Recent discussions around teachers' pay (is it too much? I don't think so) and merit pay (does it work?), are closely related to issues of student achievement and how much testing is too much testing. As Diane Ravitch points out very cogently, you shouldn't place all the credit--or all the blame--for school achievement on teachers because student achievement is affected by much more--families, poverty, the societal environment.
But I haven't heard discussion about one area that I think underlies much of this discussion: we are training too many teachers! If you are like me, you know lots of people who have been certified as teachers and are not teaching. Some of them are not teaching because they decided they didn't like it, but many, many more are not teaching because they can't find jobs.
And whom should we blame for training too many teachers? No, don't blame Teach For America. Blame your local universities.
Within about an hour's drive of Ann Arbor, the following schools are teacher education institutions:
University of Detroit-Mercy
Wayne State University
University of Michigan--Ann Arbor
Eastern Michigan University
Michigan State University
Siena Heights University
Spring Arbor University
University of Michigan--Dearborn
University of Michigan--Flint
Eastern Michigan University is the #1 graduator of certified teachers, but Western Michigan and Central Michigan are close behind.
And the reason all these schools have teacher education programs? Sure, they believe in good teacher education, yada yada yada. In fact, I believe that many of them provide very good teacher education--and what's more, Michigan State University has been nationally ranked as having the #1 programs in elementary and secondary education in the country for several years.
But the real reason that these schools all have teacher education programs is that they are a cash cow. Teachers often need enough subject area credits that they have full, or almost full, majors in two subjects, and then they need the required education courses. And then they need to come back for masters' programs to keep up their certification and be eligible for a higher salary. And compared to a program that requires a lot of instrumentation and materials (say, for example, nursing, dentistry, engineering), teacher education programs are a relatively inexpensive investment for an institution of higher learning.
In fact, according to this report to the state Board of Education, over three years nearly 43,000 would-be teachers took certification tests in the state (and about 90% of them passed). And that doesn't include all the people who started the program, and before they got all the way through dropped out. Do you think Michigan schools have hired anywhere near 40,000 teachers over the past three years? Did you know that studies have shown that many teachers choose teaching so they can stay within an hour of where they grew up?
(And sure, there are some shortages. Over that three-year period, only 10 teachers got certified for the visually impaired, and only 20 got certified for Physical and Other Health Impairments. BUT--2,576 people got certified in English, and 9,184 in Elementary Education.)
Need to understand how education is valued? Look no further than student teaching. Typically, education students who are doing student teaching "get" to pay a full semester's worth of credits (often needing to quit other jobs) while they work full-time for free in a school district. Yes, they get supervision (for which the supervising teachers get a measly stipend of something like $100), but in other college programs, where there are not a surfeit of applicants (take, for instance, many psychology or public health programs), people in training often get paid for their internships, and/or don't need to pay to be enrolled at the same time.
Back in the day when many of these teacher education programs began--back when my mother-in-law became a teacher--it was common for teachers to leave (as she did) when they got married or had children. So, many teachers didn't stay that long.
It's true that a lot of teachers try teaching for 2, 3, 4 years and decide it's not for them. Even accounting for that, we still have too many teachers, many of whom had to find other jobs. And although lots of them aren't teaching, if there were suddenly more openings, I think many of those not-currently-teaching teachers would jump back into the job pool. How many certified teachers do you know who are currently waitressing, working in a small business, working as a teacher's aide or afterschool supervisor, working in an administrative position, or unemployed?
The only reason that people can assert that teachers get paid too much is because there is an ample supply of available teachers to fill in the ranks, at low salaries. (In Willow Run, for example, a new teacher with a B.A. is starting out at about $33,000/year--or approximately $16.50 an hour.)
There is a solution for this: teacher education programs should restrict the number of people they admit to their programs for the next ten years. It's Economics 101: as the supply goes down to the level that matches the demand, the pay that teachers get will seem like a bargain. Honestly, I think it would be a discussion-changer.