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You can’t buy good teaching

This little talk from Lawrence Krauss is one I agreed with right up to the last little conclusion, which is a complete non sequitur.

That first part is excellent: good education does involve getting students to ask questions and think deeply, rather than being able to recite answers back at us; I also think it’s true that a good science educator has to be comfortable in the field and be competent in the topic. And that means investing more in teacher training. It also involves paying them more to attract better teachers, because sometimes what happens is that a person with a family or special needs will find they can’t meet all their obligations on a teacher’s salary.

So far, so good. Here’s the concluding paragraph that I find disagreeable, however. It’s the one where he proposes different pay scales for science and math teachers rather than those other teachers.

I don’t think that science and math are more important than writing; I believe in communication. It’s incredibly important. I write. But for better or worse, in the free market, if you have a training in science, in general, you can go out and not become a teacher and earn more money than you would if you were a teacher. So I think we have to consider paying in order to recruit better teachers who have a training in science and mathematics, the possibility of differential pay scales to accommodate the free market. I know many teachers unions would be vastly opposed to that. But I think we at least have to consider that possibility if we want to recruit the people with the skills into the schools to be able to connect with the students.

My problem here is that after praising the value of asking good questions, critical thinking, general competence, and all that jazz, suddenly we switch gears to talking about competition in the free market. That is something completely different with no relationship to the values previously stated.

Teachers of English, theater, history, philosophy, art, music, etc. can also be inspiring, inquiring critical thinkers who lead students to deeper understanding, who get students to ask insightful questions. In that context, it’s silly to single out science and math teachers as somehow special — in my personal history, science and math teachers have been more likely to fall back on rote and massive data dumps than teachers in other fields, and also, at the college level at most universities, teaching skills are less valued in the sciences than in other more liberal artsy disciplines; the number one job skill for scientists is getting grant money. It’s very much a free market thing.

But that’s the other side of the coin, too. Why would anyone think free market competition for higher salaries would attract more people with better teaching skills? An economic battle between educational institutions and for-profit industry is going to have one foregone conclusion: the schools will lose. Demanding stable funding so the schools can hire people at a reasonable living wage is one thing, but trying to draw scientists from industry (where teaching is not a major factor in advancement) into the schools with financial inducements is not going to work, and is going to prioritize the wrong set of values.

Way back when I was on the job market, I had the choice of better paying jobs in tech fields, vs. the Research I rat race, vs. the low paying liberal arts track. I was tempted by bigger money, but what won me over was finding places where good teaching was actually respected and rewarded. That’s how you get good teachers: treat them like their skills are respected and important, give them opportunities to improve and learn, and let them explore new ideas. That’s why I’m in this business; it’s certainly not because of the pay scale (although if it were low enough it would drive me away), but because it lets me do what I love doing.

Comments

  1. says

    I have a hard time taking people seriously when they start talking about “free markets” because there’s often the risk of dropping off into woowoo territory. It is this think where “market forces” are treated like natural forces that are mostly out of control, rather than it being people who can be convinced by things other than money.

  2. says

    *squints*

    that conclusion looks like it’s saying that people who have training in things that aren’t math and science wouldn’t be able to find high-paying jobs anyway. O.o

  3. travisrm89 says

    Teachers of English, theater, history, philosophy, art, music, etc. can also be inspiring, inquiring critical thinkers who lead students to deeper understanding, who get students to ask insightful questions. In that context, it’s silly to single out science and math teachers as somehow special.

    I don’t think he’s saying that humanities teachers are less inspiring or less capable of critical thinking. I think he’s just pointing out that people with science degrees have more options elsewhere than people with humanities degrees, so all else being equal there will be more good humanities teachers than science teachers, which in fact you argue is often the case. Thus, it makes sense (to Krauss) to pay science teachers more in order to attract more people to the profession of teaching rather than (as you pointed out) the profession of getting grant money.

  4. eidolon says

    What is so often missed is the fact that teaching is a distinctive skill set. Knowledge of content is important, but more important is the ability to communicate concepts. Every time there is a downturn in some industry, there is a push to get those unemployed geologists, engineers…whatever into teaching. This treats teaching as incidental to content knowledge and the reverse is the reality.

    Taylor Mali explains it wonderfully…

  5. Beatrice says

    But for better or worse, in the free market, if you have a training in science, in general, you can go out and not become a teacher and earn more money than you would if you were a teacher.

    I don’t want to be a teacher. There is no money in the world that would get me to stand in front of teenagers, young adults, or kids of whatever age every day.

    There are people who don’t find the mere idea horrifying, who like to share their knowledge and experience with new generations. Those people genuinely want to teach. As long as their work is respected, and the work conditions and pay are good enough (not with a mind numbing number of zeroes in the end or something that will allow them to buy two villas and a plane, but a decent salary), I doubt the “free market” would convince most of them to go and do something they are not interested in just because they fancy big money.

    If things worked like Krauss claims, and science teachers really were payed more than other teachers, wouldn’t more people try their hand at studying and teaching sciences rather than be a, for example, music teacher loser who gets less money than the math teacher? Because “free market”/wibbly wobbly or whatever.

  6. says

    yeah, the “competition in the free market” thing doesn’t work. Nobody is going to go into teaching because it pays better than some other job, because teaching is a psychologically gruelling job. People who become teachers do so because they want to be teachers. But they leave when it turns out that they can’t support themselves/their families properly despite working their butt off. So the point is really more about making sure teachers make a good, solid, middle-class wage so that those who want to be teachers won’t be discouraged.
    And by demanding higher degree of training (both in the suject and in pedagogy), you’d help increase the social status of teaching, too, which might reduce discouragement of potential teachers by social stigma. Though increasing requirements alone won’t do that, other things in US society would have to change, too.

  7. Beatrice says

    eidolon,

    What is so often missed is the fact that teaching is a distinctive skill set. Knowledge of content is important, but more important is the ability to communicate concepts. Every time there is a downturn in some industry, there is a push to get those unemployed geologists, engineers…whatever into teaching. This treats teaching as incidental to content knowledge and the reverse is the reality.

    THIS. Very much.

    I have a master’s degree in applied mathematics. High school math is hardly a problem. But knowing high school math covers only a really small part of being a math teacher.

  8. texasaggie says

    I think the point that is being missed is that you don’t hire someone just because they have a background in science. You hire them because, in addition to that background, they are also a good teacher. The purpose of raising the wages for science teachers is that you will attract more of the people who are want to teach and have the ability and knowledge, but for financial reasons, prefer to do something else. And given our society, there are lots of something elses that are reasonably rewarding psychologically. Once you attract them, then you select the ones that can teach, but if those people don’t apply, how are you going to hire them?

  9. texasaggie says

    The other point is that if the only people on your application list aren’t good teachers and are applying solely because they aren’t good scientists either and can’t get those other jobs, then you’re kind of stuck.

  10. Jason Dick says

    I couldn’t disagree with you more strongly on this one, PZ. Imagine, for a moment, what it would mean if teacher pay was high enough that people who might, today, be tempted to be doctors or lawyers would find teaching equally-tempting.

    One thing you’d notice straight away is that you’d have prospective employees batting down the doors to be hired as teachers. Imagine what this means for the schools, money aside: schools would get to pick and choose which teachers they hire from a much larger pool of prospective hires. That means better teachers. I am quite sure there are many people currently working in the private sector who could have made great teachers, but opted for some other career instead, in part because the money just isn’t there for teachers.

    Furthermore, with teaching being a more lucrative career choice, you’d have many more people in school opting for education majors/minors. This does mean that most of the improvement of a significant increase in teacher salary won’t be felt immediately.

    Now, obviously the schools would end up paying much higher teacher salaries, but then we should be paying much higher teacher salaries. Salaries, after all, really should reflect the value that our society places on a profession. There aren’t many professions that are more valuable to society than teachers, and we should pay them as such.

  11. Robert B. says

    Extra pay for science and math teachers? Can you imagine what that would do to interdepartmental and union politics? If I was still teaching at a school, I’d say “no thanks, I’ll split my raise with the rest of the staff, I don’t need the drama.”

  12. David Marjanović says

    Schools hiring teachers is an interesting concept. Where I come from, teachers are federal employees – well, no: some are federal employees, others in the same school are state employees for no good reason whatsoever.

    But for better or worse, in the free market, if you have a training in science, in general, you can go out and not become a teacher and earn more money than you would if you were a teacher.

    Well, sometimes you can. At other times you simply can’t find a job at all. :-|

    so all else being equal there will be more good humanities teachers than science teachers, which in fact you argue is often the case

    Anecdote: of the maybe 5 music teachers I’ve known, not one was a good teacher. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out they were all good artists (I have no idea), but as teachers they were all quite offputting.

    Taylor Mali explains it wonderfully…

    …Impressive! :-)

    applying solely because they aren’t good scientists either

    …where by “scientists”, in the US (and this whole discussion is about the US), you mean “grant writers” as has been pointed out above.

  13. David Marjanović says

    I couldn’t disagree with you more strongly on this one, PZ.

    You’ve misunderstood: PZ wants to pay all teachers more, not just the science & math teachers.

  14. fmcp says

    I’m usually a lurker her, but as a Drama teacher, I have to weigh in. I know many, many theatre people who have the potential to be great teachers, but don’t want to do it – they want to act, write, direct, design . . . they want to create theatre. Their motivation is simply not financial. Frankly, neither is mine; I’m lucky enough to live in a (Canadian) jurisdiction that pays teachers a solid wage, but I do it because it makes me so damn happy. I love my job. My friends who teach Science and Math love theirs too.

    I have a ton of respect for Lawrence Krauss as an intellectual, but I’m not sure he understands human motivation as well as the average person with theatre training!

  15. Anri says

    People who think teachers teach for the money simply aren’t paying attention.

    More money for teachers = good, of course, but that’s so that good teachers can be good teachers without having to worry about giving up other things to do so. More money for teachers isn’t a way to create more good teachers, it’s a way to help good teachers become (or remain) teachers instead of something else.

    My brother’s a teacher, I’m a design drafter.
    I suspect that, given a bit of patience, in a few months, I could train him to do my job, and in a few years, he’d probably be within spitting distance of my own competency level. I know that no amount of time or patience, no level of training, would get me to be 1/10th of the awesome teacher he is.
    Teachers are, in my admittedly limited experience, truly awesome people.

  16. calgor says

    Having been an instructor/educator for the last 12 years, I agree that good teaching cannot be bought. Here in the UK there has been a drive to encourage more people to become teachers in science and maths education. The only problem is that the government seems to equate higher qualifications with better teaching skills despite that all the evidence (including official reasearch and my personal observations) that the best teachers are those that can motivate and empower the students.

    Some of the best teachers I have had the pleasure to work with had little or no academic qualifications, but had life experience and the drive to encourage their students to better themselves. They had belief in their students (often more than the parents) and they had the patience. Ironically, many of these teachers did not require high pay – they just need enough for them to not have to worry much about the future. All of them agreed that the best wage of the job (myself included) was observing the light in the students face once they had successfully grasped some aspect of the teaching.

  17. Jason Dick says

    You’ve misunderstood: PZ wants to pay all teachers more, not just the science & math teachers.

    Let me be clear. I was responding to this that PZ wrote:

    But that’s the other side of the coin, too. Why would anyone think free market competition for higher salaries would attract more people with better teaching skills? An economic battle between educational institutions and for-profit industry is going to have one foregone conclusion: the schools will lose. Demanding stable funding so the schools can hire people at a reasonable living wage is one thing, but trying to draw scientists from industry (where teaching is not a major factor in advancement) into the schools with financial inducements is not going to work, and is going to prioritize the wrong set of values.

    Because I’m very sure that PZ is quite wrong here.

  18. pacal says

    Lawrence Krauss is a believer in the sacred magic of free markets. He also thinks very little of Teacher’s Unions. He wants there to be merit pay and free market completion in schools. He also things research on “group differences” is a good thing being held back by “political correctness”. Oh and he thinks a lot of the “outcomes” in jobs between men and women are due to sex differences in the brain, which the P.C. police is preventing us from fully investigating. Just read some of his pieces in Skeptical Inquirer. I have little doubt he probably will whine about Feminists very soon.

  19. willym says

    I taught for 34 years as an art/crafts teacher and an occasional English teacher in a high school. I always had teaching as a goal, ever since I met two of the finest teachers I encountered as a student in the sixth and seventh grades. They and several others throughout my time in elementary and then high school and college inspired me to pursue that goal.

    The school district where I spent my career never had enough money to both fund the programs and pay the teachers a decent wage. There was always an adversarial situation between the teachers and their union and the school district as negotiations over wages began each time the contract came up for renewal. Teachers were nearly always portrayed as the bad guys who wanted more at the expense of the kids by various factions within the community – some of whom were teachers who had spouses who earned a comfortable living, and thought the rest of us were being greedy. And quite a few of us married folks both taught, which provided a decent income depending on our years of service and degree level. This adversarial situation was always uncomfortable for most of us to have to deal with, both as members of the community and as classroom teachers.

    Many times I saw my department lose funding, classes get cancelled, and teachers either laid off or offered transfers to classes in their minor subject or to elementary schools, if their credential supported such a change, all at the whims of the budget allocated to us by the state, since the elimination of property tax increases led to a hugely diminished amount of money available. There were minor fluctuations when the lottery money designated for schools waxed and waned, but the overall slide continued until I retired.

    So an equitable pay scale is essential, and not one at a poverty level or at the barest minimum for new teachers, and one which increases over time as the teacher advances. And this must be accompanied by well – funded programs at all levels. Schemes to provide “incentive pay” and “bonus fees” and the like always left some of us out in the cold and at the mercy of departments which were thought of as “more essential,” and were not supported by the majority of district teachers. These schemes almost always set one group of teachers against another in any case.

    Teachers are trained to be teachers; but all good teachers can and want to teach, and all excellent teachers bring with them an indefinable quality which lights up a classroom full of kids with the excitement of learning.

  20. comradebob says

    The idea that the development of critical thinking requires years of nurture is false. Years of education creates group-think to a greater degree than it develops a questioning individual. America’s greatest minds, Washington, Edison, Jobs, Gates, Limbaugh, etc. all either skipped advanced education, or dropped out of school after they figured out what it was.

    Critical thinking is pretty straight forward. You acquire knowledge with your Five Senses and then develop your ideas with the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. The confident individual then has the tools to question dogma. Much of modern education in religious in nature meaning that it attempts to alter what we see with our own eyes. And the eye that alters, alters all.

  21. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    chigau, at this point I think he’s pretty much just urinating on the furniture.

  22. Beatrice says

    chigau,

    You suck at groupthink. You should have known we’re all sick and tired of comradebob.

  23. vaiyt says

    America’s greatest minds, Washington, Edison, Jobs, Gates, Limbaugh,

    America’s greatest minds

    Limbaugh,

    Limbaugh,

    Limbaugh,

    Limbaugh,

    No more needs to be said.

  24. Fred Salvador - Colonialist says

    What is so often missed is the fact that teaching is a distinctive skill set.

    This. Very much this. The only ‘bad’ teachers I’ve ever encountered have been in maths and physics, and the only reason I passed either subject in school was because both of these teachers were replaced in my final GCSE year by teachers who were A) comfortable with the subject, B) capable of answering questions about the subject without getting frustrated or snarky, and C) not about to take any of my shit about being bad at maths and physics. I went from an E in maths and an out-and-out fail in physics to a C in both subjects in the course of three or four months, and the fact I was deeply disappointed in those grades is a credit to their ability as teachers – I’d have killed for those Cs before Christmas, but then along came Miss Singh and Mr O’Meara, and suddenly subjects I never thought myself capable of learning became eminently attainable.

    Relating that little yarn to the discussion at hand, someone who is incapable of imparting an understanding of their subject to other people shouldn’t be teaching. It doesn’t matter how good they are in their field; if they can’t teach someone else to be good at it too, they’re in the wrong job – literally, because if you’re a shitty teacher but a fantastic chemist/ mathematician/ physicist, then you should really be lending yourself to chemistry/ maths/ physics instead of fucking about doing something you have no aptitude for. If you want to attract people who are good scientists/ mathematicians AND good teachers to come and teach instead of seeking a career in industry, then your best bet is to do what PZed suggests; improve the standing of the profession, improve the working conditions teachers enjoy, and make sure people who enter the vocation can earn a decent wage. That doesn’t mean start a bidding war with big business; it means paying all teachers a salary commensurate with the importance of their work.

    I’m not overly familiar with how the university research thing works, but I’d also suggest that giving secondary teachers an opportunity to participate in research programmes might serve as an incentive for people who love science to see teaching as a reasonable career option. It might also help sharpen teachers’ understanding of the subject they’re teaching.

  25. says

    I think that if you pay the science teachers better you will eventually have better applicants for those jobs. You get what you pay for. If you don’t pay teachers enough then you might get some people who just love teaching, but you will also get a lot of people who just weren’t good enough to make it in other fields. What would the world be like if competition for teaching jobs was so tough that lots of people couldn’t make it and had to fall back on something else?

  26. says

    Calgor

    The only problem is that the government seems to equate higher qualifications with better teaching skills despite that all the evidence (including official reasearch and my personal observations) that the best teachers are those that can motivate and empower the students.

    Some of the best teachers I have had the pleasure to work with had little or no academic qualifications, but had life experience and the drive to encourage their students to better themselves.

    Fred Salvador

    The only ‘bad’ teachers I’ve ever encountered have been in maths and physics,

    I suspect these two things aren’t unrelated; teaching science is a field where to be competent, someone needs both the qualities as a teacher that calgor describes, and a strong academic grounding in the science(s) in question. Without the first, you get boring ‘shovel in the knowledge’ types of teaching, without the second you get a very enthusiastic teacher who’s getting students very enthusiastic about learning subtly or drastically wrong information.
    Jason Dick

    Because I’m very sure that PZ is quite wrong here.

    Why? Based on what evidentiary grounds?

    Vaiyt

    America’s greatest minds, Washington, Edison, Jobs, Gates, Limbaugh,

    Seriously? (I know that you are quoting, but you had it all typed up and stuff). What the entire fuck? What do those people even remotely all have in common? Washington was a competent general and pretty good politician, but I’d hardly call him one of the leading intellectual lights of the world, then or now. Edison and jobs have a lot in common, what with being obnoxious patent trolls who made a fortune on other people’s good ideas and hard work, but they got where they did as much by ruthless business practices and generally shitty ethics as by brilliance in the traditional sense. Gates is the same, really, except a little less with the patent trolling; he got lucky, was in the right place at the right time with the right connections, and his homebrew OS took off. There are a half dozen others that i’m aware of who had all the technical competence he did, and product of similar quality, at the same time he was getting off the ground. Personally, if I was going to nominate anyone from the computer industry in a list of “America’s Greatest minds” Stallman would be my choice; he managed to match the programming output of Xerox Labs pretty much by himself for several years. The fact that Limbaugh is on that list makes me extremely leery of trusting anything Krauss has to say about anything whatsoever; anyone who considers him to be a great mind has displayed such a stunning combination of ignorance and lack of critical thinking that I’m forced to question the basis for anything they say at all.

  27. terminus says

    I am an AP Biology teacher. I am highly educated, having taken some seriously difficult courses at both undergrad and graduate level, and I teach to the most gifted and intellectually demanding students in our high school. I would love, and deserve, to make more $$ than I currently do, but teaching was always my choice and I’m generally happy with it.
    So, do the gym teachers in my school district work as hard helping students get into Columbia or Penn, grading dozens of reaction papers each week, or challenging them to think critically about evolution, cell signalling or biochemical pathways? Maybe.
    What about special education or kindergarten teachers? Hell, what about my science dept. colleague, who gives worksheets or lecture notes every single day and then hands out passing grades to every kid that walks through her door?
    In my world, the answers to all of these questions are irrelevant. To me, the idea of merit pay, or a “free-market” pay scale is both petty and untenable. Poor teachers should not be paid less, they should be REPLACED. It makes no difference whether the subject-matter is science, math, or physical education – critical thinking skills are universally valued and, therefore, should be universally taught.
    As a union rep, I recognize the flaws of collective bargaining, but they are dwarfed, tremendously, by its benefits. To classify every science teacher as “more important” and every social studies teacher as “less so,” would undermine the role of public education in K-12, and create disharmony amongst our ranks.
    Go ahead, pay PZ and Larry Krauss more than the college professors in the English department – I have no qualms with that, so long as it’s based on a fair metric (if you can find one). However, I would prefer that we improve the teaching “gene pool” by raising the pay standard for everyone – that is the only way to ensure that our young people learn how to think critically about exercise, Tolstoy, the Civil War, about science and about life.

  28. denaturesd says

    Isn’t it already standard that there’s differential pay at the University level? Biologists typically make more than history profs and less than econ profs. For bio and econ people the pay is lower than industry, but the level at which salary will drive away skilled teachers likely varies at colleges among different disciplines.

  29. Jason Dick says

    Just to make it absolutely clear where I’m disagreeing with PZ above, it’s specifically on his point that higher wages won’t buy better teachers: it absolutely will because it will attract intelligent, capable people who would otherwise seek employment in other fields. I definitely agree that this should extend to all teachers, not just those in certain subjects. It’s just that his point on teaching requiring a different skillset is quite invalid (not that it doesn’t require a different skillset, just that it doesn’t matter).

  30. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Why has nobody factored in the old saying that ‘those that can, do: those that can’t, teach’?

    TAXI!

  31. says

    I’m disagreeing with PZ above, it’s specifically on his point that higher wages won’t buy better teachers: it absolutely will because it will attract intelligent, capable people who would otherwise seek employment in other fields.

    what PZ said:

    It also involves paying them more to attract better teachers, because sometimes what happens is that a person with a family or special needs will find they can’t meet all their obligations on a teacher’s salary.

    so what exactly are you disagreeing with, again?

  32. unclefrogy says

    Jason,
    What makes you so sure that the different skill set required for teaching or teaching science does not matter?
    or what about it does not matter?
    uncle frogy

  33. jetboy says

    Check this out: I love teaching. I am very good at it. I feel that I have the right combination of passion, skill, and background knowledge to train people. I don’t have a degree. I have almost an associates’ degree. I train and supervise transit operators; and I am federally certified to do so. I’ve been in the transportation field for nine years. I could never afford a degree program, not and live the lifestyle I enjoy and support my family. I make half again as much as teachers do in the local school district at the same level of seniority. I would love to teach history in college. I’m very well versed in it. How much does a post-grad degree cost? How much of a return on the investment would it be, when I make double what an adjunct professor makes, and a significant percentage of what a tenured department head makes at the local university? I would love to teach – history, philosophy, economics, geology, physics…but why bother? That in the balance made my decision, at the age of eighteen, to turn away from collegiate studies. Society doesn’t value education for its citizens. In that absence, the “free market” prevails – and it’s a big ol’ skillet of shit. I’d love to teach as a primary vocation, but I need to be able to afford a house. I salute those of you who make that sacrifice; I honor it, but I damn sure ain’t doing it.

  34. pascale68 says

    Very interesting topic. As many have said I think all teachers should get paid more. Teachers’ salaries are outrageously low for what they do. I look at the teachers at my son’s elementary school and with one notable exception they are all extremely dedicated to the students, work lots of extra hours for no extra pay, and give themselves completely to their job. For that they get a salary that will not allow them to live in our city (San Francisco). Then when they have their own kids and they want to attend the same school they teach at, they are given the lowest priority since they are not SF residents. Wouldn’t it be best to allow them this, which would only lead to even more dedication to the school?

    On top of all this they have to hear in the popular media how they are evil and how any problem with a kid is because of their “bad” teacher and how their union allows them way too much.

    I’m rambling a bit, but I guess my point is that as a society we need to respect teachers more than we currently do.

  35. Cyranothe2nd says

    As an English teacher, thank you for this PZ. I really love teaching, but I hate feeling as if my profession is not valued by the general public, or even the administration of my school.

  36. mikee says

    @Acolyte of Sagan #36

    Why has nobody factored in the old saying that ‘those that can, do: those that can’t, teach’?

    TAXI!

    Hopefully that taxi is going far far away from here because such comments are unhelpful. Many teachers can do and can teach, that is what makes them good teachers.

    Why is there so much focus on teachers salaries? One of the things that pushes people away from teaching (and burns out current teachers) is the conditions – large classes, challenging students, limited resources, lots of paperwork. Why not focus on making it easier for teachers to teach? Most teachers would love to spend more quality time teaching. Also in some Scandinavian countries, teaching is a much more respected profession where teachers have much more control over the curriculum and many are trained to a masters level, including educational theory.
    By all means pay teachers more, they deserve it but I think just as much effort/money should be spent on making the actual job conditions attractive.

  37. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    Anecdote: I somewhat recently learned that the best teacher I ever had, who was a science teacher at my high school, quit because he wasn’t being paid enough to support his family.

    Of course, this is a reason to pay ALL teachers more, not just some of them.

  38. neuralobserver says

    The approach of ‘higher pay/better quality’ is certainly one that has been touted among the private sector for some time, perhaps most notably whenever obscene compensation packages for corporate executive/CEO are challenged by the public or by shareholders. One of the first things CEO’s/executives trot out is that higher compensation packages are needed to attract the best and brightest (which, to me has failed laughably, in light of CEO performance in the financial, banking and investment sectors, which have blown blown away billions in public investment). But I’ve always been of the mind that most people will generally (but certainly not always) do what they love because they have a passion for it regardless of pay.
    [In fact, it tends to make me uneasy when I here of someone going into a particular profession, such as medicine or other highly technical and exacting fields, because they want to earn big bucks, wield authority, hold a high status career, etc. And I have rubbed elbows with those types. Scary.]

    It certainly is frustrating for so many important jobs to be tied to such burdensome low pay/low benefit, and better pay, benefits and working conditions need to be fought for,,,, for teachers and other professions as well. But there are many, like PZ and others, who hold so strong a passion for their chosen career (and perhaps have spouses that have reasonably well-compensated careers) that allow them to absorb the sacrifices in pay and benefits, within reason of course. Overall, it’s not a good situation for teachers in general, and differences in geographic location make for a widely varied map of teacher compensation.

  39. Rip Steakface says

    Anecdote: of the maybe 5 music teachers I’ve known, not one was a good teacher. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out they were all good artists (I have no idea), but as teachers they were all quite offputting.

    Counter-anecdote: of the four music teachers I’ve known (my band directors from elementary through middle school and my music theory teacher), all have been great. My high school band director was probably the best (probably my favorite teacher of all time, actually… I would count him as a good friend), so there’s that.

  40. Fred Salvador - Colonialist says

    #44:
    There’s a good example of what you’re talking about in the UK; a lot of people who graduate with a good degree in maths, or a mathematical field such as economics, will go to London and work as stockbrokers for a couple of years in order to make ridiculous amounts of money before moving onto something else. Likewise, people who graduate with a solid science degree can do a diploma in IP law and spend a few years working as patent law consultants, which, if you’re good at science, is a license to pay yourself.
    Nobody grows up wanting to be a stockbroker, or dreams of spending their weekends picking apart burger wrapping in order to figure out if a patent has been violated – but the money available in either of these career tangents is far greater than a graduate could get working in their chosen field. That this kind of mercenary thinking, on both sides of the equation, is almost certain to attract exactly the wrong type of candidate is evinced by the gory tales of malfeasance that have been pouring off the trading room floors since 2008.
    Make teaching a honey-pot and the exact same problem will occur. Leaving all the other departments as they are and concentrating your money on maths and science will simply confine the problem to the maths and science departments, which is the exact opposite of what Lawrence Krauss wants to see.

    Teachers need better pay, conditions and benefits across the board, and the public opinion of the profession (because it IS a profession) needs to change, such that teaching is seen as something one aspires to, rather than something one falls back on.

  41. says

    I’m a science teacher (well, teacher educator now), and my daughter has just started a science teaching career. In particular, I teach physics teachers – and they get whisked out of my class and into jobs before the end of their program. There’s a shortage.

    In the case of physics, at least, it’s that fewer students are studying physics at all. The proportion of physicists becoming physics teachers seems reasonably constant, there are just not enough physicists. Lots of reasons for that…

    So in a way there are already incentives for science teachers – they’re in demand, and will more easily get jobs where they want them and stay employed in hard times.

    For all that, I’m with PZ on this one: differential pay is a bad approach. Teachers, as a number of people have pointed out, do it because they love it, and because they have the gift/talent/passion/whatever … but they do need to be able to make a living. Decent salaries – and to be honest, they’re pretty decent in Australia – are important.

    Respect is more important. Politicians choosing *not* to bash teachers and teaching every time there’s a pay negotiation. Education bureaucrats leaving teachers the hell alone to get on with their job instead of ‘reforming’ them every year or two in ways that don’t improve learning but do increase non-teaching paperwork…

    Lots of things to be done to attract and keep high quality teachers of science. Some of them are addressed here:

    http://www.bravus.com/blog/?p=1106

    (and yeah, good content knowledge of science is necessary but not sufficient to be an excellent science teacher: there are skills that can be developed and learned, and capacities that are (probably) innate that are all important in teaching)

  42. says

    Anecdote from middle of Europe (US are not the only state with low-paid teachers):

    I wanted to be a teacher and I liked science. I went on to getting here necessary master’s degree for teaching high school chemistry and biology, which I succesfully obtained. I never went teaching afterwards, for two reasons. One of them was pretty lousy pay, only some 20% higher than minimum wage, whereas in the private sector I got double in just three years. Other reason was that I found out during university studies, that while I am good at science and good at explaining things, I am not good at motivating and my people skills are pretty poor. If the pay were better, maybe I would go on to teach anyway, burn-out in a few years and be lousy teacher for the rest of my life.

    On the other hand, most of my classmates went on to private sector for financial reasons too, and of some of them I think they would be good teachers. Some of them went on teaching, and I think they are great teachers. But at least one went on teaching, despite being bad at science (barely obtaining his degree), while having all the predispositions of becomming even worse teacher than I could ever be, since he was prone to stage fright and was unable to speak coherently in front of his students. But with shortage of new teachers due to low pay, he got that job anyway, since the school had no other options. I do not know how he turned out later, he might be great teacher now, but I surely would not guess that based on how he was immediately after the school.

    That being said I think money is important motivational factor, although not the only motivational factor. Even people, who want to teach, may become dissuaded if the money is low enough. We all have bills to pay, that is reality of life that cannot be ignored. And in US this must be even worse than here, with your student loans and whatnot.

    But I agree that all teachers should be paid decent middle class wage, and some differentiation based on their subject is hokum.

  43. vaiyt says

    Teachers are horribly undervalued around here, and we don’t have the benefit of historically robust science programs.

    Advice to America: don’t do it. Down that path lies nothing but trouble.

  44. carbonbasedlifeform says

    The two best teachers I ever had both taught history. One was an Irishman who essentially told us stories, thus making history a lot of fun. I once heard him recite Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, and it was one of the best poetry readings I have ever heard.

    The other was an actual Marxist (I wondered how he managed to get a job in an American high school, since he made no secret of it), who was very big on having us do critical thinking, and having us go to the original sources. About ten years later, I ran into him and I told him that I had examined Marxism and found it wanting — and told him exactly why. He expressed disappointment that I did not follow his political beliefs, but he congratulated me for having done the research and for having thought about it. He said that many Americans were anticommunist more-or-less as a knee-jerk reaction, but I at least had reasons for rejecting it.

    Both of these men taught because they loved it and were good at it.

    I taught for three semesters as an adjunct at a community college. I got the job because the man they had hired to teach that class took another job in a different state. I did enjoy it very much, but I worked out that for the number of hours I was putting into it, including out-of-classroom work, I was getting paid less per hour than I would get at McDonalds.

  45. Erista (aka Eris) says

    I feel kind of bad because all I can think when I hear Krauss speak is, “It is Krauss who made excuses for a man who raped children; it is Krauss who used the name of ‘science’ to urge everyone to believe that a man who swore in a court of law that he had raped children had not in fact done so because said man had lied in a court of law for his own benefit but certainly wasn’t lying about it out of the court of law for his own benefit; it was Krauss who insisted that the children who had been brought to the child rapist mush have known what was going to happen and consented to it.”

    So when he talks about teaching science, I don’t know whether to be more horrified about his tortuous view of what science means or more horrified about his view of raping children.

  46. says

    @32:

    What do those people even remotely all have in common?

    Maybe they’re all examples of how good the free market is at attracting intellectuals.

    [Gates] got lucky, was in the right place at the right time with the right connections, and his homebrew OS took off.

    More specifically, the imitation of Gary Kildall‘s OS that Gates bought from someone else took off.

  47. mikee says

    @ 52 Erista (aka Eris)

    I feel kind of bad because all I can think when I hear Krauss speak is…….

    I’m sorry that is ALL you can think of, but it doesn’t appear to be the topic of this conversation, and has the potential to derail an important conversation on science teachers.
    Also I believe rather thorough critiques of Krauss’s failings can be found elsewhere?????

  48. brianrookard says

    Anecdote: I somewhat recently learned that the best teacher I ever had, who was a science teacher at my high school, quit because he wasn’t being paid enough to support his family.

    Of course, this is a reason to pay ALL teachers more, not just some of them.

    Why? What were the life choices of the teacher such that he “wasn’t being paid enough to support his family”? Maybe the fault was not one of pay – but of the choices that he made

    I have seen factory workers who live to their overtime – but complain once the overtime stops. I’ve seen some who know better, and who were fine when hard times hit because they planned according to their income and assets.

    I have seen former professionals who lived it up, buying a big house, expensive this-and-that, and didn’t put anything away for retirement. When the crash hits – they’re devastated.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people who lived modestly, invested wisely, and lived very comfortable lives in retirement.

    It is supposed that the reason he quit was because he wasn’t being paid enough. But that conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. Maybe he was being paid enough to support his family – maybe “he chose … poorly.

  49. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    @brianrookard

    Yes, how DARE he try to interact with modern society and give his children a good life, instead of forcing them to live in a single-bedroom apartment and eat whatever they could dig out of the dumpster?

  50. ckitching says

    Great, brianrookard. When in doubt, blame the poor for their own poverty. One thing I’ve learned (that you apparently have not) is that there is rarely ever one single cause for financial hardship.

    Let’s not even get into the fact that many schools don’t really teach the how and why of budgeting. We just expect that people have this skill innately, and when some of them fail, we demand that they take all the blame for their failure.

  51. texasaggie says

    Here is some more data to add to the discussion. Use it as you wish.

    I knew someone who had an undergraduate degree in chemistry from a rinky dinky school where the average student SAT score was below that required by the NCAA for athletic scholarships. She taught two years at a parochial school because she couldn’t find a job teaching in a public school. This was in the 60′s.

    She then got a master’s in counseling and did that for a year and then went back and got a doctorate in curriculum development. Later, in the 80′s she tried to get a job teaching chemistry at the local public school and was upset that they hired someone with a more recent degree and who would have been cheaper because she insisted that her doctorate in education was every bit as important for teaching chemistry as a doctorate in chemistry would be and should be paid the same as a PhD in chemistry. Her claim was that to teach chemistry at the high school level, all you needed were two semesters of freshman chemistry and all the rest didactic courses.

    Eventually she ended up teaching special education because they couldn’t keep teachers having gone through about one a year. She had no skills that were applicable to the private sector.

    Now the question is what does this say about the love of teaching vs. money as a motivator, and the extent to which this example is generalizable.

  52. says

    A school is so much different from a business that I can’t imagine how you could incentivize working there in the same way. Teachers can give 100%, doing whatever they can to get the right message across, and either get held back by the administration or penalized when a few kids just don’t care. Kids have to go to school, and if you work at a private business in a service sector, it may most likely be that your clients come to you by choice. They’re two different and incompatible models.

    This essay (http://empiricalmag.blogspot.com/2013/02/our-pacific-northwest-regions-deadliest.html) is by and English teacher and does well to explain what it means from a teacher’s own perspective to be good at it.

  53. Jason Dick says

    Nobody is suggesting that schools should be run like businesses, Dan. But the fact of the matter is that higher pay would go a long way to attracting more capable teachers. It would also naturally come along with higher respect for the position itself.