Megan has an interesting essay on why schoolteachers are, on the main, not very good. She contends that part of the problem is that teachers aren’t paid very well, which stems from the old days when bright women had very few options if they wanted careers.
While increasing salaries may indeed help attract better people to teaching, I don’t think compensation is a significant part of the problem. After all, we have Ph.D.’s falling all over themselves to get $35,000 assistant professor jobs. Indeed, many Ph.D.s are scrapping by on a string of adjunct teaching jobs paying $1500 a course with no benefits. Furthermore, in many states, because teachers’ unions are so politically powerful, schoolteacher salaries actually exceed professorial salaries. (I know this was the case in Alabama three or four years ago, when the “average” for high school teachers was $38,000 whereas assistant professors with Ph.D.s were pulling in $32,000.) No one is claiming that our universities, almost universally acknowledged as the best in the world, are suffering from lack of skilled professors.
I believe the real reason we attract low quality people to teaching at the primary and secondary level is precisely because they aren’t viewed as professionals. It is widely known that the dumbest people (as measured by SAT scores and high school GPAs) on campus are in the College of Education and that the curricula for Education majors is laughably easy. In my Intro to American Government courses, the Education majors were almost universally the worst students, because they were conditioned to simply having to memorize lists and regurgitate them back to the profs. Even low-level analysis was beyond them.
Because of the power of teachers’ unions, in most states competent people with subject-matter expertise literally can’t get hired for teaching jobs. There are few states where someone with a subject matter Ph.D. is eligible for hire as a schoolteacher: You HAVE to have the worthless “Education” degree, which emphasizes pedagogy rather than subject area competence.
Update: More thoughts, inspired by the discussion over at Megan’s: One of the things I’ve often noted is that there are still a surprisingly high number of really good teachers out there–I’d guess maybe 20-25% of the total number of teachers. They somehow manage to exist despite a system that seems almost intended to drive out bright, creative, enthusiastic people.
I would also make a distinction between elementary or special ed teachers on the one hand and junior high and high school teachers on the other. Clearly, in the first case, there is a need for pedagogical expertise. Even the dumbest college graduate knows how to read at a 6th grade level, count to 100, and say his ABC’s; the challenge is to impart those skills. Once the coursework turns to more sophisticated math, science, history, and social science sujects, I’d contend that the emphasis needs to be placed on subject matter expertise.