Improving Education in America

Elizabeth Green’s new book Building a Better Teacher has been getting a lot of press lately, and since I’ll be a teacher’s assistant again soon, it got me thinking about education in America.  One of the big takeaways from the book is effective teaching is not an innate talent, but rather a set of techniques that can be improved with diligent practice.  In particular, Green encourages apprenticeship and critically evaluating previous lessons to improve future instruction.  In that regard it kind of reminds me of Agile software development’s emphasis on continuous improvement.  That’s a great idea, and I hope that Green’s book will encourage its implementation across America’s educational system.

Of course, raw talent never hurts, and the perennial concerns over America’s middling PISA scores got me wondering about the best way to recruit top talent to teaching.  The Varkey GEMS Foundation has indicated that teaching is considered a relatively low prestige job in America as compared to other countries.  I’d argue that, for better or worse, high prestige jobs in America are closely tied to salary.  Investment banking and consulting are both prestigious and selective, and much of that prestige/selectivity is driven by the high pay for those occupations.  Used appropriately, the relationship between prestige and pay in America could actually be a benefit for teaching.  If true, teaching could be made more prestigious just by increasing pay, which is much easier than attempting to use rhetoric to sway cultural perceptions.

With that in mind, I looked for some data about how much teachers in America make and came across this article arguing that American teachers are not, in fact, poorly compensated.  On the contrary, they are the 6th highest paid in the world.  I don’t think that paying teachers more is a panacea for difficulties in education, but I also don’t think the right question is how much teachers make relative to teachers in other countries.  A student considering becoming a teacher is not wondering about pay relative to teachers in Mexico — prospective teachers are weighing their potential income as a teacher against whatever else they could be doing instead.

I gathered some data from the OECD (code is on github) about teacher pay relative to the average annual salary in that country (I would have preferred median annual salary, but I’ll take the data I can get).  Even though the available data was limited, it’s still pretty clear that a very different picture emerges:

By this metric, America is near the bottom of the pack.  The chart is missing many of the countries with top PISA scores, but a cursory spot check on some of the top performers suggested similar results.  China, for example, which regularly scores near the top of the PISA pack, has only about one-eighth the average household income of the United States, but on a purchasing power parity basis pays its teachers around 40% of what a teacher in the US would make.

Still, I don’t think that teacher pay tells the whole story, and I expect there are many exceptions to the teacher prestige/student performance relationship.  A great point raised by The Atlantic is teaching is often thought of only as the time spent in the classroom:

It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments.

Other professions recognize a polished presentation for an hour will take, at a minimum, several hours to prepare.  Yet an hour or two of lesson planning is expected to be sufficient for an entire day of teaching, in addition to grading, parental concerns, and administrative overhead.  The most important educational reform might not be a new technology or pedagogical technique, but simply giving teachers more time outside of the classroom.

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