No, America Does Not Have Too Many Teachers

Think our public schools could get by with fewer educators? The private sector seems to disagree. 615_Schoolhouse_Reuters.jpg


Since the autumn of 2008, America's public schools have shed more than 300,000 workers. Like all of the economic wreckage caused by the Great Recession and our plodding semi-recovery, those pink slips handed out to teachers, assistant principals, and janitors should be looked at as a tragedy.

Some conservatives, unfortunately, seem to see them as a perk. 

This week, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled "America Has Too Many Teachers," in which the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson suggest that the country should in fact shrink its public school payrolls even further. But despite the provocative headline, the article doesn't really build a case that we need fewer educators. Instead, it comes off as an opaque argument for paying them less.  

Since 1970, Coulson notes, the public school workforce has grown 11 times faster than students enrollment. Fair enough. Two-thirds of those hires have been teachers and their aides. Meanwhile, national test scores have largely stagnated. We're not getting our money's worth, he says, and by returning to the student-to-staff ratios of forty years ago, tax payers could save $210 billion annually -- money that could be used on (what else?) private schools. Coulson writes:  

To avoid Greece's fate we must create new, productive private-sector jobs to replace our unproductive government ones. Even as a tiny, mostly nonprofit niche, American private education is substantially more efficient than its public sector, producing higher graduation rates and similar or better student achievement at roughly a third lower cost than public schools (even after controlling for differences in student and family characteristics).

It's a broad, sweeping argument -- one that runs roughshod over a lot of important nuance. It ignores the fact that some states have shrunk class sizes much more than others. In New York, there are about 12 students per teacher, while in California, there are about 20. It ignores the significant evidence that smaller classrooms do indeed improve student performance, although how, and to what degree is still very much a live debate. It ignores the progress our schools have made nationally: Dropout rates, for instance, have fallen by almost half since the 1970s, thanks in part to large improvements among minorities, who coincidentally have been found to benefit disproportionately from smaller classrooms.

But I'm not going to argue pedagogy. Instead, I'm simply going to say that I doubt Coulson truly believes we really have too many teachers in this country.* He hints at so much in his last paragraph, writing, "While America may have too many teachers, the greater problem is that our state schools have squandered their talents on a mass scale."

Why the hedge? My guess is it's because he knows that the free market has already spoken, and it's demanded smaller classes too. Private schools actually employ more teachers per student than their public counterparts. The average public classroom has 15 pupils per teacher. In private schools, the average ratio is 13-to-1. How are they so much more efficient, then? In part, it's because their instructors aren't unionized, and are paid about 25 percent less salary. As any teacher will tell you, it's part of the bargain for working in a less stressful environment. 

Coulson's argument isn't really about shrinking the ranks of educators, then. It's about union busting. It's about cutting smaller paychecks for the people who educate our children. So America's teachers should take comfort. Nobody's really after your jobs. Just your money.


*School administrators may be a different story. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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