Susan Engel doesn't get the problems with schools, but she'll tell us to "Teach Your Teachers Well" anyway

Susan Engel’s Teach Your Teachers Well completely misses the point. She says:

And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.

But the problems with teacher training probably have less to do with teacher training and more to do with institutional structures and incentives within teaching itself.

She says, “Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior.” The reason they probably look down upon education is that most educators, in the sense of public school teachers, have little incentive to excel at teaching once they earn tenure; consequently, most don’t. There’s been a lot of material published on this subject:

Taken together, these pieces paint the proverbial damning indictment of how teaches are hired, promoted, and (not) fired. Once you’ve read them, it’s hard to accept the dissembling evident from teachers’ unions. Given the research cited regarding the importance of good teachers and how few incentives there are to become a good teacher, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that education majors and graduate students typically have incredibly low standardized test scores and GPAs, as shown in the following chart (2002; source):


Notice that education is at the bottom. Should it be much of a surprise that the best universities, which are almost by definition hyper-competitive, look down on the profession? Susan Engel thinks so.

If you change the incentives around teaching, the programs that teach teachers will change, and so will the skill of the teachers more generally. Over the last thirty years, the larger economy has undergone a vast shift toward greater competition and freer markets—a vast boon to consumers. The market for primary and secondary education has seen virtually none of this competition, or, to the extent it has seen such competition, has seen it on a district-by-district level, which requires geographical moves to take advantage of it.

This topic is one I attend to more than others because I think I’d like teaching high school and that I might even be good at it. But the pay is low, even relative to academia (which isn’t most remunerative field in existence), and, worse, there’s virtually no extrinsic reward for excellence. Almost anyone with a slightly competitive spirit is actively driven out; even those who have it begin with probably lose it when they realize they’ll make the same money for less work than those with it. And you’ll basically have to spend an extra year or two and lots of money to get an M.A. in education, which sounds like a worthless degree.

If you teach computer science in most districts, you make as much as someone who teaches P.E. You might notice that, according to‘s average salary by major table, education majors usually start at about $36,200 and make a mid-career average of $54,100. That’s probably low because it doesn’t take into account the extra time off teachers get during the summer. Still, notice the numbers for Math: $47,000 / $93,600, Computer Science: $56,400 / $97,400 or even my own major, English: $37,800 / $66,900.

But I doubt money will solve the problem without institutional reform, which is very slowly picking up. Susan Engel’s comments, however, only muddy the water with platitudes instead of real solutions.

EDIT: And if you want further hilarity as far as teaching incentives go, check out Edward Mason’s story, “Union blocks teacher bonuses.” As Radley Belko says, “The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.”

7 responses

  1. why is the score out of 2400 when tests in 2002 were only scored out of 1600? youre source is a dead end. did you pull this chart out of your arse?


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  3. Part of the problem has to be inane teacher licensing requirements. I have a Master’s degree in mathematics and 10 years part-time teaching experience at the community college level, but I’m not qualified to teach high school mathematics in most parts of the country. Why? Because I didn’t spend a year sitting through education classes and do a student teaching stint.

    My original ambition was to teach high school, so I started trying to sit through the required education classes. They were so awful that I gave up on teaching high school and went for teaching college instead. The classes I had to take were not practical pedagogy classes, but mostly racist sociological theories focused on teaching students as ethnic groups rather than as individuals. I’d rather sit through two years of graduate level mathematical coursework than one year of education coursework.

    Something on the order of half of all mathematics classes are being taught “out of subject,” that is by someone who lacks a major, minor, or credential in mathematics. People like me are sitting on the sidelines because P.E. teachers whose highest experience of math was getting a C- from me in my College Algebra class are considered qualified to teach math, and I am not.


    • My original ambition was to teach high school, so I started trying to sit through the required education classes.

      I actually thought about being a high school teacher—in some ways, my natural inclinations would make me more suited for it. But, as you point out, the classes are dumb. I’d add that the dearth of any reward for excellence makes me disinclined to teach high school too, and perhaps even more than do the education classes, which are at least mercifully brief.

      If districts didn’t have to negotiate with unions, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of them didn’t institute a “education degree or equivalent” program, so that people with college teaching experience can skip the BS and head to the classroom.


      • “If districts didn’t have to negotiate with unions, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of them didn’t institute a “education degree or equivalent” program…”

        The problem is not this simple. State laws require districts to hire state-licensed teachers who have been trained via college education courses (which are usually state controlled).


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