Education issues aren't foremost in our minds today, but I will note that the K-12 concern that reached my ears most frequently in recent months is the vaunted "teacher shortage" that our schools are said to face. As summer vacation ended, the press was full of accounts of extraordinary measures that public school systems were taking to ensure that their classrooms would have enough adults ready to receive the children. Teachers were imported from India and Austria. "Emergency" certificates were given to all sorts of people who had never taught before. Signing bonuses were paid to individual teachers-and sometimes finders' fees handed to the agencies that located them. Substitute teachers were readied for full-time classroom duty. And so forth.
Surely, the journalists said, this sort of thing will only worsen in coming years-and would I please confirm that? After all, doesn't America need to hire two million-or was it three million-new teachers in the next decade? I believe I was being invited to say that the only possible way to forestall this crisis would be to dump zillions of dollars into salaries, crash training programs, and suchlike.
Talk about old-paradigm thinking! The most striking thing about the U.S. teacher "shortage" is the extent to which it has mostly been induced by rules, customs, and practices that could be changed with a flick of the policy-makers' wrists. But instead of changing the rules, we proclaim a crisis. One senses that some groups see their interests advanced by this.
Almost everyone who has looked at the "teacher shortage" has noticed that it's spotty, not universal. It's concentrated in certain subjects (e.g., math, science, special ed), in certain kinds of communities (inner cities, rural towns), and in certain parts of the country (sun-belt states with rapid enrollment increases and those that are swelling their teacher ranks as part of a class-size reduction strategy).
Many states still train far more teachers than their schools can hire. (A 1999 Pennsylvania study found one state producing 20,000 newly certified teachers annually even though it had just 5,100 teacher openings per year.) Communities with static and shrinking enrollments face few shortages. Cushy suburbs in major metropolitan areas have plenty of applicants for nearly every classroom position. So do most charter and private schools-which are free to hire almost anyone they like. And it's common knowledge that the United States contains a vast "reserve pool" of teachers, people who trained for this occupation, or formerly engaged in it, but who for various reasons are not teaching today. In fact, most "new hires" in American schools are not freshly minted teachers bounding out of their preparation program. A third of them are former teachers returning to the profession while another quarter are teachers who prepared to teach at some earlier time but put it off.
Why are some schools having trouble finding enough grown-ups for their classrooms while others are awash in applicants? Look to the education field's bizarre policies and practices. Look, in particular, at four common practices that make precious little sense:
Uniform salary schedules. It's crazy to pay the same salaries to people in high-demand subjects (e.g., high school science and math) as to those in high-supply fields (e.g., middle school social studies). It's insane to pay teachers in tough schools and challenging assignments the same as those in pleasant, low-risk settings. It's nuts to give identical compensation to outstanding and inept teachers, to hard workers and clock-watchers. Yet we do all those things in public education. If instead we developed a rational, market-sensitive compensation system for educators, shortages would wither.
Certification. Today we make the public school teaching force pass through the eye of the state-certification needle. Yet private and charter schools don't do that, nor do colleges and universities. Though there's mounting evidence that traditional certification has little bearing on classroom effectiveness, we still require it-and the ed-school-based training that is its universal prerequisite. There's also mounting evidence that people who lack traditional certification-such as those in the Teach for America program-can be as effective as those with it, yet we're stingy with these alternate pathways into the classroom and grudging toward people who follow them. In most places, they must still take the Mickey-Mouse courses, though they may have longer in which to do so.
Personnel management. In most communities, those running public schools-their principals-have little say over who teaches in them. Due to seniority systems, bumping rights, union contracts, and centralized personnel offices, the principal has scant control over who is assigned to his school, who leaves, how much they're paid, how to reward excellence, and how to cope with incompetence. No effective modern organization operates this way. It's a holdover from old-style industrial management and government civil-service procedures. But industry and government are moving beyond it. Only the public schools remain mired in it.
People and capital. Whenever a school system has a spare dollar, it usually spends all one hundred cents on teacher salaries. It almost never looks seriously at alternatives-at completely different ways of structuring schools (e.g., a few master teachers working with a large number of aides and tutors) or other education delivery systems (e.g., technology) that might boost productivity and effectiveness. So nothing changes. And "shortages" are proclaimed.
It's no bad thing to import well-educated people from other lands to teach young Americans. In this, public education is following the lead of Silicon Valley, which looked overseas when it couldn't find enough U.S. workers with the proper knowledge and skills. But we wouldn't have to do this if we made these few (albeit profound) policy changes. Our shortages would melt away. Our schools would improve. Our children would learn more. And our teachers would get better, thus easing our quality problem at the same time we met the quantity challenge.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation ( www.edexcellence.net), of which he is also a trustee. From 1985 to 1988, he served as Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement and Counselor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. This article originally appeared in Education Gadfly, a weekly Internet education news and analysis bulletin.