PJM on Free to Teach

June 1, 2009

Free to Teach cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today Pajamas Media runs my column on why the government school monopoly is bad for teachers:

Everyone knows a monopoly is bad for the people who rely on its services. But monopolies are also bad for the people who work for them. Just like the monopoly’s clients, its employees have few alternatives. If they’re not treated well at work, they can’t go work for a competing employer. That means the monopoly doesn’t have to worry about keeping them happy.

And the education monopoly also locks out parental pressure for better teaching, which is probably a factor in improving working conditions for teachers in private schools. Public schools are government-owned and government-run, so the main pressure on them is political imperatives. The main pressure on private schools is keeping parents happy. Given that parents primarily want better teaching, which of those two options do you think is better for teachers?

A certain recent study is mentioned in the column.


Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers Say about Teaching in Public and Private Schools

May 20, 2009

Free to Teach cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today the Friedman Foundation releases Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers Say about Teaching in Public and Private Schools, a study I co-authored with my Friedman colleague Christian D’Andrea.

It’s a simple study with a powerful finding. We used the teacher data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, a very large, nationally representative, confidential survey of school employees conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. We just separated public school teachers from private school teachers and compared their answers on questions covering their working conditions.

We found that the government school system is not providing the best environment for teaching. Public school teachers fare worse than private school teachers on virtually every measurement – sometimes by large margins. They have less autonomy in the classroom, less influence over school policy, less ability to keep order, less support from administrators and peers, and less safety. So it’s not surprising that they also have less job satisfaction on a variety of measures. About the only thing they have more of is burnout. (The measures of teacher burnout were some of the more eye-popping numbers we found in the federal data set.)

Free to Teach box scores

The Schools and Staffing Survey is observational, so we can’t run causal statistical analyses. But it’s really not hard to figure out why private schools provide a better teaching environment. The government school system responds mainly to political imperatives, because anything owned and run by government is inherently political and always will be. Meanwhile, the biggest pressure on private schools is from parents, because if the schools don’t please the parents, the parents can take their children elsewhere.

Which of the two sources of influence – politics or parents – do you think is more focused on demanding that schools provide better teaching?

That’s why private schools deliver a better education even when they serve the same students and families as public schools, and public schools improve when parents can choose their schools.

Parents and teachers are traditionally thought of as antagonists. And no wonder – under the current system, parents have no effective control over their children’s education other than what they can extract from their teachers by pestering and nagging them. The status quo is designed to force parents and teachers into an antagonistic relationship.

But in the big picture, parents are the best friends teachers have. Ultimately, it’s parents who provide the pressure for better teaching, and – if what we’re seeing in the Schools and Staffing Survey is any indication – that pressure for better teaching provides better working conditions for teachers.

Here’s the executive summary:

Many people claim to speak on behalf of America’s teachers, but we rarely get the opportunity to find out what teachers actually have to say about their work – especially when people are debating government control of schooling.

This study presents data from a major national survey of teachers conducted by the U.S. Department of Education; the Schools & Staffing Survey. We break down these observational data for public and private school teachers, in order to compare what teachers have to say about their work in each of the two school sectors.

These are eye-opening data for the teaching profession. They show that public school teachers are currently working in a school system that doesn’t provide the best environment for teaching. Teachers are victims of the dysfunctional government school system right alongside their students. Much of the reason government schools produce mediocre results for their students is because the teachers in those schools are hindered from doing their jobs as well as they could and as well as they want to. By listening to teachers in public and private schools, we discover numerous ways in which their working conditions differ—differences that certainly help explain the gap in educational outcomes between public and private schools. Exposing schools to competition, as is the case in the private school sector, is good for learning partly because it’s good for teaching.

Key findings include:

• Private school teachers are much more likely to say they will continue teaching as long as they are able (62 percent v. 44 percent), while public school teachers are much more likely to say they’ll leave teaching as soon as they are eligible for retirement (33 percent v. 12 percent) and that they would immediately leave teaching if a higher paying job were available (20 percent v. 12 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53 percent v. 32 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (60 percent v. 36 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to have a great deal of influence on performance standards for students (40 percent v. 18 percent), curriculum (47 percent v. 22 percent), and discipline policy (25 percent v. 13 percent).

• Public school teachers are much more likely to report that student misbehavior (37 percent v. 21 percent) or tardiness and class cutting (33 percent v. 17 percent) disrupt their classes, and are four times more likely to say student violence is a problem on at least a monthly basis (48 percent v. 12 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to strongly agree that they have all the textbooks and supplies they need (67 percent v. 41 percent).

• Private school teachers are more likely to agree that they get all the support they need to teach special needs students (72 percent v. 64 percent).

• Seven out of ten private school teachers report that student racial tension never happens at their schools, compared to fewer than half of public school teachers (72 percent v. 43 percent).

• Although salaries are higher in public schools, private school teachers are more likely to be satisfied with their salaries (51 percent v. 46 percent).

• Measurements of teacher workload (class sizes, hours worked, and hours teaching) are similar in public and private schools.

• Private school teachers are more likely to teach in urban environments (39 percent v. 29 percent) while public school teachers are more likely to teach in rural environments (22 percent versus 11 percent).

• Public school teachers are twice as likely as private school teachers to agree that the stress and disappointments they experience at their schools are so great that teaching there isn’t really worth it (13 percent v. 6 percent).

• Public school teachers are almost twice as likely to agree that they sometimes feel it is a waste of time to try to do their best as a teacher (17 percent v. 9 percent).

• Nearly one in five public school teachers has been physically threatened by a student, compared to only one in twenty private school teachers (18 percent v. 5 percent). Nearly one in ten public school teachers has been physically attacked by a student, three times the rate in private schools (9 percent v. 3 percent).

• One in eight public school teachers reports that physical conflicts among students occur everyday; only one in 50 private school teachers says the same (12 percent v. 2 percent).


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