America / Education / Fiscal policy / Politics / U.S. Domestic Policy

Reverse Teacher Crisis

You heard it all over the Democratic Convention 2012 last night.  President Obama calling for the hiring of “100,000 new math and science teachers.”  He also said, “I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with scientist and engineers coming out of China.”  Well this piece isn’t on the current state of financial aid (you can read other blog posts on that), but it is a deeper look at the employment of teachers and what is really going on.

Will Hiring More Teachers Boost Student Achievement?

 It seems to make intuitive sense.  Hire more teachers, have student to teacher ratios decrease and performance will increase.  However, the problem is, is that this has been the mentality for the past two decades with little to show for it.

Pupil:Teacher Ratio vs. Test Scores

This graph using statistics from the Digest of Education Statistics depicts the steep percentage decrease in student to teacher ratio against the basically flat increases in Math and Reading scores of 8th Graders.  As of 2012 test scores in math and reading had only increased by approximately 2%, while the student to teacher ratio had decreased by 11.78%.  This means that that the student to teacher ratio is declining 6 times faster than test scores are improving.  If the trend continues, by the next presidential election cycle the gap will have decreased by only an average of 1%.  This is also if the trend continues down the same path, but Obama’s call for an “army of teachers,” could actually mean increases in the outpacing of teacher employment vs. achievement returns.

 Also notable, is the cost of upholding such a ratio.  Since 1990, the average teacher salary has only increased by $1,500 (or 2.8%), however the cost of employing teachers has risen by 37% in 2012.  What does this in terms of what the tax-payer is getting back for their investment?  That for every 1% increase in achievement, we have spent $109.5 Billion.  If that’s not enough to convince you of the glaring inefficiencies of the current system, then maybe a visual representation will appeal to your senses.  The following graph illustrates the growing gap of cost of employing teachers vs. gains in reading and math.  It was calculated by multiplying the number of teachers employed each year and their respective average salaries. 

Cost of Employment vs. Scores

Sidenote: Are Test Scores an Accurate Measure?

Many will argue that test scores are not truly indicative of student achievement.  However, although not all-encompassing, test scores are one tangible way to assess the nation’s progress.  Furthermore, reading scores, which show slower growth trends than math, are actually fairly accurate in assessing a student’s contribution to society.  Tax-payers invest in students in hopes that one day they will graduate, join the workforce, contribute to the economy, and be law-abiding citizens.  It is an investment, with the expection of a positive return.  However, “2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.”  Furthermore, most civic duties and jobs including military jobs, voting, post office workers, etc. require a certain reading level.  Therefore, it can be argued that reading levels are a fairly accurate way to assess the returns on the investment in education.

The Core Problem with Teacher Hiring, Retention and Compensation

The heart of the problem lies with the notion that a lower ratio means higher performance and therefore we should blindly hire as many teachers as possible.  However, history and numbers prove that this isn’t the case.  Maybe the focus should be on the quality of the teachers and not just the quantity.

According to a report by TNTP titled “The Irreplaceables,” in the four urban districts they studied, they were able to pin-point high-achieving teachers through evaluations that involved student and parent feedback, colleague assessments, and value-added test score measures.  These teachers were called dubbed the title “the irreplaceables.”  In general, these teachers comprised of about  20% of the teachers in their districts and on average, each year they helped students learn two to three months  more in math and reading than the average teacher and five to six months more than a low-performing teacher (2).  This disputes claims that the issue of underwhelming test performance is a direct result of problems with the student and their family.  Each of these teachers were compared against other teachers in their own schools and districts.  Therefore, if a student was to be with a high-performing teacher for three years, on average (based on a 9 month school year), they would be about one school year ahead of a student who was with an average teacher for three years and two school years ahead of a student with a low-performing teacher.  Compare that, with the average annual .2% change in math and reading scores over the past 20 years and the bottom line is pretty clear: good teachers produce better results than more teachers.

However, despite this fact, schools are retaining high-performing and low-performing teachers at an astonishingly similar rate.  Furthermore, 55% of all high-achieving teachers are actually getting paid less than their low-achieving counterparts.

School Retention Rates
The direct result of these policies is a watered-down teaching profession, where teachers who excel aren’t valued and teachers who don’t perform are rewarded.  Furthermore, the pay-scale system that rewards teachers based on degrees attained and number of years of experience exasperate the problem.  “40% of teachers with more than seven years of experience were not as effective as an average brand-new teacher”(12).  This statistic is completely unacceptable in terms of what it means for the hundreds of students who have passed through their classrooms and for the amount the tax-payer is over-paying for their experience.  The median teacher salary as of 2012, according to payscale, for less than one year of experience was $34,796.  The median teacher salary for someone with five to nine years of experience was  $41,870.  This means that for every teacher that is just as effective or less effective than someone’s first day on the job, our nation is overpaying them, on average, by $7,074 each year.  How ironic, considering when irreplaceable teachers were polled, 70% of them said they would be willing to take on five more students for a raise of only $7,500 (30).

It is possible that letting go of low-performing teachers and redistributing their students into irreplaceable teacher’s classrooms won’t improve achievement.  However, because in the past two decades achievement hasn’t really changed to begin with, it will not leave our students worse off.  Futhermore, it will most likely (based on irreplaceable teacher’s ability to add months onto student’s learning) leave students better off.  A 10 students to 1 teacher ratio is only effective, if that teacher is adding value.

Policy Reassessment

If the nation was to return to the average student to teacher ratio of 1990, which is 17 students to one teacher, the nation is looking at about $94 billion dollars in projected savings over the next four years.  Had we stayed at this ratio over the past 22 years, the United States would have saved about $219 billion.  This is based off of projected student enrollment and projected average teacher salaries.  Furthermore, these savings could be even greater, if the teachers who are let go are those who have been teaching for several years, yet still are behind new teachers in terms of achievement.

The Following table demonstrates projected savings if the U.S. had stayed at the 1990 average student to teacher ratio of 17:


Actual Pupil to Teacher Ratio

1990 Pupil to Teacher Ratio

Projected Savings




$32.5 Billion




$161 Billion




$219 Billion




$313 Billion







It is then suggested to use these savings in several ways that will improve the teaching profession as a whole.  These things include, but are not limited to:

  • Compensating top-performing teachers who take on more students or who move to low-achieving schools
  • Creating career ladders for ambitious teachers such as raises for leadership and mentoring positions
  • Increasing the first-year teacher salary to make the salary more competitive and attractive to ambitious and high-achieving college graduates- including STEM majors

The old saying “those that can’t do, teach” needs to be eradicated.  Doing the above things will improve the teaching profession by creating an environment of excellence that awards teachers for actual effectiveness and not arbitrary stepping-stones.  Teaching is a rigorous profession that requires a certain skill set.  Not everyone can teach equally and therefore not everyone should be compensated equally.  Secondly, because not everyone is cut out to teach, it works to push out those teachers that are not effective at their jobs and retain the most effective teachers.  Finally, by creating competition, it will attract ambitious new teachers who see a way to make a career out of teaching.

The beauty of this plan is that all of this can be done without increasing spending.  All it requires is re-evaluating the budget and fixing inefficiencies.  Each school and district can look at its staff and find where the hiring of one more teacher does not create equivalent returns.  This is maximizing the funds that have already been appropriated, which in an area that is constantly plagued by budget cuts should be a top priority.


This is not an argument to go around firing teachers.  Some locations may need to hire more teachers and some may have too many.  It is recognized that each, district, and state will have varying efficient student to teacher ratios and varying compensation methods that best fit that unique location’s needs. What this does point out is that, in general, the current system is highly inefficient.  The blind hiring of teachers, despite their effectiveness, is driving up costs without giving adequate returns in student achievement.  It is a wake up call that over the past 20 years we have followed a certain policy path and to continue down that path is intolerably wasteful.

**Disclaimer: All data from the NCES goes up to the 2009-10 school year.  This means any data from beyond that point was extrapolated based on trends since 1990**

One thought on “Reverse Teacher Crisis

  1. A few possible mistakes, although I must admit, it looks like you’ve read the Irreplaceables report in more depth than I have, and I don’t have time to cure that now. First, as you’ve noted, you are judging teacher effectiveness based on test scores. For those of who are actually teachers, that is a slap in our face. Test scores are a very small part of what we do, that is until they are forced upon us in a high-stakes environment. Then we are forced to teach to the test, or even worse, teach THE test, in order to feed our families and to be able to continue to do what we love – teach!!! There is simply no way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher quantitatively. No other country does it ANYWHERE. We’ve never done it until RttT. This is a huge social experiment in which no one knows the outcomes and the unintended consequences of non-educators such as yourself making policy recommendations for something which you know nothing about. Sorry about being offensive, but I am just stating the facts. Economists can hardly predict the economy, yet they have taken over the education scene in order to attempt to predict what kids should score on tests and are collecting some nice wages as a result. But I don’t fault them – I fault the politicians for listening to the sales pitches, believing them, and then designing policy based on input from salesmen.

    Secondly, you (or the report, or both) illogically conclude that a teacher, even in an urban center, that makes more students ‘grow’ than another teacher is “better”. I have taught in an urban school. Interestingly, when I was hired I taught very advanced classes, even for Title I kids. These were fairly smart kids, yet they were buried in a school with over 90% of the kids in poverty. I was given the advanced classes because the principal knew I’d never make it through one year with the regular kids. As I gained experience, I was then blessed with teaching the not-so-advanced kids. Obviously, you can see the contradiction here – the other teachers were better than me, but I was lucky enough to have a principal that cared about me and looked out for me. I probably grew those kids much more than the other teachers did their students, but that didn’t mean I was a better teacher.

    And by the way, if you increase class size, that makes the teaching profession even more unattractive than it does now. Teaching 15 of today’s teenagers in one class can make you want to jump off a cliff fast. Teaching 30 of them, with all of the grading, forget it. I’ve done it and barely survived to tell about it. It’s simply not worth it.

    Also, with less numbers teachers can give more one on one attention and give kids the attention they need. It’s simply logical – even for you non-educators.

    I simply wish there could be a mandate somewhere, somehow that restricted educational research to educators that taught for at least 10 years. I bet we would be on our way to a much stronger educational system than we are now, rather than listening to people blather about something they know nothing of.

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