The American education system is broken. There are few if any who would argue otherwise. The problems are by no means simple, and the possible solutions are numerous. The administrative overhead of schools is one of the most obvious and easily resolved issues. Superintendents, principals, assistant principals, computer technicians, evaluators, social workers, security guards, secretaries, and countless other occupations which are not directly involved in the education of children, as well as the facilities needed to house this massive bureaucracy, eat up a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars. Consolidate the administrations, cut those positions, and slash those salaries. Bureaucrats should not be making four and five times the teachers in the trenches.
Numerous other problems do not lend themselves so easily to correction. The massive effort to centralize and standardize education has removed control from the people who should be served by, and therefore should control, the education process. Curriculum has become a political battleground, with the Right wanting schools to teach intelligent design and nationalistic propaganda and the Left wanting them to teach homosexual history and sexual liberation. The focus on variety—in learning styles, teaching methods, and more—has made education more about entertainment than learning. Teachers unions protect inept teachers, and the tenure system makes it impossible for new, highly qualified teachers to find good jobs.
Even more basic still, and therefore more difficult to change, is a set of cultural assumptions at all levels of society that hamstrings the education process. Parents aren’t interested in engaging with their children’s education. Students have no motivation to apply themselves. Decades of universal, compulsory education through secondary school has made graduation more a right than an accomplishment. The confusion of equal opportunity with equal ability creates an educational environment where teachers must teach to the least capable student, leaving those best able and most interested in learning to fend for themselves. Everyone thinks the system has malfunctioned, and everyone knows whose fault it is: not mine.
My vision for a functional education system would scrap the present manifestation of public education entirely, but if we’re discussing what to do with what we have, I have an unusual suggestion: pay teachers less. That, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom (which is a sanitized way of saying “campaign rhetoric”) and some unconventional experiments. There is a mindset which says that the problem with American schools is that education does not pay enough to attract the best and brightest that universities have to offer. If teachers were paid in a way comparable to other certified professionals, then maybe the kind of people we attract to be nurses, doctors, engineers, and lawyers would want to be teachers instead. My wife is a teacher, and so I understand acutely the attractiveness of raising teacher salaries and even the unfairness of their salaries relative to their workloads.
Baiting university students with the promise of more money, however, misunderstands the basic problem. American colleges are not under-producing qualified teachers. In fact, there are so many new teachers being sent out into the workforce, they can’t all find jobs. The ones that can find jobs, often find them as substitutes, teaching assistants, interim teachers, or as unprepared, ill-equipped new teachers in dangerous inner city schools. It is hard to imagine many people who actually spend time around teachers and hear about their problems directly (and constantly) honestly believe that the problem is that they simply lack the skill or financial motivation to do their jobs right.
Here’s the real problem. If my wife is a third grade teacher—and she isn’t, but bear with me—everyday she is faced with the same enigma. In her class she has little Bobby who is reading at a sixth grade level but still hasn’t mastered his multiplication tables. She also has little Sarah who is functionally illiterate but already has a rudimentary grasp of fourth grade math concepts. Little Mitchell is right on track with his learning if only my wife can convince him to sit in his seat and do his work. Little Rene is always too sleepy to pay attention, while little Marcus still doesn’t have a working grasp of conversational English. In addition to these five, she has twenty to twenty-five more students, equally diverse. Now, it doesn’t matter if you are Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs and Mister Rogers all rolled up into one. There is no way anyone, no matter how qualified and no matter how well-paid, is going to come up with a multi-subject day of learning that is going to meet most or all of the needs of that class. Teaching devolves into learning-themed crowd management. In seven years, my wife is teaching tenth grade: Bobby is in remedial math, Sarah is cheating her way through high school English, Mitchell is on ADHD medication that has retarded his learning, Rene is pregnant, and Marcus is the father. The problem is compounded.
At $35,000 a year, my wife certainly isn’t getting paid enough to deal with that, even if it is only for nine months out of the year. It is hard to imagine, however, that one teacher making $60,000 is going to be able to solve the problem any better. On the other hand, two teachers making $30,000 each and managing two separate classes of only ten students each might just make a dent. Sure, there is still going to be diversity that needs to be overcome. Students will still present unique problems that will distract from an ideal educational environment. Some potential teachers might even be diverted from entering the field because of the reduced pay (though other ways to incentivize, such as broader loan forgiveness, could easily compensate for that). In the end, however, the net result will be a shift from the current reality of crowd management closer to an ideal experience of educational mentorship.
Of course, you could never actually pay teachers less. The unions wouldn’t allow it (and frankly, with the cost of getting a degree reaching meteoric heights, teachers couldn’t afford it). But it was never realistic to raise teacher salaries either, as that would inevitably cut into the lucrative business of multiplying administrative positions and bloating educational bureaucracies. Still, isn’t it nice to imagine a world where teachers could afford to train themselves to become educators and then actually be allowed to educate children? It distracts from the unsettling reality of one twenty-four year old woman in inner-city Atlanta trying desperately to get thirty nine-year-olds to meet state and national proficiency benchmarks on standardized tests so that she can continue to make payments on her six figure student loan debt. It’s almost as if prayer in schools isn’t really the issue after all.