[Susan notes: Excellent, thoughtful letters.]
Published in Wall Street Journal
In your editorial "No Teacher Left Behind" (Taste page, Weekend Journal, Sept. 22), you write something that jumped out a me: "The report notes that one way to attract the best and the brightest to teaching would be to pay them the same salaries as other professionals -- although more realistically. . ."
In this near throw-away line you come to the heart of why the best and brightest don't go into teaching -- it's not "realistic" to pay teachers for the knowledge they've invested substantial amounts of time and money acquiring. It's not "realistic" in an economy that rewards creating a large, quick profit to pay people whose efforts with children won't produce a profit for another 10 or 20 years.
But it's also not realistic to preach the virtues of American capitalism, the glories of turning the fast buck, and then expect the best and brightest not to want to participate at the highest level of the economy they can achieve.
Although Americans may have warm, generous thoughts about good teachers and say they want the best teachers for their children, the truth is that in the American system you get what you pay for. And Americans have pretty much gotten what they've paid for: a few highly qualified and gifted educators dedicated to the profession sprinkled in a mass ranging from the average to the unqualified who have achieved what they can in the American system the only way they can -- through unionization and political activity.
Capitalism may be better than any of the alternatives, but it has its limitations. That a financial newspaper extols the glories of the market economy while expecting a large number of the best and brightest to work against their own interests in that market is wishful absurdity. Education is not a magical fairyland exempt from the laws of supply and demand. If a commodity (such as highly qualified teachers) is in short supply, you have to pay more to get it.
I applaud much of your editorial, which echoes what I have been saying for a long time. But I find no merit in your recommendation that we try to measure the knowledge children have learned and correlate it with the education of teachers. What you are suggesting involves tremendous methodological problems that are even more complicated than trying to agree about what schools of education should teach.
I know that recently someone has claimed success with the "value-added" concept; but I suspect that if this method were analyzed carefully, many questionable assumptions would be found. Among other problems, you have the basic one of garbage-in, garbage-out.
Different children bring different learning and different problems to the public schools. It is simply naive to think that what is learned depends entirely on the teacher, much less on his education. Suppose a graduate of our best medical schools and residencies goes to an undeveloped country to help the poor. Should his school be blamed for his lack of success with enormous public health problems? Obviously not, yet this is what you propose for teachers.
We now have had several years of experience with No Child Left Behind, yet it still does not measure all the knowledge that children have learned; in fact, to do so is a wildly unrealistic goal, as any liberal arts professor could tell you. Perhaps the people most in a position to help us would be the the leaders of our better universities. They would at least be prepared to give us some valuable insights on what should be taught in schools of education.
(The author was educated at Wellesley (1956) and in the school psychology program at Harvard GSE ( 1960-66), where she was a graduate teaching assistant in testing.)
Even though I'm a loyal member of the NEA, I agree with much of what the "Educating School Teachers" report states, primarily the finding that schools of education are out of touch.
But my concern is that newspapers and the public will pick up on your subtitle, "A new report shows educators to be woefully unqualified." If you note the GRE scores of the secondary school teachers, they are well in line with those in other fields where there is greater compensation. Elementary teachers do not have to be as "academically qualified" as doctors, lawyers and business chiefs. We spend time teaching the basics of academics, tolerance and self-esteem. Raise the pay to the level of an MBA and you will get the best GRE scorers, but not necessarily the best first-grade teachers.
Sun Prairie, Wis.
(Ms. Penn is retired after teaching in Madison, Wis., Ladue, Mo., Arlington, Va., and Sun Prairie, Wis.)
William Ferguson, Nancy Rader, and Marilyn Penn