As students across the country get back to school, I got to thinking: Will our young people learn enough math and science to help keep America productive? It seems unlikely.
International comparisons reveal that American 15-year-olds score near the bottom on standardized tests in math and science. Out of the 30 member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students ranked 25th in math and 21st in science.
Why are our students lagging so far behind? One rarely discussed factor is the dysfunctional labor market for hiring teachers. Arbitrary restrictions make it extremely difficult for American schools to attract and retain teachers who are highly knowledgeable in competitive fields like math and science.
For decades, public schools have relied on the outmoded salary schedule as the primary way to determine compensation. These schedules are insensitive to actual labor market conditions.
A typical salary schedule calls for teachers to be paid based on the number of years they have taught and how many college or university credits they have earned. It sets one salary for educators, assuming all teachers are alike. This ends up giving us shortages of highly specialized teachers (in math and science, for instance) and surpluses of less specialized educators (such as elementary school teachers).
Why does this happen? The concept of "opportunity cost" helps explain why the single salary schedule fails. Opportunity cost is what you give up when you make a decision -- if you work late, you might miss a get-together with friends, for instance. And if you take a job as a teacher, you may miss out on a higher salary in another occupation.
Imagine a recently graduated math major interested in teaching high school algebra. According to Pay-scale.com, the 2009 average starting salary for math majors is $47,000. Pay-scale.com also estimates that the average beginning salary of an education major is $36,200. If a local school is offering $36,200 per year for new teachers, a math major is essentially turning down $10,000 by deciding to teach. The result? We have a shortage of qualified, quality math teachers.
This pattern has continued for more than 50 years, over which time teacher unions have become more powerful and a huge champion of compensation based on seniority.
There is a better way. A few states (including Minnesota, Colorado and Texas) have begun to experiment with new ways to reward teachers for special skills and for success in the classroom. Many of the ideas involve new models of merit-based pay, an idea favored by the Obama administration.
Opening up the process of teacher hiring and compensation will allow schools to attract the best and brightest -- and isn't that who we want to see at the front of the classroom?
Mark C. Schug, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is former director of the UWM Center for Economic Education.