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What's amiss with this picture? Talk to any chief executive about the workforce of the future and they'll passionately argue for the need to boost America's K-12 educational performance. They'll point out that the U.S. has lagged behind for years in global assessments of student achievement, especially in math and science. Yet governors in hard-pressed states are cutting back on primary and secondary educational spending, with some state leaders proposing draconian reductions.
Many governors and state legislators are convinced that the public education system is badly broken. Education reformers pushed an agenda of testing and accountability for more than two decades, including the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind legislation and the Obama Administration's Race to the Top initiative. Expenditures per student almost doubled in real terms from 1981 to 2007, from $5,639 to $10,041. The measured results have been largely mediocre. From the attacks on teacher unions in the documentary film Waiting for Superman to the charter school movement bankrolled by private philanthropists, a narrative has emerged that teachers and their unions are to blame for the education shortfall.
The demonizing of public school teachers and their unions is mostly misplaced and definitely destructive. Ever since "A Nation at Risk," the landmark 1983 Reagan Administration commission's alarming call for education reform, enthusiasm has waxed and waned for various changes that range from national standards to smaller class size and on to charter schools. Yet the lesson of the past three decades is that there is no silver reform bullet or any single culprit to blame when it comes to the condition of K-12 education. The big risk that governors are courting with their budget-cutting policies is that teaching will become an even less attractive profession. To prevent such a dire outcome, the onus falls on teacher-union leadership to act boldly and embrace the sort of radical work rule changes that could boost the teacher talent pool and the retention of good teachers. "There are alternative futures for the U.S. economy and if we don't deal with the quality of our schools, we end up with a much worse future," says Eric Hanushek, a veteran education economist at the Hoover Institution.
The quality of the teacher workforce matters. Think back to good teachers you had in elementary, middle, and high school. Maybe it was a first grade teacher that sparked a lifelong love affair with reading. Perhaps a high school science instructor inspired the dream to become a doctor. Not to mention that bad teachers do enormous damage, from crushing creativity to turning students away from classroom learning.
Scholarly research confirms the critical role played by teachers, even though measuring and identifying quality remains controversial. For instance, Hanushek estimates that really good teachers—defined as those with large measured gains in student test scores—are worth $400,000 more annually in student lifetime earnings for a class of 20 than are average teachers. Similarly, a team of scholars led by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty looked at the earnings of some 12,000 adults that had participated in a kindergarten education experiment in Tennessee in the early 1980s. The results imply that quality teachers from that single year generated earnings gains of $214,000 for a classroom of 20 students.
A look at how Singapore, Finland, and South Korea recruit teachers is suggestive. These countries are currently among the world's highest-ranked systems, drawing 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of university graduates, according to McKinsey & Co. In sharp contrast, 23 percent of teachers come from the top third of the academy in the U.S., with only 14 percent of top talent teaching in America's high-poverty schools. Almost all the 900 students the consulting firm interviewed at top-tier colleges saw teaching as unattractive for professional growth and compensation.
The U.S. is slipping ever-farther behind. The list of job ills is long. In recent years many major metropolitan school districts uncertain about their budgets couldn't even tell their teachers—especially the younger ones—whether they would be employed until at least August. Union rules in many parts of the country don't allow administrators to take into account teacher quality when making layoffs. Teachers often end up dipping into their own funds for classroom supplies. Now teachers find their pay and benefits under assault as a growing number of governors square off against state and local government workers. "The teachers with the strongest credentials find something else to do," says Richard Murnane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The people left aren't the best, on average."
A examination of 31 initial state budget proposals shows that at least 13 states are eyeing extremely steep cuts in pre-kindergarten and K-12 spending. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, among the biggest cuts is the proposal in Texas to eliminate funding for pre-K programs that serve almost 100,000, mostly at-risk children—over 40 percent of pre-kindergarten students. The Lone Star State could also reduce K-12 funding to 23 percent below the minimum amount required by the state's education finance law. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's budget fails for the fourth year in a row to meet the state's statutory obligation to support K-12 schools. It would underfund school districts by 11 percent, or $231 million. These numbers translate into miserable working conditions.
The economic cost of a mediocre educational system is high. The Program for International Student Assessment (PIRA) assesses the knowledge of 15 year olds from the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, as well as 31 other countries and education systems such as that in Shanghai. The U.S. numbers released in December 2010 were average, with students from nine other places doing better than their U.S. peers in reading literacy. In science and math, two crucial subjects in an era of rapid technological advances, 18 places did better in science and 23 outperformed in math. 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.
What is to be done in an era of tight budgets and sharp ideological divisions? Learn from leading-edge businesses and focus, for now, on human capital. Just as companies that compete in knowledge industries can't grow without talented workforces, the value added by education in a knowledge economy can't exceed the quality of its teachers. "Schools should be more like highly successful businesses, focusing on the long-term and creating value, while many businesses should be more like highly successful schools, thinking about the long-term and creating value," says Michael O'Keefe, former president of Minneapolis College of Art and Design and since 1987 co-chair of the Program on Education at the Aspen Institute.
Since quality is an elusive concept, it's more effective for unions and education administrators to focus on getting rid of poorly performing teachers—fast. 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. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, on February 24th proposed that tenured teachers with an unsatisfactory performance be given a year to improve or they could be fired 100 days after that term is up. It's her fast-track proposal, but it isn't fast and it's far too little. Is it progress to be able to fire a teacher with a poor evaluation after 465 days? That's unacceptable.
Like it or not, teachers' unions are facing their General Motors moment. They can emulate the United Auto Workers and fall into the trap of continuous small changes that don't shift the underlying workforce dynamic, a strategy that badly backfired for the once-proud automaker and its workers. Or the unions can seize the initiative and take the lead in overhauling moribund workforce rules that alienate too many parents, political leaders, and, worst of all, deter talented recruits.
The goal of the profession should be to recruit even-better-educated teachers. For instance, Teach for America, founded in 1990, successfully recruits graduates with top talent from major universities and directs them to high-poverty schools. The program could be expanded. (And Congress should reverse its recent move to eliminate the program's annual federal appropriation of some $21 million because technically it's an "earmark.") Unions should embrace, rather than fight, alternative licensing programs to attract future teachers.
Changes along these lines would necessarily be wrenching and would eventually cost more money. "It would require both severance packages for those deselected and higher pay for those who would then have a riskier job," says Hanushek. But it would be money well spent.
Here's the thing: Improving the quality of the current teaching workforce and recruiting top talent isn't an education panacea. It's simply a piece of a complicated reform puzzle. It also offers a way to break through the current political logjam. Without nurturing policies that attract, develop, reward, and retain talent, the goal of boosting student achievement will remain elusive. Everyone will lose.