RIC’s Wrong Solution for Subject Matter Gaps


This plan from Rhode Island College illustrates well how our state’s establishment is attempting to cure the symptoms of our educational problem so as to avoid solving the problem itself:

Starting this fall, students who study elementary education at RIC will also be trained to teach one of the following subjects: special education, middle school math or middle school science. …

Like most states, Rhode Island doesn’t have a generic teacher shortage. It has a shortage in certain subjects, including special education, math, science and English as a Second Language.

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A new study by Bellwether Education Partners concludes that there is no overall shortage of teachers. Rather, districts face a “chronic and perpetual misalignment [between] teacher supply and demand,” according to “Nuance in the Noise.” Bellwether is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for under-served students.

The problem is our union-driven factory-worker model for education.  Districts can’t differentiate sufficiently between different teaching positions, so challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.

Consequently, public schools attract large numbers of people to the areas precisely where they are not needed.  That is a problem that districts could fix through contract negotiations and that the state could help fix through changes to state law, including laws that currently give the unions an indomitable hand in negotiations.

When challenged on this sort of thing, the response of union organizers is to trot out their approved talking point:  “We want a qualified teacher in every classroom.”  That is the sentiment that appears to be behind this attempt at RIC to plug holes by forcing every teacher who wants to teach elementary school to be qualified to teach something for which there’s actually demand.

Rhode Island is still missing the point by ignoring the importance of individuals’ interests and refusing to allow the market to place an accurate value on certain skills and talents.  Giving education students who’ve shown no special interest in or aptitude for certain subjects might help around the margins, but we should be skeptical of the outcomes for students.  We should also expect that any prospective educators who discover that they have a those valuable talents will make the same calculations that are creating the shortage.

  • Joe Smith

    “The problem is our union-driven factory-worker model for education. Districts can’t differentiate sufficiently between different teaching positions, so challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.”

    So charter schools, which are mostly non-union, should have that differentiation. which at least around here they do not. I don’t have firm data for private schools, but if you look at payscale and anecdotally from friends and family (n=4 admittedly), there is no “subject matter” differentiation – just time and other job duties.

    But if you have evidence local private schools would pay a new physics teacher with otherwise the same qualifications as the new English teacher, then maybe I’d buy your argument. I think one of the issues we leap based on faith is markets will act like we think the underlying economics predict.

    Douglas County in CO tried something like you suggested 6 years ago with arguably uneven at best results, especially if you look at changes to teacher turnover pre-and post. Again, that district did a bunch of things so the experiment was not something where just that change could be evaluated in isolation – but again I would posit do you see “market-based” systems in non-union shops? I think even non-union schools balance the impact on morale and the overall “costs” of such a compensation system against the “costs” of more fixed pay scale system using things like steps and general qualifications.

    Similarly, I think you should be pointing more to our regulatory certification system. What’s the difference between teaching math to a 6th grader vs 7th? I would think not much; yet RIDE requires a different certification for middle school.

    And maybe the union wants that; however, one of the bigger drivers is charter expansion. Take Achievement First’s “middle school” – which ironically right now is just 5th and 6th grade. So, it can get away with really any teacher certification, but next year they have to find “MS” certified teachers or get their teachers that extra certification.

    The simpler solution would be to revisit the whole certification process instead of bending the process in the initial phases. Clearly any profession needs standards for entry, progression, and retention in the profession; but my children’s best teachers were both “second-career” professionals – one from industry and one from the military. Instead of piling on more in the entry phase, why not get feedback whether you really need a “middle school” certification in the first place?

    • Justin Katz

      The government school system is so close to a monopoly that you can’t compare it versus the private school system for these purposes. For one thing, they create the basic expectation and industry culture that pay shouldn’t be differentiated. For another (and I could probably beat your n=4 on this, if I gave it some thought), private schools are more likely to bring in people with specialized skills because it’s treated as a retirement job without the hassle of the whole bureaucratic, unionized setting of public schools.

      • Joe Smith

        NCES statistics on public vs private teachers tend to show age groups within a few percentage points, but older teachers in private schools with less experience (perhaps some evidence private school teachers either join later or jump to public for the higher pay/benefits).

        It’s a pretty convenient explanation to blame one sector for poisoning the the rest without delving into the history of set schedules for teachers or explaining why private sector side has to accept the public sector system. In the private sector, wholesalers often use “MSRP/retail price maintenance” schedules. The more conservative justices – using reasoning from Robert Bork and others – ruled in 2007 Leegin decision that those systems can lead retailers to compete efficiently in ways other than price. Strikes me that given the pay schedules are often used to ensure goals like equity/anti-discrimination (again the history), districts could compete based on other factors such as working conditions or other non-salary items similar to what private sectors retailers do in the RPM system to compete.

        Again, it strikes me the issue is less the lack of compensation differentiation as the whole system that creates the “shortage”. If you can teach 5th grade math or science, the state is saying you can’t teach 7th grade math or science? Really? Special ed I grant you may have nuances, but the middle school and ESL (assuming you are bi-lingual proficient) I don’t think require a great deal of additional certification.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Joe writes: I think one of the issues we leap based on faith is markets will act like we think the underlying economics predict.

    There is a glut of newly-graduated teachers compared to the number of open positions for them, so you would think that any education major would figure out that by specializing in a science or math area they would have a leg up on getting hired

    Unfortunately, the people who pick education as a career tend not to be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree if you get my drift, and so even el-ed level math or science is beyond their capabilities

    “Retired Indiana University (of Pennsylvania) physics professor Donald E. Simanek has assembled considerable data on just who becomes a teacher. Freshman college students who choose education as a major “are on the average, one of the academically weakest groups…. On tests such as the Wessman Personnel Classification Test of verbal analogy and elementary arithmetical computations, the teachers scored,on average, only slightly better than clerical workers. A rather lowscore was enough to pass. Yet half the teachers failed.”


    • Rhett Hardwick

      I have never seen a report which detailed different findings than you indicate.

  • ShannonEntropy

    … challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.

    I disagree that higher pay is needed to attract people to the more difficult fields. As it is now, most new ed grads are forced to work a decade or more as substitutes — if they can even land those posts — with no steady paycheck let alone salary “step” advancement or seniority progress to a pension.

    The guy — and they’re almost all men — who becomes a HS physics / chemistry teacher will get hired to a FT position before the ink on his diploma dries, so career progress begins immediately and he’ll retire in his early 40s. Heck, he can prolly pick the city / state he wants to work / live in too, the demand for his skills is so great

    This career-path difference alone should draw people into those fields

    True story: all us Entropy kids went to the same undergrad university: a mid-west Big Ten school

    My 3-yr-older sister had this gorgeous blonde room-mate whose career goal was to be a kindergarten teacher. Whenever someone asked her what her major was, she would never say “El Ed”, but jokingly responded “Double-E” [ that’s usually edu-speak for Electrical Engineering ]. Some of the reactions she got — esp from guys — were priceless.

    To me, the fact that she penned this witticism herself was proof that she was not only beautiful but also likely in the 99th percentile in IQ in the entire College of Education. Even back then in the 70s it was well known that the lowest SAT-score students were education majors