Rock Star Pay for Rock Star Teachers Part Deux

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last year I was reading the comments section of a newstory online, and came across a comment from a public elementary school teacher. She was complaining that she had 34 students in her classroom.

So let’s do the math. The statewide average spending per pupil in the state: $11,000. Total revenue generated by this classroom = $374,000. Let’s assume the teacher gets a total compensation package of $60,000 including benefits. The question becomes- what did they do with the other $314,000?

Ah, that was what the teacher was really angry about. Her elementary school had 8 teachers in “non-classroom assignments.”

I don’t have a problem with 30 some odd kids in a classroom. It’s been done, and is being done. Remember?


Many insist that the period depicted by this photo constituted the “good ole days” of education. Jay and Greg have felt compelled to dispel the myth of the lost golden age of public education, back in the good ole days, when public schools were far more effective than they are today. The truth, of course, is that NAEP scores for 17 year olds are flat as far back as you can take them.

What has not been flat- public school spending- adjusted for inflation per pupil has steadily increased even while test scores have stagnated, even while Americans have become wealthier and poverty has declined.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this trend, but certainly the national obsession with lowering average class sizes must be viewed to have been an enormously expensive academic failure. Consider the international evidence:




Really big classes in Asia, really small in the United States. However, when it comes to achievement:


The average South Korean seventh-grader scores 21 percent higher than the average American on seventh-grade mathematics, despite having much larger average class sizes. While a variety of factors contribute to the relative deficiency of American public schools, many scholars are beginning to suspect the main factor is the relatively inferior average quality of American teachers.

In How the World’s Best Performing Schools Come Out on Top, the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company point squarely at teacher quality as a key variable in explaining variation in international academic achievement. In its findings, McKinsey quoted a South Korean policymaker who noted, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”


McKinsey found that the top-performing school systems around the world recruit their teachers from the top third of each graduating cohort. Moreover, South Korean schools draw from the top 5 percent of college graduates. Larger class sizes create the resources to pay South Korean instructors much higher salaries.


The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development measures relative teacher pay by comparing the average salaries of teachers with 15 years of experience with a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. A high salary compared with per capita GDP suggests that a country invests more of its financial resources in teachers and suggests a relative prestige of the profession. By definition, the average person in each of these countries will earn a ratio of 1. Figure 3 compares teacher-salary-to-per-capita GDP for the United States and South Korea.


An experienced South Korean schoolteacher makes a relatively impressive wage compared with teachers in the rest of the world. In South Korea, teaching is an honored profession—not just rhetorically but in compensation as well. In the United States, meanwhile, a teacher with a college degree and 15 years of experience makes a salary relatively close to the average GDP per person. Not surprisingly, there are many qualified applicants for each open teaching position in South Korea.


McKinsey quotes the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce to contrast the United States with those countries having more successful education systems: “We are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high-school students going to college…. [I]t is simply not possible for students to graduate [with the skills they will need] unless their teachers have the knowledge and skills we want our children to have.”

9 Responses to Rock Star Pay for Rock Star Teachers Part Deux

  1. Matt,

    I’m not completely opposed to your criticism of current education funding and results, but many of your points ignore integral issues in the complex field of public education. The first, of course, is a desire for a strict dollar-for-dollar comparison of spending and test scores. As the Sandia report shows, the overall scores can remain static while sub-groups expand and improve, leading to the “Simpson paradox.” Thus, simply based on the larger pool of students and test takers, there is clear progress. Whether it’s worth it in cost benefit analysis is another discussion.

    Additionally, in terms of cost, there are many variables leading to the increased spending that are not being considered by critics of the spending who focus only on correlation to academic gains. The expansion of spending for special education services has produced significant gains for those populations and their communities. “Child find” is a God-send to thousands of families whose children would have been clearly under-served in eras past. Yet, this sort of education is considerably more expensive. If you know of any effective classrooms of thirty or more emotionally disabled students, I’d love to hear about it.

    The staggering rise in autism rates alone, and the ability of schools to not only accommodate all students, but to assist high-functioning autistic students into assimilating into society and the workforce, is going to disproportionately affect school expenses. And the money spent will not show gains in NAEP assessments. School security is another area of expense that has developed and expanded in ways that were not necessary to factor into budgets forty years ago – pre-Columbine.

    Clearly, a focus on simple dollar amounts and NAEP statistics takes a myopic view of public education spending. You should know this, and to ignore these factors is disingenuous.

    The comparison to South Korea is another problem, as you completely discount cultural differences that lead to a widely different educational environment. The issue of school discipline alone – expectations of students and authority of school personnel to deal effectively with problems – makes a direct comparison nearly impossible and, again, disingenuous. I don’t know if you have any experience living and teaching abroad, or whether you are simply looking at data in a vacuum, but I do. Having lived and taught English in Taiwan for five years, I can assert that the environments simply do not translate. Yes, I can picture classrooms of 80-100 students who are sitting still in their chairs and vigorously writing down everything the teacher says, nearly word for word, as the teacher stands with a microphone and reads out of a book. Any disciplinary problem is dealt with immediately and harshly, and disruptive students do not have a “property right” to stay in the classroom. In fact, any non-academically motivated students are eliminated from the school by sixteen at the latest. Thus, their scores do not skew the NAEP results, as they can in the U.S.

    While I am in no way saying we are living in Lake Wobegon, I would assert that to ignore the sort of factors I’ve raised is counterproductive to the discussion of school reform.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’ll leave the international comparison issues alone, but here are my thoughts on the rest of your comments, paragraph by paragraph.

      1) Jay has previously addressed the myth that Simpson’s Paradox can explain away flat NAEP results.

      2) Measuring educational outcomes for special needs students is problematic. However, such information as we do have tends against the conclusion that outcomes for special education students have risen. Jay and I reviewed this issue in our book. Very short version: the rise in spending in special education has not primarily gone to provide more expensive services than we used to provide, but to serve a much larger number of students in special needs programs than we used to serve. Virtually all of the increase in special education enrollment has come among students who participate in traditional academic measurements such as NAEP. So if the increase in spending were producing increased outcomes, we’d see it.

      3) The rise in autism rates is only “staggering” in percentage terms. As a portion of the total student population, the autism category is negligible. If I put one drop of water into the Atlantic today, and ten drops tomorrow, the number of drops has increased ten times but it still won’t affect the ocean levels. In fact, the percentage of students in all disability categories other than Specific Learning Disabilities has remained constant since IDEA began. The explosion of enrollment in special education is entirely attributable to our labeling more students as having learning disabilities – one of the least expensive categories to treat. As for school safety, if more spending on school safety is effective, it should be producing improvements in educational outcomes.

      4) Clearly, you shouldn’t be accusing people who disagree with you on this issue of being disingenuous.

  2. While I have seen Matt’s disregard for the Simpson paradox before, I don’t see the following explanation actually refuting it:

    “Yes, some factos have made things more difficult. There are more students from homes in which English is not the first language and more children in single-parent households.

    And yes, there are more minority students, but those minority students have better incomes, better educated parents, more pre-school, and lower rates of crime in their communities. Unless one wants to make a genetic argument, it is obviously misleading to say that students in general are more difficult to educate because there are more minority students.”

    These are qualifications that dismiss the significant factors affecting various sub-groups. The paradox does not claim these groups are harder to educate – it argues that shifts in the tested population and gains among those populations are not being given credit for progress.

    There is the additional component of giving overstated credibility to tests like NAEP and TMSS. When students are asked to voluntarily take a zero-stakes test, there must be a consideration for the dubious quality of the results. In many districts nationwide, state test scores have gone down as ACT/SAT/PSAT/AP/IB exam scores have increased. Slate Magazine has an effective commentary on this:

    Additionally, you have looked past my simple assertion that more kids being served in a special education capacity is simply going to cost more money. There is no doubt about that. These factors, as well as the comparisons to foreign schools, should be addressed. And, thus, I am not simply arguing for that someone is disingenuous because they disagree with me. I am pointing out that oversimplification leads to a flawed argument.

    • Greg Forster says:

      1) That’s Jay’s post on Simpson’s Paradox, not Matt’s.

      2) The claim that flat NAEP outcomes can be explained away by Simpson’s Paradox is usually made on the basis that changing student demographics have made the aggregate student population harder to teach. If that is not the basis on which you appeal to Simpson’s Paradox, what is?

      3) Low-stakes tests correlate with future life outcomes, so they’re measuring something. What do you think they’re measuring?

      4) ACT/SAT/PSAT/AP/IB are all irrelevant because they only include a minority of the total population, and the portion of the population that takes them changes over time.

      5) Why is it good to put the “special education” label on more students, and spend more money serving them, if their outcomes don’t improve?

      6) The comparison to foreign schools was Matt’s, so I’ll let him defend it.

      7) “Oversimplification leads to a flawed argument” is a fine way to state your position. You would have done well to say that instead of claiming that Matt was being disingenuous.

  3. Fair enough on the use of the term “disingenuous.” I concede your point.

    ACT/SAT/PSAT/AP/IB are all irrelevant? How is that rational? Maybe they aren’t comprehensive, but they show significant analysis of the education of two-thirds of the population. That’s pretty significant in a country where only 29% of the country has a college degree (and perhaps that’s all that need one).

    Educating some kids to a higher competency, if not a state designated “proficiency” matters a great deal to the families and communities of those kids.

    Low-stakes tests are measuring “something,” but it’s less than an accurate accounting of ability and success of education system. This has huge implications for the regular hysteria about a crisis of America trailing in international rankings.

  4. matthewladner says:

    On the international issue, of course there are cultural differences between countries, especially between South Korea and the United States.

    It does not follow however that we should simply attribute South Korea’s ability to produce 7th graders who score 20% higher on international exams at a lower cost per pupil to national cultural difference. There are also huge differences in schooling practices, as laid out in the McKinsey report.

    Nor is there any reason to assume that we could not develop successful schools in the United States which emulate some of these successful practices. South Korea recruits from the top 5% of university graduates, pays them very high wages with large class sizes, and the kids learn much more.

    There is much inimical to modern American schooling in this, but I don’t believe that American culture precludes such practices. As I’ve argued before-inner city Catholic schools successfully married large classes and high quality instruction for decades.

    Do I think you could drop a group of typically prepared American high school students into such a school successfully? No. Would it be every parents desire to send their child to schools like these? Absolutely not, but I’m not suggesting a gosplan here, merely developing an alternative.

    Successful schooling is all about controlling the culture and keeping a focus on academic achievement. I don’t think there is anything about American culture that precludes us from giving rock star pay to rock star teachers, experimenting to discover the point of declining marginal returns on class size, and screening out/removing ineffective instructors.

  5. I agree that there is nothing “about American culture that precludes us from giving rock star pay to rock star teachers, experimenting to discover the point of declining marginal returns on class size, and screening out/removing ineffective instructors.” However, because school is completely about “controlling the culture and keeping a focus on academic achievement,” your statements are problematic and misleading because you don’t offer insight into doing those very things that lead to improving troubled schools.

    The top suburban and private schools in this country do not need the changes you’re talking about. And, the city schools need the ability to do that which you argue works so well at the inner city Catholic schools. I don’t know if you have any experience with those either, but I do. I taught at a Catholic school in the city of Chicago. While the neighborhood schools were dangerous, ours was safe and effective because of a committed parents, and school leadership that could rid itself of problem students. Charters have the same option that heavily influences success.

    Additionally, unless you’ve lived in Asia, I am going to assert that you have no understanding of just how vast the cultural differences are and how deeply that can affect school culture and test scores. Matt, on the day that junior high school students take high school entrance exams, the country shuts down air traffic for a half hour so the testing students can have absolute quiet during the oral part of the English exam. Shuts down nationwide and international traffic. Think about that. They hold national celebrations in Korea on the day their students take the international tests to promote national pride. Students in Taiwan who don’t test into a college-bound junior high school effectively eliminate their option of college at the age of twelve. Schools in Japan lock their gates at the start of school, and several years ago a high school student who was a few seconds late was crushed to death by the gate that is controlled by a timer. Students in Taiwan leave school at four and go to English and Math/Science cram schools from sometimes six to ten o’clock at night three or four days of week so they get the opportunity to go to an academic high school.

    Clearly, there is an ocean (no pun intended) between academic expectations in the different countries. And you are putting emphasis on an international test that American kids don’t even know what it is and are told it makes no difference to their grades or status.

    I completely agree that there is much we can do to fix public education. In terms of choice and teacher training and teacher pay and numerous other programs, I am onboard. I am not for the status quo. However, people criticizing and seeking to effect reform must look past comparisons like the ones you are making because they are unrealistic.

  6. Matthew Ladner says:


    Some portion (zero to 100%) of the superior performance of the South Koreans comes from differences in culture. Likewise, some portion (zero to 100%) comes from different school practices.

    Before I conclude that it is all culture, I’d like to try some of their schooling practices.

    You comment that the best suburban schools don’t need this. I would say they don’t need it as much perhaps because most of our high quality teachers are clustered in leafy suburbs due to the idiotic way we recruit and compensate teachers.

    And again, I’m not proposing a gosplan here like open classrooms or whole language reading. I’m calling for the creation of new schools, likely charter schools, that will do the value added analysis and make use of the enormous financial leverage of class size to pay high quality teachers strong professional wages.

    If it works, great, perhaps it will be emulated. Perhaps we can finally treat high quality teachers like professionals instead of factory workers and have Teach for America on steroids.

  7. Put that way, Matt, I couldn’t agree more.

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