Though crass it may be to compare education to so many sweatshirts and skinny jeans, and teachers to sales associates, the retail analogy has its merits. Reports by the Early Childhood Education Journal and NEA Today present alarming statistics about teacher attrition and its crushing costs; in American urban centers, nearly 50 percent of teachers quit within five years, and 90 percent of teacher hires are replacements for others who have left the profession. Just as any company pays dearly to contend with employee turnover, systemic teacher attrition in the United States costs close to $7 billion, as frantic districts scramble to train and retain new teachers.
According to a Wharton School study cited in the same New Yorker article, a large, multistore retailer was able to convert every additional payroll dollar it spent into $28 in new sales. To carry through the analogy, perhaps a similar up-front investment in teachers - attracting the best candidates, providing valuable training, resources, and support, and offering high pay - would not only tamp down attrition costs but also lead to "new sales" in terms of improved student performance.
This isn't a novel proposal, but it is one that has never really been given a thorough opportunity to be tested on a large scale in the United States. Some districts have experimented, to mixed results, with merit pay for teachers, but such initiatives seem more often than not to be trampled beneath the heavy footfalls of battle between the teachers' unions and advocates of private-school vouchers and charter schools. Likewise, the institutionalization of educational "reform" through controversial and dubiously effective metrics-based federal policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have often frustrated attempts to innovate on a local scale.
For all the lip service our politicians pay to teachers, the profession is woefully undervalued in real terms. The problem may be a psychological one; we operate under the collective impression that teaching ought strictly to be a labor of love - that the quality of a teacher is in direct proportion to his or her self-sacrifice in service of the student (or the exam). Meanwhile, even as per-pupil spending in the United States rose by 212 percent between 1960 and 1995, the average salary of teachers rose only 45 percent during the same period. The romantic notion that teaching and affluence are incompatible serves as a barrier to attracting superior talent into the profession when more remunerative options are available elsewhere.
In the last few years, the small Scandinavian nation of Finland has been held forth as an example of how to do public education right. In the 1960s, the Finnish government determined that its best hope for getting its economy back on track was to overhaul its education system, and so it instituted simple but sweeping reforms that reduced class size, boosted teacher pay, and required teachers to complete a rigorous master's degree program. The intangible result was a cultural, perceptional shift toward a position that imbues teaching with as much prestige as is traditionally reserved for doctors or lawyers. The much-ballyhooed tangible result, of course, was Finland's elevation as a world leader in education, as measured by the globally recognized Programme for International Student Assessment.
American skeptics argue that Finland's example won't work in a country 60 times its size and with a system of government in which significant and frequently contradictory decisions regarding public education are made at the local, state, and national levels. While it is surely the case that the Finnish model cannot successfully be imported wholesale to our shores, it is just as certain that we can apply some of its aspects in a context that resonates with Americans: commerce. If education is the goods, students the consumers, and academic achievement the bottom line, then shouldn't we focus on getting the best and brightest to move those units?
Ajay Raju is managing partner
of Reed Smith L.L.P. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.