Pardon the Interruption: What Really Prevents Us from Treating Teachers Like Professional Athletes?

August 1, 2015

(Guest post by James V. Shuls)

If you’ve been in the education business or around a teacher for any significant amount of time, you have undoubtedly heard someone say something like, “Imagine if teachers were treated like professional athletes.” Well thanks to comedians Key and Peele, we no longer have to imagine. In a new segment, “Teaching Center,” the two spoof the popular ESPN show Sports Center to bring us the “top stories from the exiting world of teaching.”

The video has been a hit with teachers and is receiving a significant amount of attention on social media. Within 24 hours of being posted, it had more than a million views.  The response of most is, “Oh yeah, what if instead of paying LeBron James hundreds of millions of dollars, we did that with Mrs. Smith, the rock-star high school chemistry teacher?!?” Putting aside the economics of the supply and demand disparities for the LeBron’s and Mrs. Smith’s of the world (LeBron plays in front of millions of fans each year, while Mrs. Smith fights for class sizes with fewer than 20 students), there is one serious problem – most of the things being celebrated in Teaching Center are often opposed by teachers themselves.

For starters, Teaching Center continually focuses on test scores from standardized assessments. The ticker at the bottom of the screen shows ACT, SAT, and other test scores for schools. The number one teacher taken in the high school draft is chosen by the school with the “worst test scores last semester.” This hyper-focus on test scores (and competition in general) is anathema to most teachers. Indeed, teachers routinely oppose standardized testing.

This past year, for example, teachers’ unions led efforts to curtail the use of test scores in Florida and encouraged parents to opt-out in New York. The official position statement of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, says “Testing takes time from learning. NEA supports less federally-mandated testing to free up time and resources, diminish “teaching to the test,” and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

Now, opposing a hyper-focus on testing is not all-together bad. Indeed, we do want teachers to instill a love of learning in students. The problem is that teachers’ unions resist almost any effort to differentiate between good and bad teachers. The fact is some teachers are better than others, whether we measure that by a test score or by some other metric. If we cannot differentiate between these teachers, then the Ruby Ruhf’s of the world will never get their $40 million in bonus pay.

This is the real crux of the problem; teachers espouse differentiation in the classroom, but resist it wholeheartedly when it comes to pay. Rather than pay a teacher for their teaching ability or their unique set of skills, schools use a single salary schedule to pay teachers. In this system, all teachers with the same amount of experience and the same level of degree (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) receive the same amount of money, regardless of quality or teaching expertise. The best teacher gets paid the same as the worst and the mathematics teacher gets paid the same as the P.E. teacher. Imagine if Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rogers was paid the same amount as Cincinnati Bengal’s star kicker Mike Nugent. After all, they were drafted in the same year.

Million dollar contracts are impossible in education because there is no market for great teachers and there is no market for great teachers because schools fail to recognize differences in teacher quality.

I understand that Teaching Center is just a spoof and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, especially the part where the French teacher is traded for a head librarian and two lunch ladies to be named later. Still, even this segment highlights why teachers cannot be treated like professional athletes –they oppose giving administrators authority over staffing decisions.  Once a teacher reaches tenure, they have what most states recognize as an “indefinite contract,” making it incredibly difficult to get rid of bad teachers. Moreover, most collective bargaining agreements give preferential treatment for jobs based on seniority. This severely limits a school leaders ability to staff his school with what he believes would be the best team.

Let’s be honest, we will never treat teachers like professional athletes and teachers themselves are partly to blame for this. Teachers’ unions have fought to prevent differentiation between teachers and they have resisted efforts to focus on teacher performance. So, we most likely won’t see teachers on Wheaties boxes anytime soon.  It would be nice, however, if we could put policies in place that would allow us to treat them like professionals. They may not get million dollar contracts, but the best ones – the ones that significantly improve student achievement and make a lasting impact on students – could easily garner six figure salaries. Now, we just need to get teachers on board with this.


James V. Shuls, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and a distinguished fellow of education policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter at @Shulsie

Happy Birthday Milton!

July 31, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Milton Friedman would have been 103 today.  As a treat, here is a 1979 interview on the Donahue program:

So am I the only wierdo who misses both Milton and Moynihan?

Next up for disruption: ESPN

July 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

For the last view decades ESPN has bestrode sports and cable television like a colossus. With the advent of DVR technology, live sporting events stood out as something that people still watch live (along with those lucrative commercials) whereas most other things people tape and skip over the ads. ESPN throwing giant bales of money at college sports in order to secure such live programming has been the background music of the college football missle crisis as conferences jockeyed for position and market share and network dollars.

Now the entire business model has come under question. The problem is that while the people who aren’t cutting the cable cord may be doing it because of sports (guilty as charged here) lots of other people have decided to cut the cord. Those people used to pay for ESPN even if they didn’t watch it. ESPN charges cable companies hefty fees to include their channels on basic cable. With the advent of streaming services, an increasing number of people have decided not to pay for any channels at all. Meanwhile, ESPN is on the hook for some very large long-term contracts and the Disney mother-ship has begun to force cost cutting on the former jewel of their broadcasting crown.


Anyway all of this is just a prelude to an interesting quote from an AEI blog post on this subject:

“Destruction will come slowly. Academics have noted that disruptive cycles take place over periods of 15-30 years. Even if those cycles are faster than ever with the ever-falling costs of distributing information, educating the public about new ideas, and producing innovative products, it will still be a number of years before we see meaningful change. In the short term, it might appear that everything is stable in Hollywood. The key is to remember that no industry is invulnerable to disruption. Barriers to entry be damned. Innovation always finds a way to drive cost down and bring people into the market. Some industries are harder to penetrate than others, but change is inevitable. Even in television, ‘winter is coming.’”

You aren’t going to do anything about poverty until you do something about education

July 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The above line (from then NYC Chancellor Joel Klein) in the headline came to mind when I saw these cool charts on the New Orleans Recovery School District from Neerav Kingsland. RSD turns 10 this year and the results thus far look very impressive.

So the percentage of kids eligible for a FRL not only went up, it is sky-high at 92%. Meanwhile test scores climbed. How in the world did New Orleans accomplish these goals without hiring armies of new unionized social workers, dentists and valets are various other things that could be neither afforded nor sustained? Oh that’s right they leveraged (then) empty buildings to attract teams of educators to run charter schools and gave parents a much wider array of choices regarding the sort of school their child would attend.

Yeshiva: The Ultimate Free-Market Educational Experience

July 27, 2015

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Cleaning out old emails today, I stumbled across this 2013 article from Prof. Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School describing the eminent Lakewood yeshiva in New Jersey, where about 6,700 undergraduate and graduate students spend their days studying Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud. What education reformers should find fascinating are their innovative mode of instruction and faculty selection/retention policies, the combination of which Feldman calls “a strikingly disruptive model of higher education”:

Every term, each student must sign up for a chabura (essentially, a semester-long seminar group) presided over by a fellow student who functions as the faculty member. A free-market system governs the organization of the seminars. There’s only one way to become a seminar head: to be nominated by your peers who sign up to join. If you don’t have enough sign-ups, you lose your faculty position. If you’re good, students will keep signing up each term and you keep your post.

Tenure doesn’t exist, except for a handful of senior faculty. The seminars can range in size from as few as 15 students to as many as 200. The members meet for lectures by the seminar head and guided discussions several times week. The rest of the time, they engage in analysis, debate and discussion with assigned partners. Senior faculty are available for guidance and help as needed. Subject matter, too, varies, with some seminar groups focusing on specific sections of the Talmud and others pursuing a wider range of topics addressed by Jewish legal tradition.

In essence, the students are running the institution. Traditional Jewish education is usually thought of as intensely hierarchical, and in some ways it is — respect for rabbis and teachers runs deep. But when it comes to the intellectual heart of the yeshiva, the core activity of Talmud study, the Lakewood model is astonishingly egalitarian and democratic.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a liberal arts college try this?

Toddler Technocracy

July 27, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on why the endless expansion of government’s role in childrearing, at the expense of the family, is something we ought to be concerned about:

Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children? Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent….

The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state….Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.

I argue that the technocratic view of the world that makes endless expansion of pre-K seem like a step forward is dangerous – dangerous not only to social equality but to the moral foundations of the social order. Not that pre-K by itself will destroy these things, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!

This is my apprentice, Darth de Blasio. He will deal with your transportation freedom problem

July 24, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Sound familiar? Go Uber go!


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