On the 'S3 Paradox' in Education

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In a surprising trend, movements to strengthen requirements for entering teaching have throughout the century accompanied periods of severe teacher shortage. And during such times, the increased demand for teachers has generally resulted in higher pay.

Around this counterintuitive coincidence of shortages with rising standards and salaries--what we might call the "S3 paradox"--center many of the current proposals for reform in education.

While policymakers are right to raise expectations for teachers, they must also ensure that adequate measures for evaluating teachers' performance are developed. At the same time, to attract more young people to teaching, they must back continued improvement of salaries and working conditions.

According to the U.S. Education Department's Center for Education Statistics, the imbalance between the demand for teachers and the supply is growing. In 1992, for instance, the nation's schools will need to hire over 200,000 new teachers. But if present trends hold, schools of education will produce fewer than 150,000 candidates for these openings.

The causes of the shortage are fairly simple. Over the past two decades, a smaller percentage of young people has chosen to enter the field. In 1966, the Annual Survey of Entering College Freshmen found that 21 percent of the students surveyed were interested in teaching; the figure is now around 8 percent. Though the percentage of interested freshmen has risen slightly in recent years, supply and demand remain imbalanced.

Changes in patterns of attrition will also affect demand for teachers in the coming years. Over the last 20 years, the rate has been falling. In New York State, for example, attrition has declined from approximately 17 percent in 1968 to around 9 percent at present. Policymakers have become accustomed to handling this level of turnover.

But policy responses that can accommodate 9 percent attrition become inadequate when rates rise. And they will rise soon.

Attrition follows a U-shaped curve. Presently, we are at the bottom of that curve. 'llirnover increases, however, with the average age of the teaching force: The older the teacher, the greater the likelihood of his leaving the profession.

Also contributing to the upswing of the attrition curve is the necessity of replacing senior faculty members with new, inexperienced teachers-who historically have shown a high propensity to leave teaching as well.

And even in some of the best districts in the country, the business of hiring and retaining teachers is not a pretty sight. Believing, after years of low turnover, that they will not have to hire many new teachers, many districts have reduced the staffs of their personnel offices. In most instances, these offices have yet to be computerized, even though many other management functions in the same school systems have been.

Candidates are not well treated. Especially in very large systems, the hiring process gives vivid meaning to the term "bureaucratic runaround."

Once hired, new teachers often face the most demanding assignments. Because experienced teachers are given priority in selecting schools and classes, some of the most challenging positions are filled on a regular basis by beginners.

At the same time, districts do little to help new teachers cope. The profession operates under a "swim or sink" policy: Either teachers learn how to teach in their first year, or they fail.

Many sink. In one large urban district, 50 percent of new teachers quit in the first five years. While some of those who departed in fact moved to other districts, 25 to 35 percent of them left the field at that point.

As a result of these findings, the district in question opened an intern and mentor program: Senior teachers devote significant parts of their day to working with beginners. During the program's first two years of operation, only a handful of new teachers left the district. Such plans offer a promising means of developing and retaining effective teachers.

Raising the salaries of teachers must also remain a priority for policymakers. Between 1972 and 1980-- for only the second time in the 20th century--teachers lost real income. Indeed, in these terms, the national average for teachers' salaries hit a new low in 1980.

Anticipating that this decline would create serious problems, states began to take action. The good news is that, across the nation, teachers' salaries are rising; the bad news is that, in terms of real income, salaries are only back to where they were in 1972.

And the increases have failed to close the gap with other occupations. With summer jobs, teachers typically earn as much as mail carriers. Even holding master's degrees--as most teachers do-they earn less than buyers and accountants, most of whom have only four years of college. The relative wage of teachers remains unattractive.

It is a truism in economics that shortages generally trigger higher salaries. But economic principles which obtain in the private sector do not always apply in the public sector. In fact, in the short run, salaries in the public sector often fall short of the level necessary to restore balance in supply and demand.

Research indicates that legislatures and school boards demand a quid pro quo when they start to raise teachers' salaries. Insisting on higher requirements for higher salaries, they cannot, it appears, bring themselves to pay more for the same product. The result is the S3 paradox: In education, shortages set in motion both higher salaries and higher standards.

In developing stricter requirements for teacher licenses, more and more states are testing teachers as a condition for hiring them. Assessments typically cover such areas as basic skills, professional training, and knowledge of subject matter.

Unfortunately, the tests currently in use have limited utility: They reflect narrow ideological views, rely solely on multiple-choice items, and oversimplify teachers' decisionmaking. Such assessments do not predict teacher success. In fact, the most widely used test, the Educational Testing Service's National Teacher Examinations, is soon to be replaced.

Some states are beginning to assess teachers' performance in the classroom as a condition for a regular license. This development would merit applause-if existing procedures were not inadequate.

Most of these assessments of performance make several incorrect assumptions about the elements of good teaching. Their design implies that effective teaching depends on a single, discrete set of behaviors; that it is the same in all grades and all subjects for all students; and that it can be recognized within, say, a few class visits.

Yet research shows that effective teaching varies for different grades, different subjects, and different students.

The quality of teaching makes a major difference in the performance of students. But accurate assessment of teachers' effectiveness requires more sophisticated measurement--and judgments--than current systems reflect.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching-one of the few independent licensing boards for teachers in the United States-began a few years ago to design a new licensing system.

In the course of its work, the board considered the systems used in other fields; it discovered the interplay among the many requirements that a person bound for any other profession must face.

Most candidate for other professions must be graduates of college and of accredited professional schools; most take a series of examinations and, in a growing number of fields, must complete an internship before they may take the final test-the one that allows them to practice independently.

A similar system adopted by the Minnesota Board--and approved and funded by the state legislature--requires that prospective teachers graduate from an accredited school of education, pass examinations in basic skills and subject-matter knowledge, and complete a year-long internship under the supervision of expert teachers. Upon successfully concluding this internship, the candidate would take a test of teaching skills.

With the economic and social demands of the 21st century upon us, the need to attract sufficient numbers of talented young people to teaching has never been greater. And raising licensing standards in a time of growing demand for teachers is the right policy choice. But higher expectations must be matched by improved salaries and more professional working conditions.

Vol. 07, Issue 34, Page 36, 24

Published in Print: May 18, 1988, as On the 'S3 Paradox' in Education
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