We’re Only in It for the Money
Last night, I was privileged to attend an advance screening of Waiting for Superman with my colleagues Dave Roland and Bill Kay. The documentary takes on the problems of America’s educational system, and — given that it is directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame (and also a native son of Saint Louis) — you could be forgiven for thinking that the film would offer nothing but liberal platitudes about the need to support public schools with ever more money. You would, however, be wrong. Guggenheim strongly suggests that education has been hijacked by teacher unions, and the best ways to change the system would be to inject some degree of competition through charter schools, institute merit pay to attract and retain the best teachers, and eliminate — or, at least, strongly limit — tenure so that bad teachers can be fired, if necessary.
During the question and answer session afterward, a questioner who identified herself as a longtime teacher took issue with the merit pay suggestion. She argued that teachers do their jobs because they love their work and are passionate about it, and are not motivated by “greed” like people on Wall Street. There is some truth to this. Certainly, no one goes into teaching expecting to become fabulously wealthy. Still, I was reminded of what my cooperating teacher used to say when I was going through student teaching: “I’m doing it for the money … if they stopped paying me, I’d stop showing up.” Unless someone is independently wealthy, the money matters, and if school districts could pay more to the best teachers, they would likely attract and retain more highly skilled individuals to the profession.
In Superfreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argued that one of the major factors for America’s falling educational achievement over the last half century is the movement of educated women into fields outside of teaching, such as law and medicine. That is not a reason to lament women entering the wider workforce, but if there were more upward mobility possible in teaching, far more qualified people — both men and women — would have opted for teaching. Teaching can be an inherently satisfying profession, but it would be foolish to pin the hopes of our educational system on pure altruism.