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.