Monday, December 12, 2005

Price-setting and NYC teacher pay

A friend recently commented that identifying yourself as a schoolteacher no longer commands the respect it once did. The obvious reason, especially in New York City, is that public schools tend to have so many bad teachers and so few good ones. But why is it that ratio? A teacher can start at nearly $40,000 per year with just a bachelor's degree, though that requires accepting an assignment at "tougher" schools. (Teachers in Berkeley, California, can start at $44K with only two years of experience.) Still, add to that the excellent benefits, and what is said to be the rewarding experience of molding young minds, and that's not a bad salary for someone who wants to turn a love of teaching into a career.

However, as I mentioned yesterday about wages and illegal immigration, Americans have extremely high opportunity costs when it comes to work. Someone who graduated with honors from a good college can earn $40,000 and higher at a more desirable job, perhaps not with the benefits and tenure, but one that is more worth the pay. It's not very desirable to work with a lot of incompetent colleagues, or struggle in classrooms with disruptive students.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." It's not a very old saying, but it shows how in recent years it's become so easy to become a public school teacher. The pay is not good enough to attract intelligent people who go into professional careers, like medicine and engineering. However, the pay is good enough that, coupled with the ease of getting into training programs, it attracts a lot of bad teachers who barely graduate from college. Also, tenure is easily attainable, and because it makes it impossible to fire bad teachers, it's the ultimate form of job security.

Across the state of New York, public school teachers get tenure after just two years. Principals get it after five. Unless a teacher commits a crime, the worst incompetence means a transfer to another school -- the solution is simply to make the teacher someone else's problem. In recent months, many teachers have balked at the latest contract proposal, which lengthens the school day by 10 minutes but raises teacher salaries by 15% over 52 months. But their real objections are about the alleged abrogations of their "rights," because the proposal will require new teachers to work for five years before getting tenure, and it curtails part of the appeals process that makes it so hard to fire bad teachers.

I have mentioned before that the average NYC class size is 28 students, but the actual ratio of teachers to students is 14 to 1. So half the teachers are not working at any given time, whether they're on leave or have free periods. If a substantial amount can be fired for not doing anything, for incompetence, and because they're not as necessary, then their salaries can be used to augment the remaining teachers' pay. The higher pay would increase the supply of teacher candidates, with still a lot of bad ones, but more good ones too. With the increased supply, the school districts can be more choosy in hiring.

It is critical to keep aggregate teacher pay at a minimum. If we simply hike teacher salaries to attract good ones, it has the bad effect of delivering more money into the powerful teachers unions' pockets.

Class schedule restructuring is a must, to make the use of teachers more efficient. I graduated from high school in Utah, which wanted us to take art and other "fun" classes. Instead of drawing and photography, students would be better served with additional math and science classes. I've proposed a semester-long class in personal finance as a graduation requirement, and I think students would greatly benefit from a semester of improving writing and another of pure creative writing. Putting aside the issue of whether we should have public schools, we complain that our children are less educated than their international peers, yet the solution is right in front of us. It's not just a discipline problem; it's not just that so many don't give a damn about learning. When they go to a liberal arts college and take so few classes in their major, in the name of a "well-rounded education," it's merely a continuation of their high school experience's similar emphasis, which left the students so ill-prepared for college-level work.

Another essential solution is to kick out troublemaking students and keep them out. I caught a little bit of "Lean on Me" the other day, one of my favorite movies. While principals aren't exactly chaining their doors locked, and in New York they never go against teachers like that, the depiction of disruptive students is sadly not too far from the truth. Troublemakers are rarely dealt with, at least not with sufficient severity. When they commit felony assault and battery by beating up a bus driver, they're merely given desk appearance tickets (where they return on their own recognizance). I'm not calling for corporal punishment, but if discipline returns so that teachers can actually teach instead of playing baby-sitter, there will be more applicants who will be good teachers.

I hadn't thought about this in years. For 8th grade, my father wanted me to pass up the newly offered "gifted and talented" program (basically taking half of the "honors" students and putting them into a clique) and instead take regular English and history classes. My American history class had a notorious troublemaker who made any excuse to walk up the aisles to the teacher's desk and hit students on the back of the head. Being a complete nerd back then (and still to some extent today), I must have looked like easy prey. Well, he hit the back of my head, but he made the mistake of walking by me on the way back. I quietly tripped him, sending him face-first to the floor, which probably hurt his ego more than his nose. After that, I demanded a transfer out, and for 9th grade, I took the "G/T" classes so I could be among better classmates.

But what about the rest of the students? The little punk causing them trouble wasn't expelled from the school, though he should have been. Preferably, he should have been sent to an old-fashioned reform school. It's a failing of public schools that we require students, good and bad, to mingle together. More and more Americans choose to home-school their children, including black Americans. Home schooling gives parents the freedom to teach their children about any culture and religion they want, to emphasize the subjects they want, and to keep their children out of bad, violent schools.

I'd like to conclude with what I saw Friday morning on the way to work. On the subway shuttle from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square, there were a half-dozen young people apparently going to enjoy their day off. New York schools everywhere had closed because of the snow, which wasn't so severe that it prevented these youngsters from traveling all the way to midtown. Judging by their accents, they were either from the Bronx or the north parts of Manhattan. They were only in their very early teens, yet literally every other word they said was a vulgarity unmentionable in polite company. They mocked the musicians who were playing that morning inside the subway, though the musicians at least try to make an honest buck with their talents, instead of panhandling.

Does it make a difference that these kids were black? No, but it would make Bill Cosby weep more for the future of black America. God alone knows how they do in school, what trouble they might be causing for others who want to learn (including how to speak proper English), and what they will do for work upon leaving school.

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