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

(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

Advertisements

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

  1. pbmeyer2014 says:

    Brilliant. Thank you!

  2. JEGuthrie says:

    BLS reports that in 2012 there were 14,900 professional athletes in the US, and their median income was $40,060. That same year, we had three million K-12 teachers with a median income of $53,000. The 3,500 or so athletes in the “big four” probably average high six-figures, but it’s a huge drop off after that.

    Point is, when people say “treated like athletes,” they don’t really understand how we treat our athletes: big contracts for a few per state, the rest making small fractions of that and run off after three years. You said we’ll ignore supply and demand, but just considering supply: if we transferred every million-dollar athlete contract to a teacher that’d be enough for… one in every twentieth district? This all sounds pretty terrible.

  3. […] has been a huge hit with teachers, writes James Shuls on Jay Greene’s blog. But here’s What Really Prevents Us from Treating Teachers Like Professional Athletes, he writes. “Most of the things being celebrated in Teaching Center are often opposed by […]

  4. […] will never make the astronomical salaries that star athletes like Russell Wilson make. But as James Shuls, education policy fellow at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, writes, “…the best ones – the […]

  5. […] will never make the astronomical salaries that star athletes like Russell Wilson make. But as James Shuls, education policy fellow at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, writes, “…the best ones – the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s