Teacher-Prep Enrollment Down… It’s About Time

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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.



  • Stewed

    Did Mrs Katz get her public school job through connections or relations?

    • Justin Katz

      Ha! I think “in spite of her relations” might be more accurate.

  • Joe Smith

    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.

    The point is true if you mean school grade (K-12) on the first part. However, there is at many districts a substantial gap between “step” levels. While a “rational” economic theory might posit the lifetime earning potential, the reality is the entry pay is low (relative to say Step 1 in the MA districts).

    However, this isn’t really a competitive or even fluid (in the short-run) labor market. Demand may not dictate labor price (wage) – as you note about certain teaching areas and price does not fall (usually) with fall in demand due to CBA wage stickiness – but it does determine market quantity.

    The John Hopkins report glossed over this when it actually criticized RIDE for having too “high standards” that limit the pool – ironic since in a price floor market the employer should be using quality as a discriminator since price can’t adjust.

    You don’t find it ironic arguing the restriction on charter schools actually inhibits teacher job growth? Shouldn’t charters just be “displacing” teachers in the same sense they are merely displacing students (the point that charters are inherently inefficient in the manner they enroll students)?

    “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.”

    So here you abandon traditional economics? Demand is down because enrollment is down – can’t blame *that* on public schools unless you want to argue the charter effect; however, the net gain in charter school enrollment is below the decline in private school. Would’t it be more accurate to say in at least Catholic schools the decline in nuns meant more supply had to come from the “laity”?

    Add in the fact that extensive use of non-laity enabled Catholic churches to run very inexpensive local based schools and thus charge low tuition without worrying about economies of scale. That was a wonderful model at the time, but also created a culture of price sensitivity. That sensitivity came to roost as mostly white, middle class families – who might be able to absorb substantially higher tuition as that model eroded – either left the church or left urban areas.

    All in all, it’s probably a good thing students are opting out of ‘teaching’ programs as an initial career path. The best teachers my children had in both MS and HS were both “second career” teachers who retired from corporate jobs but weren’t quite ready to pack up and move to Florida yet.

    • Justin Katz

      I agree with just about everything you write in the above, although I’m not sure I understand why you think I abandon traditional economics at one point. The price sensitivity of private school consumers is true enough, but effectively independent of the question of why the schools manage to find well-qualified teachers at a much lower rate than public schools pay. Having been married to a teacher since college, I’ve seen many examples of young teachers who couldn’t get into the public schools and so took relatively low-paying jobs in private schools. For those teachers, the wage competition isn’t with a job teaching in public school, but a job substituting in public school.

      If the supply of qualified teachers were lower, the public-school spots would absorb a larger percentage of them, and private schools would have to find a way to compete.

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