A lot of people are concerned about the state of American public schools, and rightly so. Because we are not doing a good job educating the bulk of our youth, our workforce is increasingly becoming inadequate to fill the jobs of the 21st century. As individuals and as a nation we are more and more often losing the competitions for the good jobs.
Currently a debate is raging in California between Governor Schwarzenegger, who is pushing for merit pay to reward successful teachers, and the teachers unions who insist that smaller class sizes and a general increase in funding for schools is the answer. However there is an elephant on the table that largely is being ignored. I am talking about the uniform pay scales for teachers. The public school systems nation-wide are little enclaves of communism trying to function in a free-market country. A kindergarten teacher gets the same salary as a 12th-grade teacher who teaches advanced-placement classes. “All animals are equal,” remember? The only animals who are more equal than others are the administrators. Teachers who stay in the classroom get slight increases in their seniority-based pay by having an advanced degree, which is typically a masters or doctorate in education, but generally no increase at all for teaching a higher grade or a more advanced class.
A communist pay system for teachers works fine in a communist country. In the Soviet Union, teachers were paid about as much as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists, and they had quite good schools. But in our country, these other professions pay much more than teaching. Our teachers are drawn primarily from college students with less than average academic achievement. Past comparisons of achievement of children in different nations have shown that ours are competitive up to about fifth grade before starting to fall behind the leaders, which suggests that a high level of academic achievement is not necessary for teaching the lower grades. But starting in middle school, and increasingly in high school, our teachers are often not up to the job. For the most advanced high-school classes we need people who are of an academic caliber required for entry into the most prestigious professions, and we are not getting them.
It is obvious that we need to offer significantly higher salaries to teachers of academic subjects in high schools, and equally obvious, because money is always scarce, that we need to be able to do this without offering the same salaries to elementary school teachers. In our market economy it makes perfect sense to do this, because these are different jobs; teaching first grade is a different job than teaching advanced-placement English or calculus, and requires different training. In many European countries this has been recognized for a long time. Elementary school teachers are trained in special teacher-training institutions, whereas teachers who teach in pre-university secondary schools must get a university degree in the subject they will teach.
So why does there seem to be so little interest in making such a basic and essential change to the pay scales for teachers? Conservatives for the most part do not want to spend more on public schools. Some of them prefer to send their children to private religious schools, and the wealthiest can send their children to exclusive private preparatory schools or perhaps equally exclusive public schools in small wealthy school districts. Liberals perhaps defer too unquestioningly to the teachers unions, which would loathe to have the pay of high-school teachers be uncoupled from the rest. Liberals perhaps agree then that the teachers are great and that all they need to do a good job is small class sizes. Never mind that many physics teachers have never themselves ever taken a physics class, and could not do a good job with a class size of five. Neither small class sizes nor merit pay will make teachers be effective if they do not have what it takes to gain a firm grasp of the subject matter they are supposed to be teaching.