School desks
James V. Shuls

For four years I was an elementary school teacher in southwest Missouri. Not to toot my own horn, but I was a pretty good teacher. Students and parents liked me. Several of my colleagues even requested me as their child’s teacher.

But you want to know the truth?

I could have been better.

The sad thing is, I didn’t have to be.

The structure of public education is such that anyone with a decent head on their shoulders can become a teacher and, with minimal effort, remain a teacher for rest of their career.

Compared to many other professions, becoming a teacher is relatively easy. In fact, many consider an education degree one of the easiest degrees to obtain. On average, students going into education as a college major have lower scores on college placement tests. In 2014, prospective educators scored an average of 20.4 nationally on the ACT, below the national average of 21.0. The people entrusted with educating our children scored more than three points lower, on average, than individuals going into engineering or English and foreign languages.

Despite having lower aptitude as measured by college admission tests, teachers receive incredibly high marks in their college courses. According to Corey Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri, the average grade point average for undergraduate education courses is 3.8. What’s more, Koedel found that 20 percent of undergraduate classes in the college of education gave every student an “A.”

Students who graduate and get teaching jobs are rarely challenged to grow, because they rarely receive the types of evaluations that will truly motivate them and help them improve. In many districts, new teachers are only evaluated a handful of times. In most cases, these formal observations are announced in advance. Thus, teacher evaluations are based on snapshots of what should be a teacher’s best lessons. Little wonder, as a report by The New Teacher Project noted, that almost all teachers are given superb marks.

While the fear of losing his or her job may motivate a teacher to work hard, social norms and school staffing policies effectively counter this motivation. Teachers, unlike most workers, are typically paid according to a predetermined salary schedule. No matter how hard they work, a teacher cannot earn a raise. Truly motivated teachers who go above and beyond face considerable pressure to conform. Nobody likes a rate buster.

Over time, the fear of losing one’s job fades. A teacher who reaches tenure—after three years in most states— has what state statutes call an “indefinite contract” or a “permanent job.” Of course, those terms, “indefinite” and “permanent,” come with a small proviso that a teacher doesn’t do anything egregious to a student. Barring that, the job is basically secured.

These were the realities when I was a teacher, and they are the realities today. Had the structures of education been different; had I been motivated and challenged by administrators; had my performance been really evaluated; or had I had the opportunity for advancement, recognition, and raises, things may have gone differently. Maybe I would have improved from a good teacher to a great teacher. In fact, I might still be in the classroom. 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.