(Guest post by Matthew Ladner)
Indiana Jones returns to the silver screen this summer. When last we checked in on the intrepid Dr. Jones in 1989, you may recall, he was in hot pursuit of the Holy Grail. The Grail of course lay behind a series of deadly traps, guarded by an ancient knight.
The old crusader explained to Indy and company the grail lay hidden among a number of cups, and could only be revealed by drinking from the correct cup. The villain chose an ornate, jewel encrusted goblet, drank from it, and suffered a horrible death.
The knight observed: “He chose…poorly.”
Indy looked for the cup of a carpenter, and drank from a simple wooden beaker. The Knight noted approvingly “He chose…wisely.”
Americans have chosen poorly in many different ways in our running of our public schools, and our children and taxpayers have been suffering the consequences. Americans have been pouring additional resources into public schools for many decades, while the standardized test scores have remained stubbornly flat.
A new report from the McKinsey Company examines education systems from around the world, revealing some of the central problems of the American system in the process. In international examinations of student proficiency in mathematics and science, American elementary students score fairly well. American middle school students slip to the middle of the pack while American high school students rank near the bottom, behind all of our major Asian and European competitors.
Obviously, something is wrong.
The McKinsey report emphasizes the crucial nature of recruiting high quality teachers. Successful school systems recruit their teachers from upper tier of university academic achievers. A South Korean official summarized this practice succinctly “The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes- which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.
Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.
Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.
Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.
Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?
The most sophisticated analyses of student learning gains have consistently found individual teacher effectiveness far more influential in driving achievement than class-size. Studies conducted tracking individual student scores on a value-added basis, for example, have found that teacher quality twenty times more important than average class size, within the observable range.
Teacher quality trumps class size like Indy’s pistol bests an Egyptian scimitar.
South Korea students clobber American students in international examinations despite spending much less, packing their students into classrooms, and a national income per person around twenty percent lower than that of the poorest American state.
In short, we chose poorly, the Koreans chose wisely. If we are to remedy this situation, we must develop school models which recruit high ability students into the teaching profession, track their performance using value-added methodology, pay them much higher wages commensurate with their performance, and give more children the opportunity to learn from them. Larger class sizes can finance higher teacher pay for highly performing teachers.
The medicine we have been giving our schools- smaller class sizes- is a poisonous drug. Looking ahead, the question becomes: can we break our addiction by emphasizing quality over quantity?