obama. Her definition of disrespecting the president seemed to be favoring Mitt Romney. Her grammar was atrocious.

Greene makes the additional point that in hiring more expensive teachers school districts are often unable to invest in educational technology. As somebody who benefited from wonderful teachers, I was initially skeptical of the use of technology in schools. But I know homeschooling families who use technology (mostly in the form of internet classes) with great results.

Green says that there are amazing innovations on the horizon:

Educational technology is still in its infancy, but some amazing innovation has already happened, especially in higher education. Coursera allows students to take free classes from the best professors in the world. In K-12, charter schools such as Rocketship Academy in California and Carpe Diem in Arizona "flip" the classroom so that computers do much of the teaching and teachers are primarily tutors, problem-solvers, and behavior managers. This model could allow for much more individualized instruction with many fewer teachers.

Note that the role of the teacher, who would act as a tutor, isn’t insigninicant. But we could need fewer, which would allow us to pick the best (oh, I forgot about the unions!). Indeed, Greene notes that these promising experiments with technology are taking place outside the public-school monopoly. Romney favors vouchers that would allow families to take advantage of schools that use creative techniques. President Obama has a different approach:

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has a Solyndra-like solution. He's happy to have the federal government pick the "winning" reform strategy of hiring another army of teachers by devoting federal resources to that approach. If it once again fails to improve student outcomes while stifling innovation, taxpayers will be stuck paying the bill.

It is a good sign that even Saturday Night Live can see bleak humor in the president’s ever-ready solution to just about anything.

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