Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are Qualified Teachers a Luxury We Can Afford to Do Without?

It is a story I've heard a number of times from a number of people lately, so I suspect that it is true. Teachers who have left the profession to stay home or explore other professional interests are now having trouble re-entering the classroom. This is not because they lack qualifications, or because of a gap in their work history. No, it is because they are OVER-qualified for the job.

What does that mean, exactly, to be overqualified to care for our children and shape the future of our world? Well, in this case it means that school districts hesitate to hire people with years of experience or advanced degrees because they have to pay those people more. Instead, many school systems are choosing to hire new teachers fresh out of college because they are less expensive.
From what I can gather, school districts have rules whereby a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no classroom experience receives a certain base salary which is increased based on years of service and additional education. This seems to be a great system because it gives teachers incentives to further their knowledge and stay in the profession. However, something has gone awry when the system is used to preferentially hire less expensive teachers even when they are less qualified for the job.

I am not arguing that all experienced teachers are good and that all new teachers are bad - far from it, most teachers are good (or at least have the best intentions) and sometimes new blood is just what is needed to breathe new life into a faltering system. However, making decisions based solely or largely on the dollars and cents cost to the district rather than the interests of the children seems outrageously short-sighted and a horrible failure to fulfill our responsibility to our kids.

These stories remind me of the movie The Cartel (reviewed here in October), in which the argument is made that more money does not necessarily equal better schools. In New Jersey in particular, where we throw more money into education than almost any other state, our schools continue to perform poorly. The filmmaker argues that this is due in part to administrative inefficiencies that drain money from the system, and in part due to the power of teachers' unions to influence policymakers and thereby control spending.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect that this problem may be even more pronounced in poorer districts where the more experienced teachers are even more desperately needed. I don't know what the solution is, but I think we can all agree that there is a problem with this picture. Perhaps some of the money being funneled into education by the government can be used to subsidize teacher salaries so that districts pay a certain amount for all teachers and the rest is picked up by the state, thereby giving districts an incentive to hire the best teachers available regardless of the price tag. I'd be interested to hear what others have to say.
Photo courtesy of flickr user dave_mcmt under a Creative Commons license

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