Here’s a question that Linda Borg conspicuously never gets around to asking, let alone answering, in her recent Providence Journal article about declining enrollment in collegiate teacher-preparation programs in Rhode Island (and across most of the country): Why is that a bad thing?
Think of your home heating system. The thermostat on your wall takes the temperature of the air. When it gets too low, the thermostat sends a signal to your burner, boiler, or whatever appliance generates heat in your house, calling for heat. The appliance kicks on and runs until the thermostat stops sending that signal. If your home has multiple floors or areas in which people might want different temperatures — say, an area that serves as an apartment for an elderly family member — each will have its own zone, so the thermostat can call for heat even when other spaces might not need it.
Our education system is like a large home with many floors and living spaces for people who have very different temperature needs, but it has too few thermostats.
The way an economy calls for more of something is through the price that people will pay for it. In employment, this is the compensation. If the economy needs more people to pursue a particular career, the organizations that utilize that career find they have to pay more to fill their slots. This higher pay leads more people to choose that career versus other options, until enough people have entered the career that employers find they can pay less to get employees of the same quality.
Rhode Island sets its teacher “prices” through contracts that allow very little differentiation (if any) between teachers at different grade levels or areas of focus. This leveling is exacerbated by the fact that the unions work through deliberate strategy to prevent huge variation from district to district.
The combined effect of the unions’ political clout and the desperate need for teachers in hard-to-fill areas means that the compensation level has called for more teachers than were needed in general. This has made public-school teacher jobs hotly sought, and often procured only through connections or a political process. It has also (I’d argue) suppressed teacher pay in non-public schools, because of the excessive supply of professionals who have invested in their credentials keep their price low when they are unable to find jobs at the rates that helped draw them into the field.
This imbalance in the state’s education-job thermostat is in further conflict with education policy in the state. Private schools have been closing, while the creation of new charter schools has been heavily restricted, so the number of new jobs is very limited. Moreover, union safeguards make it difficult for public schools to switch out current teachers for new ones while also ensuring that older teachers lose their jobs last when there are layoffs.
Add in a shrinking student population, and Rhode Island has every reason to expect — and want — teacher-prep enrollment to decline. Of course, being in the bottom 10 states by yet another measure suggests that we shouldn’t be complacent, but should figure out what it is that’s making us an outlier.