Indiana Jones and the Teacher Quality Crusade

(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?

21 Responses to Indiana Jones and the Teacher Quality Crusade

  1. Mike Malone says:

    This is interesting, however, I wonder if larger class sizes could truly “work” in many inner-city/high poverty schools in the United States. I taught in Guam for a year and had many Korean students in my class. They were not “smarter” than their American counterparts, but they were extremely respectful to authority. It seems that classroom management would not be as much of an issue with the 40 Korean students due to a cultural influence that demands respect for authority. To put it lightly, most Americans do not have this same respect for authority.

    I do not doubt the results of the study, nor the merits of attracting higher quality teachers with higher pay; however, I doubt the realistic possibility that 40 American students are the same as 40 Korean students.

    I taught for 6 years at an inner city charter school in St. Louis, so I would hope I have some experience in both areas. What do you think?

  2. Corey says:

    Assuming that we don’t have money for both small classes and high teacher salaries, where do you think the best results would lie in terms of class size:salary? I think class sizes right now are around 25 on average, though there’s wide variance, and the average teacher salary is about 50K. Would paying teachers 100K to teach an average of 50 kids work better? What about paying them 200K to teach 100 kids? It’s an interesting question. It sounds similar to what the The Equity Project charter school wants to do — pay the best teachers large sums of money to teach large classes. I wonder, however, at what point (if any) large class sizes would start to drive out teachers regardless of salary.

    Also, does South Korea track performance using value-added methodology and pay teachers based on the results or is that something that you think America should do regardless?

  3. I think it is something we should do regardless.

    On the culture question, we have examples right here in the U.S. of inner city schools that do a much better job of educating disadvantaged students with much larger class sizes than is typically the case in public schools: Catholic schools. The a big key to successful schooling is controlling the culture of the school. We should not accept American youth culture as a fait accompli- if we do, we have already lost.

    What we know from the value added research is that teacher quality trumps class size within the observable range. We don’t know how high that number can go, but the Catholic and Korean experience is suggestive that it can go into the 40s.

    I’d like to see charter schools experiement with an American version of the Korean model, or, if you like, a charter version of the Catholic model.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    How we pay is just as important as how much we pay – raising teacher salaries will have only a limited effect on teacher quality if schools are required to hire and pay teachers based on factors other than their quality, as is currently the case.

  5. Greg-

    You are absolutely correct, which is why the value added assessment techniques being developed are crucial. We can now judge merit in a way that is fair to teachers by measuring where their students were when the start the year, and tracking their progress over time.

    We also need to change to teaching profession into something that ties performance to a decent professional salary. The Koreans have done this, and I think we need to do so as well.

  6. Kent says:

    I appreciate the premise of this argument for larger class sizes opening the door for increases in pay. However, anytime the issue of teacher pay is discussed, I hear comments like “decent professional salary”. What is a decent professional salary? How does s school district know when they have offered a “decent professional salary?” What is the magic number that will start to attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession? In short, how much is enough?

    Also, I don’t understand the argument of Catholic schools being successful educating the underprivileged. Where I come from, the student demographics of inner-city public vs. private schools cannot be compared because the socio-economically disadvantaged students cannot afford to go to the private schools.

  7. Many inner city children attend Catholic schools because of the private philantrophic efforts to afford them the opportunity. There have been a number of studies addressing the superior outcomes for low-income urban students attending Catholic schools-including higher high school graduation rates, college attendance, and college completition rates.

    No one knows what the magic salary is, and I would hasten to add that surveys show that working conditions weigh more heavily in decisions to leave the profession than salaries. What we do know is that South Korean teacher pay is enough to allow them to recruit from the top 5% of university graduates and have multiple applicants for every position.

    In the absence of measuring merit, however, it is not possible to claim that teachers are underpaid in America, as it is clear that ineffective teachers ought to in fact be doing something else with their professional careers entirely. Currently, effective teachers (strongly adding value) are paid too little and ineffective ones are paid far too much.

  8. Kent says:

    If you would be so kind as to point me in the direction of those studies, I would appreciate the opportunity to learn more.

  9. Matthew Ladner says:


    This link is a good starting point:

  10. cmtvarok says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. As an elementary school teacher, I immediately imagined a larger class size as overwhelming for a number of reasons. I don’t know the research, so I’m not sure if the issues that I explain below affect Catholic or Korean classrooms.

    Many classrooms in my school are special ed. inclusion. Even with a special ed. teacher and assistant, it is at times difficult to meet the needs of all of the students when their ability levels vary so greatly. In our suburban area, the Catholic school usually recommends a public school experience for students with special needs because their budget doesn’t allow them to offer a variety of services. I don’t know how Korean schools handle students with special needs. Do they have inclusion classrooms?

    I defintely agree that respect (not just for authority, but for each person/student in the classroom) is crucial. When students are repeatedly disrespectful and disrupt the learning in the classroom, it’s appropriate to contact the parents. However, some parents don’t support teachers and may make excuses for their child’s behavior. As you stated, because of tuition at Catholic schools and culture in Korea, this doesn’t seem to be a problem in those situations. Those teachers have support from parents.

    Lastly, are the Catholic and Korean classrooms teacher-directed? Their high test scores may come from the fact that the students are able to reproduce information that was despensed to them. Classroom management is more challenging when students are able to work collaboratively, are able to use technology freely, and are able to learn in a constructive manner. I feel that doubling the number of students in a student-centered classroom doubles the challenge of classroom management.

    Again, thank you for the post. I’m very interested in education issues such as these!

  11. ms_teacher says:

    What happens if a child in a private school does not abide by the rules? They are often not given a second chance and may be subject to being kicked out. It is my understanding that when a child attends a private school, they do have to abide by certain rules of conduct. These rules are enforced by all school personnel and are also embraced by parents who choose to send their children to the school.

    That is not the case in public schools. By law, we have to teach all children and while we have rules of conduct, the inconsistency that is often displayed at all levels, is one of the biggest problems I see in public education. I’ll give you a quick example. Last year, I had a student who purposely stuck out her foot and tripped another student. This act was viewed by me and several other students around her. The girl who was tripped ended up injuring herself. When something like this happens, I have to write a referral and call home to let the parent/guardian know of the incident.

    When I called home, I was immediately assailed with all kinds of accusations, ranging from my not liking the child to picking on the child to just being a plain old racist. At no point in this conversation did the grandparent ask how the other student was doing. Instead, she chose to place her grandchild in the role of victim. This student was suspended for a few days and came back to school.

    Every time I or any other teacher on campus had to call home on this student, we were met with the same rounds of accusations, regardless of our skin color. I would wager to guess that this student would have found herself out of the private school with this same level of conduct after just a couple of offenses.

    Comparing private schools with public schools really is like comparing apples to oranges. Until some power is given back to school districts to kick out students who have a record of being disruptive, things will not change.

  12. […] can afford very smart, very well-paid teachers — if we raise class size, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. He cites […]

  13. Andromeda says:

    I agree with Mike, and I think Matthew misses the importance of cultural factors. Catholic schools can work not just because they develop a certain culture, but because the parents have bought into it and expect their children to do the same.

    I’m a teacher, and I have one of those standard indicators of high quality (I went to an undergrad school with sky-high SAT averages). I can assure you that it doesn’t confer any special aptitude for classroom management. You couldn’t pay me enough to teach 40-student classrooms unless you gave me very carefully selected students…at which point you could not really argue that their achievement was due to my quality.

  14. matthewladner says:


    Controlling the culture of the school is key to success in any school, and there are charter schools that are developing a teacher and aide model with larger class sizes. Student discipline is a real issue, but I don’t think the problem in unsolvable.

  15. Micha Elyi says:

    Ms_teacher’s comment displays excellent reasons for eliminating compulsory attendance laws. Such laws turn schooling into a (fraudulent) right. School attendance should be a privilege. Privileges are much more likely to be valued than something called a “right” that is imposed on those who receive it. Privileges can also be revoked.

  16. Lila says:

    Here’s an idea: don’t force people to sit through months of mindless education classes to become teachers. Many intelligent, highly educated people wouldn’t mind becoming teachers, at least for a while, if they knew it wouldn’t involve sitting in more school with other people who aren’t as talented as they are. If you have a Master’s degree in a subject, you should be allowed to teach it in high school after, say, a month of training the summer before you begin. Problem solved.

  17. Mr Ulrich says:

    As an experienced HS schience teacher, I am sick and tired of being pointed to as the biggest determinant of a student’s achievement. Those posters that identify the cultural differences between American schools and other schools have hit the important button. The tendancy of Americans to look for a single, extrinsic explanation of why their kids fail to achieve speaks directly to our cultural need to over-simplify issues. Why do we need to over-simplify? Because it provides an easy explanation that doesn’t require thought. We have a cultural avoidance to thought. Thinking is hard work and work is for chumps. I read a study that compared American and Chinese students. No, they didn’t compare scores per say (they were factored in). Instead, they asked the kids what it took to be successful students. American students most often mentioned innate ability and quality teachers as the most important factors. Hard work and time spent studying were mentioned the least. The Chinese students responses were exactly opposite. They valued hard work and study time as most important and teacher quality last. As a culture we are primed to throw up our hands and say “it wasn’t my fault” or, “I have no control over that” as soon as things get difficult. When I was in school and was struggling with some geometry problem or other, I’d often go to my mother for help. She’d say something like, “keep working at it, you’ll get it eventually.” Nowadays, the more typical parent response is more like, “yeah, I never could do this in school either. It’s OK. I’ve never had to know how to do it since so don’t worry about it.” Education needs to be thought of as something each student does rather than something each student has done to them. I believe the difference between these two ways of looking at school is the locus of our achievement gap with the rest of the world.

  18. Mr Ulrich says:

    Great. I misspelled “science” in my first sentence. So much for my credibility as a quality educator! 🙂

  19. JB Haglund says:

    Having spent two years in South Korea, there are a few things about their high school system that help to explain why their students do better on those tests. The top group of high school kids go to school every day all year. They might take Sunday off, but generally don’t. They go to institutes to study before school and after and their focus is all on studying for their big college entrance test.

    If their system is so fantastic, why is it that the top Universities in Korea don’t even crack the top 50 worldwide?

    We are often willing to take far too narrow a view of things in a quest for finding that easy answer. While I couldn’t agree more that we need lots more great teachers (I someday hope to be just good) but the incredible weight placed on these tests is (as I’ve said before) incredibly dangerous. If we want to have high school kids that score well on science and math tests and then completely fall apart (in general) once they pass the college entrance exams, we can do that.

    But at what cost?

  20. […] better teaching, and reformers would be wise to pay more attention to how the government monopoly warps the teaching […]

  21. matthewladner says:

    We published at study on this concept:

    Since the publication of this study however, educators have succeeded in using technology in a hybrid school model which is better still:

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