We Have Too Many Teachers Already!

A story yesterday on CNNMoney.com describes the plight of Jenny Frank, who is young and eager to begin a career in teaching but hasn’t been able to land a job. It’s always sad to hear of people failing to find work in their chosen field, but the article in question completely misses a staggeringly important national story. As I mentioned this morning on Fox ‘n’ Friends: we have about 1.5 million too many teachers already!

Since 1970, public school enrollment has barely budged–up just 9 percent. Over the same period, employment has doubled. We’ve added 3 million new government school jobs. Half of those are teachers, another quarter are teachers’ aides, and the rest are service personnel and bureaucrats. This hiring binge has contributed to a quadrupling in the real, inflation-adjusted cost of a k-12 education: from $38,000 to $150,000 (constant 2009 dollars). It has not contributed to improved student achievement which, at best, has been flat at the end of high-school over that entire period.

If we went back to the staff-to-pupil ratio of 1970, we’d save something like $200 billion annually. And since achievement didn’t go up with the hiring boom, there’s no reason to expect it would fall if we pared back the government school rolls. And if staff reductions were focused on the lowest-performers, we would likely see student learning gains as kids were pulled out of the classes of bad teachers and placed into the classes of better ones. Our classes are currently much smaller than those of other nations that outperform us anyway (about 22 to 24 students per class in the US, versus an international average of 29).

Alas, none of that is going to happen while the education of American children remains focused on serving the adults employed by the system rather than kids. But imagine if education were part of the free enterprise system, in which quality and efficiency are handsomely rewarded and failure is penalized. The right-sizing of America’s education labor force would happen automatically, as parents shunned inneffective, expensive, overstaffed schools in favor of those that hired and retained only competent teachers–and only as many as are actually required to effectively reach children.

Isn’t education important enough to do what actually works?