The U.S. Education System Wrongly Penalizes Good Teachers, Won't Fire Bad Teachers

Last week, media outlets hailed a jobs report that showed the unemployment rate had fallen to its lowest point in nearly three years. And yet, the unemployment rate for recent graduates remains unacceptably high, at 14%.

I graduated from college as the economy was cratering. Though I have been fortunate to find a job, many millennials remain unemployed. This generation, facing a world with increased globalization and a depressed economy, does not expect to work at the same job for decades at a time. And yet, we pay for a public education system that penalizes young teachers at almost every turn, while providing older, tenured teachers with an absurd level of job security.   

Consider the teacher salary schedule, which generally rewards teachers for years spent teaching, for performance. This outdated system penalizes young and mobile teachers. Additionally, it means that teachers who take on more difficult classes or teach at schools with many at-risk students are generally paid no more than teachers who use their position of seniority to take the easiest classes.

Imagine starting at a job where you take on the most difficult roles and do not face the possibility of receiving a raise or a bonus for a job well done. Instead, your pay increase depends on what the district school board awards all teachers in the district, and how many years you’ve worked at the district. Under those circumstances many people wouldn’t even attempt to outperform status quo. And for that matter, people who do have a strong work ethic may choose another profession where they will be rewarded proportionately to the effort they put in.

Retirement contributions may not follow young teachers who choose to change careers or move to another state. In Missouri, for example, young teachers who leave the state may not be able to take district retirement contributions with them – those contributions stay with the state. When I was an education reporter, one former school board member told me that the state public education pension fund depended on the exit of young teachers in order to prop up outsize retirement benefits.

Even worse, most states make it very difficult to fire a bad teacher. Teachers who fail their students can stay on at a district. In Chicago, less than 0.1% of teachers were dismissed for poor performance between 2005 and 2008. The number is 10 times lower in Toledo. This means that some young, would-be teachers do not have the chance of replacing a teacher who has a track record of inadequacy.

As milleniels struggle to find work or to work at low-paying jobs, we are compelled by federal, state, and local government to pay to subsidize an inefficient education system. The least that could be done would be to reform the system that encourages mediocrity. It’s time to reward performance and make it easier to fire the worst teachers, in order to encourage the best and brightest to enter the profession.

Photo Credit: schlook

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Audrey Spalding

Audrey Spalding is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a think tank in St. Louis that studies Missouri public policy.

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