The annual Condition of Education data compendium put out by the National Center for Education Statistics is not the most exciting event ever–all of the information is culled from surveys and products publicly available elsewhere–but it’s an excellent resource and it presents a nice opportunity to step back and look at trends in US education. Last year, I used it to write a series of posts on the dramatic increase in Master’s degrees awarded in education, the college wage premium, and economic and racial segregation in our schools. Those trends have not changed, but over the next few days I’ll be using this year’s Condition of Education to highlight some other important developments.
The first trend, and the one that’s most related to current events, is falling teacher/ student ratios. In 1990-1, public school districts employed one teacher for every 17.4 students. By 2007-8, that ratio had fallen to 15.7 to one, the lowest on record.
This change alone is responsible for more than 300,000 full-time teaching jobs. To estimate how much this costs annually, let’s assume each of these teachers costs $75,000 a year after salaries, health care, and retirement benefits. That’s not an unreasonable assumption given that these teachers could be at any stage of their career at this point, not to mention the generous teacher health care plans and retirement benefits. Three hundred thousand teachers times $75,000 a year would put the cost of these teachers at $23 billion.
To put these numbers in perspective, consider the current proposed teacher jobs bill. The National Education Association and Secretary Duncan spent yesterday lobbying Congress to spend $23 billion to save the jobs of 300,000 teachers.
$23 billion. 300,000 teachers. The numbers are the same. If this is a coincidence, it’s a relatively remarkable one.
It’s hard to argue the investments in more teachers has paid off. National achievement test scores have moved only modestly, and practically none at all in later grades. The research on class size suggests that investments in more teachers and lower student-teacher ratios pays off only for younger, needier children. What’s more, there are now 3.3 million full-time K-12 teachers. One out of every 50 American workers is a teacher, making teaching the third-largest occupation. The teaching occupation, in terms of numbers, is just behind retail salespersons and cashiers and just ahead of “Office Clerks” and food preparation workers.
In any profession, especially one as large as teaching, there’s going to be a tension between quantity and quality. For the last two decades, we’ve chosen quantity. Let’s hope the coming decades focus more on quality.