By Richard Vedder
When I talk to legislative groups, which is fairly frequently, I often claim that one reform that would improve K-12 schools significantly would be to make it a felony for a principal or school superintendent to knowingly hire a graduate of a college of education. Everyone laughs, and I am not entirely serious, but the idea is not without its merit. On virtually every campus, the college of education is viewed as an intellectually lightweight part of the school, sometimes almost an embarassment. Good schools have largely rid themselves of undergraduate schools of education, in some instances keeping them for graduate study. The Holmes Group is a group of universities that has taken the the position that pedagogical training should come only after students have a good grounding in subject matter as undergraduates, a position with which I wholeheartedly agree in principle.
Yet the data I have been observing calls into question the utility of graduate work in education as well. One of CCAP's Whiz Kids, James Woodward, has been working with me on statistically explaining differences in high school drop outs in over 600 Ohio school districts. Over one-third of the huge attrition from entrance in high school to graduation from college comes from kids who simply do not make it out of high school. We are trying to explain why some school districts have far fewer dropouts than others.
One of the variables James and I have included in our model is the educational attainment of teachers. The expected result is that where a high proportion of teachers have at least a master's degree, teaching should be better and drop-outs fewer. After all, a large percentage of the master's degrees earned by teachers are from colleges of education, which should know something about good teaching. Yet we find NO statistically signficant relationship between high school dropouts and having teachers with a master's (as opposed to a bachelor's) degree.
Teachers usually want the master's degree for a simple reason --money. They earn more in virtually every school district in the country the more education they have. The fact that their productivity (as measured by student performance) does not seem to be closely associated with their educational attainment (or, for that matter, experience),suggests that teacher pay schedules are totally irrational at the K-12 level. These schedules based on experience and education (but not merit or market conditions) may be a reason why we cannot get many science and engineering majors in college -- we do not pay market rates for high school science teachers, paying them the same as elementary education teachers who are, relatively speaking, a dime a dozen.It points out one of the perversities of unionization at the K-12 level, a topic I will let my sidekick Bryan O'Keefe pursue in greater depth with you at a later date.
But my point today is: if graduate work in education schools seems to have little impact on such core issues as student graduation rates, why do we have them? Why don't state legislatures reduce or eliminate subsidies for students attending education schools, perhaps using the funds to finance student voucher programs where students can use the funds to attend any college (but not college of education) of their choice?