17 November 2012

How to Improve Education Forever

Probably as close as I'll ever afford to get to building my own home.
(Built with Chief Architect Home Designer.)
It's simple: just pay them better. Pay them all better. Even the bad ones. No, I'm not saying money will motivate bad teachers to be good. It'll just bring and keep more highly-qualified individuals.

Money Doesn't Motivate Improvement
This may seem obvious to many of us, it may baffle others (it seems obvious to me). You can't bribe people to do better. You can't bribe kids to get better grades, you can't bribe people to make better sandwiches, you can't bribe people to push shopping carts back to the store. I learned all this on my own, and Dan Pink showed me the data behind it: money (or extrinsic motivators) will only motivate menial, repetitive tasks.

Believe it or not, teaching is not menial nor repetitive. Good teaching isn't, at least. Good teaching requires creativity, awareness, vision, blah blah blah. Things that can only come from intrinsic motivators.

After all, up to this point, the only motivation teachers have had is either lane changes through hours and hours of training, or the fear of getting fired only for gigantic gaffes. Extrinsic motivators do not work.

Money Will Bring and Keep Talented People
So, money probably won't make teachers better. But if teachers got paid more across the board, the career would attract more talented individuals as well as hold onto the ones it has.

Nothing taught me this principle more than when I worked at Costco, pushing carts around the parking lot for the majority of the time. I learned two things: (1) cashiers get paid more than teachers, (2) competitive compensation will bring in sharper people.

I knew two cashiers at Costco who were trained teachers, and even worked as teachers. Both got jobs at Costco during the summer to make some extra money, but soon they realized they were making more there, so they quit their teaching jobs. I know what you're thinking, and I agree with you: if someone would rather earn a few dollars more to be a cashier than to be a teacher, they probably weren't that good of teachers. Nevertheless, as idealistic as some Hilary Swank movies might make you, money is a factor in picking a job. Especially when owning a modest house in a decent area becomes implausible on a teacher's salary.

I got a job at Costco because they were paying $3 more per hour than anyone else with similar jobs. I stayed there longer for the same reason. Most of the people I worked with were similar to me: clean cut, hard-working college students. They're the reason people actually pay to be able to shop at Costco.

Back to My Theory
In my opinion, if teachers were merely paid better, it would become a more competitive career. People would have teaching as their goal, with business manager or magazine publisher as their backup, rather than the other way around.

Sure, we'd start paying the crappy teachers more. But we wouldn't hire any more, because there would be so many truly talented applicants. We wouldn't perpetuate crappy teachers because talented people—those who might otherwise have been tempted by more lucrative careers elsewhere—would stick around. We'd have a higher proportion of good teachers to bad.

Back to Reality
I'm thoroughly convinced that paying teachers better is the only way you'll ever improve education, but I'm also resigned to the fact that it's probably impossible. If we had legislators who tried harder, and citizens who could deal with change, a lot of our governmental financial woes could be fixed. But we live in a society that can't deal with cutbacks whose representatives are no different.

First to go would be pensions. Use that money to increase salaries, and teachers can pay for their own retirement. Then get rid of 90% of trainings. Teachers in a competitive market would have to stay competitive. They'd find their own ways to stay on top of their game, and they'd probably be a lot cheaper than those 8-hour affairs with 80 teachers who all need district-paid subs. In fact, speaking of the district, just get rid of 90% of it, too, while we're at it. Sure, it's nice to have one plumber for the district rather than one per school, but how hard would it be to simply contract with local companies? It might somehow be beneficial to buy software at a district discount, but how likely is it that every teacher even takes advantage of that software? My classes are about as software-dependent as they come, especially in middle school, yet the one program my own school couldn't afford on its own would be Adobe Illustrator. The rest are either cheap enough, or there are cheap or free alternatives.

Oops, I'm sorry, this section was supposed to be reality. I'm dreaming again.


  1. You know what I think would make education better?

    Better parenting.

    And what you said.

  2. Oh I agree. The two biggest factors in a child's success in school are parental involvement and poverty. But the government can't directly do anything about parenting or poverty (though they may try through indirect methods), they can directly affect how much teachers get paid. And it's just a personal philosophy that you should always focus on what you can control, rather than complain about what you can't. (This I say on a blog where I complain about things I can't control...)