The Teacher Glut

June 4, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Many of you will be familiar with Mike Antonucci, who is probably America’s last remaining full-time education labor reporter. On his website, he regularly compiles up-to-date Census data on enrollment, staffing, spending and teacher salaries for all school districts in each of the 50 states; he now has almost all the states done for 2005-06.

Lately he’s been commenting on how teacher hiring continues to far outpace enrollment growth; even states where enrollment is flat or shrinking are still hiring like crazy. Maryland, for example, expanded its teacher workforce 10 percent from 2001 to 2006, while enrollment grew less than 1 percent. California, which is still carrying around an extremely bloated teacher workforce from its apparently failed experiment in class size reduction, has just announced that it’s cancelling the large majority of its planned teacher layoffs.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; as somebody pointed out you-know-where, the teacher workforce has been expanding relative to the student population for decades.

What effects does this have? You might expect it to reduce class sizes. The benefits of class size reduction are seriously doubtful and can’t possibly be cost-effective anyway, but never mind that for now. The fact is, class sizes don’t seem to have been reduced. Data from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics indicate that while the system’s student/teacher ratio has been falling, class sizes have been flat, partly because each teacher teaches for fewer hours per day; there are also probably more teachers with non-teaching assignments (as mentor teachers, etc.) but I don’t know if we have data for that.

One effect the teacher glut is almost certainly to exert negative pressure on teacher salaries. Now, despite what you’ve been told, teachers are not underpaid. (See also the chapter on this in . . . well, you know.) But teacher salaries have remained stable, growing only a little faster than inflation. If we didn’t have a teacher glut, the laws of economics tell us salaries would be growing faster.

So who benefits? Well, the teachers’ unions make out like bandits. More teachers means bigger budgets without the hassle of selling the membership on dues hikes, and more political clout because the public school gravy train is larger. And while the unions’ political clout is badly overestimated – witness, for example, the startling political success of school choice – they do have enough power to exercise significant influence when no one else is looking, such as where staffing policies are concerned.

All of which reminds me of a story Antonucci covered recently (see Item 5 here) about a complaint filed with the IRS by the Ohio teachers’ union against White Hat Management, a charter school operator. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported: “Susan Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said White Hat, which is supposedly hired by the schools’ boards, exercises too much control over the schools, boards, and finances, violating IRS rules, she said.”

The teacher’s union files an IRS complaint because a tax-exempt organization has too much influence over education policy. So when does the union disband?


That “Wizardry” Teacher Firing – There’s More to the Story

May 15, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, a lot of people linked to this story:

A substitute teacher in Pasco County has lost his job after being accused of wizardry. Teacher Jim Piculas does a magic trick where a toothpick disappears and then reappears. Piculas recently did the 30-second trick in front of a classroom at Rushe Middle School in Land ‘O Lakes. Piculas said he then got a call from the supervisor of teachers, saying he’d been accused of wizardry. “I get a call the middle of the day from head of supervisor of substitute teachers. He says, ‘Jim, we have a huge issue, you can’t take any more assignments you need to come in right away,'” he said. Piculas said he did not know of any other accusations that would have led to the action. The teacher said he is concerned that the incident may prevent him from getting future jobs.

Quite a few bloggers and (especially) their commenters used this as an opportunity to bash their favorite targets: Parents are stupid, conservatives are stupid, Christians are stupid, stupid people are stupid, etc. A handful of people even managed to ask whether maybe the school officials bear just a tiny fraction of the responsibility.

Unfortunately, when describing the story, most bloggers and even most media outlets failed to include this information:

Local education officials, however, deny that Piculas was sacked for wizardry, citing a number of other complaints made against the teacher, such as not sticking to lesson plans and allowing students to use school computers.

Oops.

His dismissal form and the formal letter informing him that he would not be hired again also state that he used inappropriate language in class and put a student in charge of the class. And that reference to letting students “use school computers” turns out to mean that he allegedly let kids wander away from class and use the computers when they were supposed to be at their desks working.

Always click through those links before posting!

Nor did many people mention that the same school district that allegedly fired a substitute teacher for performing one magic trick has been hiring a professional magician to come in and perform for the kids for years, and after this story broke, they’ve reassured him that they still want him to come do his show. That tends to discredit the storyline some are peddling that Pasco County has been taken over by crazy right-wing extremists.

It’s not even clear whether any parental complaint about wizardry was actually filed. Most media reports I’ve seen have reported as fact that a parent complained to the school about wizardry, but the only evidence for this “fact” seems to be the claims of the fired substitute himself.

Tampa Channel 10 initially reported that the district claimed that the reason for the firing wasn’t “just” wizardry. That’s better than most media outlets, which didn’t report the district’s side of the story at all. But the claim that the problem wasn’t “just” wizardry didn’t come from a quote; the reporter put that word into the district’s mouth. As noted above, other outlets reported simply that that district denied wizardry was an issue. All the direct quotes and documents from the district seem to back that interpretation rather than the characterization in the initial Channel 10 report. And when Channel 10 did a follow-up report, the district said performing magic tricks is not against school policy, and the teacher’s magic trick was “insignificant.”

It is, of course, theoretically possible that there really was a parental complaint about wizardry, and that a dim-witted local school official decided to fire a substitute based on one parent’s crazy complaint, and that the district made up a bunch of accusations against the substitute after the fact in order to cover up what had happened (all of which is alleged by the fired substitute).

If so, I can only say that the schools in Pasco County are amazingly responsive to their parents. Do you suppose they have a big phone bank to call every parent at home every night and get approval for the next day’s lesson plan and lunch menu?

Kudos to Tampa Channel 10, which seems to have done the most follow-up work on this story, and to the few other media outlets doing their jobs.