Monday, February 28, 2011

A Reply to Geo-Engineering Trepidation

Asked to comment about the probability of geo-engineering deployment in the future, this was the response: [Might be the first time the first person is used at Bastion of Reason]

With all due respect (ah that notorious loaded statement) we will no longer live a ‘comfortable’ existence, able to listen to Taylor Swift and the like, go out for sushi, etc. without some form of geo-engineering. It would be wonderful if we could address progressive climate destabilization with mitigation strategies like increasing efficiency and transferring fossil fuel based energy to trace emission based energy alone, but do you honestly believe that is possible? Sadly sometimes I lament that at the rate things are going the epithet for the human species will be ‘Still waiting for the miracle that never came because we acted too late.’

I envision the most realistic miraculous scenario for emission reduction as: some genius individual or group within the next two years develops greater than break-even hot fusion (or something equivalent). This group then takes another two to three years to optimize the technology and over the next ten years after the optimization process fusion reactors are installed throughout the world both as energy providers and for transport reducing global carbon emissions to single digit percentages relative to 2005. That still puts emission reduction reaching single digits at 2025 notwithstanding the probability of such a scenario occurring is unfathomably small. Even if it does occur there is already so much slow feedback in the ‘pipeline’ that it is a debatable whether or not it is already too late without a form of significant ‘carbon dioxide removal’ based geo-engineering (planting trees and creating biochar will be useful, but definitely not fast enough to cut down positive feedback effects if this is the case).

If we cannot count on a miracle, what is the fastest rate of turnover? As previously mentioned in ‘Bastion of Reason’, some people want to drive a WWII mentality for clean energy deployment and conservation, but those individuals seem to have no plan beyond ‘build a lot of solar and wind power’. They take the attitude that 300-500 GW of trace emission energy can emerge if people just really wish that it would. It takes money, which is becoming less and less flexible and available at the Federal, State and entrepreneurial level and shows no signs of changing for the better at any point in the future, especially at the Federal level because Congress refuses to cut military spending. Side note: want to take a huge chunk out of the deficit make DARPA and anything related to direct funding for military personnel (salary, health benefits, GI bill, etc.) off-limits and then freeze any new military contracts for the next 10 years outside a declared state of emergency (initiated by 90% majorities in both houses of Congress and Presidential approval) and see how much money ‘magically’ becomes available.

However, I digress, not only is money required but so is time. It routinely takes 5-10 years to construct power plants and similar new infrastructure with any significant capacity where the probability of going over-budget is in the upper 90%. I laugh at anti-nuclear power individuals when they cite costs for nuclear power on the grounds that plant x is going over-budget because almost everything that is built goes over-budget both in money and time (solar and wind as well, yet conveniently anti-nuclear individuals rarely, if ever, address those delays). So it will take decades for these hundreds of GW of energy to be constructed, if they are constructed at all, all the while even in the best scenario humans are still emitting enough carbon into the atmosphere to raise the concentrations by at least 1.5 to 2 ppm per year.

Then there is everyone’s favorite red elephant… China. Some environmentalists like to proclaim that China is doing their part because of the billions that they are investing in clean energy over the coming decade, but based on energy requirement projections this investment is just a drop in the bucket; depending on what source you use China is still building a new coal plant every 8-14 days. Also they have ‘promised’ to cut their carbon intensity by 45%. Please, anyone that uses ratios in a discussion about carbon emissions whether it is carbon intensity or emissions per capita needs to realize that absolute values are all that matter. The environment does not give bonus points if country x is emitting 10 Gt per year, but has an emissions per capita of 10 tons vs. if that same country is emitting 10 Gt per year, but has an emissions per capita of 70 tons. (These numbers are merely for example purposes and do not reflect any specific country).

Carbon intensity is even worse than emissions per capita because as long as the economy continues to grow absolute emissions can continue to increase. Seeing that realistically the only thing that is stopping the Chinese populous from carrying out a revolt that would make anything that has happened in the Middle East look like nothing is the fact that the oppressive ruling party can point to the economic growth and say ‘Look at all the wealth we are creating leave us in power and some may “trickle” down to you’ it is logical to anticipate continued economic growth over the coming years for China. Tie this ‘avoid revolution’ philosophy to the theory that some economics have that China’s large economic growth values are artificially bolstered by an infrastructure craze (build, destroy, build, build, destroy, build…) China can ‘report’ large economic growth even if most of it is superficial. Gee I wonder why they ‘conceded’ to reducing carbon intensity instead of reducing absolute emissions? Heck, most Chinese officials that go public state that coal use will climb until at least 2025 probably longer. And that is just China, no one really talks about what India and Russia are doing, Russia being especially important because its economic stability is completely tied to their export of oil and natural gas occasional heat wave notwithstanding.

Another issue is that environmentalists like to lament that if only United States Republicans would stop being illogical and listen to the science of global warming everything would be ok; they seem to be missing the point that no other country outside of Western Europe (largely supported by France’s nuclear and pumped hydro trace emission energy backbone) seem to be actually reducing carbon emissions at any real significant rate when factoring out the effects of the global recession (at least as it is being reported). So even if these other countries ‘get it’ they are not applying that ‘getting it’ to making actual emission reductions. It reminds me of the old Samuel Clemens quote “Those who do not read good books have no advantage over those who cannot read them." The environmental equivalent: “Those who understand global warming yet do not reduce emissions should have no sense of superiority over those that do not understand or deny global warming.”

It can be argued that these countries are waiting for the United States to make a move because China is waiting for the United States to make a move and unless the United States and China get on board any environmental concessions will probably be meaningless. Therefore Republicans are indeed those primarily responsible for blame; however, with all of the limitations in current growth models (peak oil, peak coal, peak phosphorous, etc.) and a natural emission abatement when switching to a more trace emission driven economy, blaming the United States for a ‘lack of will’ to evolve seems foolish; however, the above statement in no way shape or form is meant to excuse the utter embarrassment the United States should feel for dragging its feet with respect to reducing emissions.

Additionally I am not sure if the contention that geo-engineering cannot address increasing ozone concentrations or ocean acidity is accurate. While I have little expertise in the field of and I am not a fan of its application, the use of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques, depending on the atmospheric application would reduce the total amount of sunlight that is available to catalyze ozone synthesis reactions in the trophosphere reducing total ozone concentrations. While the reduction may not be overwhelming there exists the possibility for a significant reduction, dependent on how the SRM technique(s) is(are) applied. Also carbon reduction techniques like ambient air capture can reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to a point that changes oceans from carbon sinks to carbon sources (emitting CO2 taken up over the last century) reducing acidity. Granted it is debatable how effective either of these strategies would be at reducing ozone concentrations or ocean acidity, but it may become necessary if mitigation efforts continue to only slug along.

Concern regarding the magnitude and uncertainty surrounding execution of geo-engineering technology is certainly appropriate; however, I believe most concern seems to be biased as it is immediately presumed that a higher probability for negative outcome over positive outcome is appropriate without taking into consideration the circumstances of its deployment. Regarding the uncertainty one can equate the situation to a patient with a severe disease. Geo-engineering is the untested experimental treatment: it can aid in curing the disease, do nothing or hasten the patient’s death. With anything the more study and preparation in the interim the higher the probability for success. Granted because of the black box of knowledge surrounding environmental complexities success can never be assured to be 100%, but we also have the ability of observation and adjustment.

However, the issue boils down to when does an individual stop waiting for the bus. The bus relates to an adage of a man waiting at a bus stop for a bus and the question of how long does the man continue to wait after the scheduled time if the bus has yet to come until finding another way to his destination. The bus may only be a few minutes late or may not come, how long does one wait? If one waits too long and the bus does not come then he will be quite late arriving at his destination, if he is too impatient he leaves before the bus arrives. The question is what rationality does he have for waiting vs. leaving. For the above analogy how long until humans believe the disease moves into a stage that requires the experimental treatment as a part of the treatment required to ward off death? The ironic thing about geo-engineering is that most of the difficulties will stem from not the techniques themselves, but their application. Just like mitigation it requires global cooperation as one or two ‘rouge’ nations looking out for their best interest(s) over that of the global community could spoil the entire strategy.

The conservation proposal put forth by environmentalists is all well and good, but it is what I call a ‘white board’ idea now one needs to step away from the ‘white board’ and outline the finer details of how that proposal will be executed. For example for the conservation frequently suggestion four issues immediately pop to my mind (although I am sure many more exist): 1. What definition will be used for ‘essential purposes’ when rationing energy and fuel? 2. How will governments take control of supply lines to limit access for general use to rationed items in our private corporation capitalistic driven world (using WWII as an example is probably not going to work because the logistics of rationing were much simpler then)? 3. How will government enforce this definition ensuring that people do not simply ignore or rebel against the rationing measures (the creation of black markets where there is money to be made…)? 4. Depending on the answers to the above three questions, what will prevent the world from plunging into the greatest (in magnitude and span) global depression ever while cleaner energy technologies take decades to fill the void left by the rationed products?

Question 4 is the issue that is apparently not considered by those that say ‘We need to stop all coal burning now’. Dr. James Hansen understands this unfortunate reality that alternatives are not ready to fill the void and advocates 20-25 years time frame to wean off coal. Finally the concern with the conservation method is its feasibility without strong-arm action. Environmentalists have advocated conservation for decades and yet that message has not accomplished what is deemed necessary. As cynical as it sounds environmentalist might not win until they can get Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber to walk on a concert stage wearing a green t-shirt that says ‘Save the Earth: Conserve Resources and Reduce Carbon Emissions with a Price on Carbon!’ or such.

Another problem is that right now too many are allowing the free market to dictate the evolution of a trace emission society without addressing future issues… hmmm last time I checked ignoring the future is what got us into this original environmental problem. For example look at this blog post, I rarely see anyone address these issues regarding energy generation (outside of those regarding nuclear power because of the fervor of the anti-nuclear crowd). What about the potential for average wind speed reduction in the future? Why do some laud the physics of human driven global warming, yet ignore valid potential consequences stemming directly from the physics of that warming which could cripple a highly touted solution? Even in the field of geo-engineering we need crazy ideas and then thorough analysis of those ideas. Realistically the best idea may not even exist yet. Take Erwin Schrodinger and transport him from 1911 to 2011 and upon seeing society his first words would probably be ‘how is this possible?’.

I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Reiterating from above, I would love it if mitigation and conservation were all it would take; it probably cannot be quantified how beautiful that would be, but there does not appear to be sufficient evidence to support that position. It appears that some form of technology-based geo-engineering will be required to abate carbon emissions and/or their consequences until the slow crawl of mitigation can do what is necessary. Remember I believe global society has reached the point where both mitigation and geo-engineering is possible; geo-engineering is not some magic bullet that can be used in lieu of mitigation. However, people need to start acting and studying geo-engineering in a manner that presumes one or more methods will be applied (too few legitimately study it at the moment), even if it turns out that they are not necessary because if they are needed and have not been effectively studied because of concerns about what they cannot do or their uncertainties we will be in even more trouble. Overall it seems the burden of proof has shifted to those who oppose geo-engineering to demonstrate that it will not be necessary at some point in the future rather than those that support its study proving that it will be necessary.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Key Issue Regarding Teacher Recruitment

As mentioned in a previous blog post, one of the chief strategies of the education reform movement is to attempt to attract the best college candidates by increasing teacher salary. However, it stands to reason that as publicly paid employees it would be difficult to increase teacher salaries to the point where those salaries could even begin to compete with those offered at other high quality jobs that the so-called ‘best and brightest’ would be qualified for. In addition even if the salaries could be equalized, little can equalize the gap in magnitude and variety of responsibilities associated with the more difficult teaching occupation vs. these other occupational opportunities. Such a reality is especially true for inner-city teaching positions. Therefore, a unique solution is required to increase the attractiveness of a teaching position over other opportunities.

One possibility would be to tap into the element of status. For instance why do most people drive high priced luxury automobiles? Higher gas mileage and equal, if not better, safety features can be found in lower cost automobiles, so those rationalities are out. Clearly the principle driving purpose is status. It feeds the ego to drive around in one of these automobiles largely because a large number of individuals who view the vehicle wish they were driving around in it as well. Unfortunately it is not realistic or practical to give some specialized custom Aston Martin to every teacher that signs a multi-year contract.

However, there may be an even more influential status symbol that can be offered to teachers. The teaching profession could be the first occupation that receives its own specific federal tax rate. For example regardless of income made from their teaching occupation, a public school teacher would be eligible for a rate of only 5%. Tie that specific to the occupation low federal tax rate to tax reform that eliminates deduction loop holes with an additional increase in public school teacher salary by at least 20% to those making below the national average and finally teachers could have something to brag about with respects to their jobs to other professionals. An occupation specific low federal tax rate could be regarded as the ultimate form of status.

Note that a special federal tax rate is only one way to exemplify the importance of teachers and separate them from the rest of the pack. Continuing to rely on ‘teaching as a calling’ as a recruitment strategy has long been outdated and ineffective, yet reformers have yet to move on to provide more substantial benefits and notorieties for teachers. On a side note another important element to consider when making teaching more attractive is to develop more opportunities for collaboration and cooperation among staff. One simple means to encourage this cooperation is to ensure that all teachers instructing in a given subject have the same prep period. Overall more creative ideas need to permeate the educational reform marketplace if effective solutions are going to be found because the simple reality is while teaching maybe one of the more important jobs in a society, the United States is not willing now or seemingly ever willing to treat teaching with that appropriate level of reverence.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Money in Politics – A Potential Strategy for its Removal?

It can be argued that the influx of money in politics has always been a troubling issue with regards to equality and can logically be viewed as an affront to the very nature of democracy itself. On January 21, 2010 the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that for all intensive purposes provided a deathblow for proponents of financial reform in politics. Citizens United vs. the United States of America outlined what has become the popular refrain ‘Corporations are people’. Moving beyond the general absurdity of this contention,

Also recently eliminated was any legitimate requirement for ‘these new people’ to identify themselves when ‘exercising’ their free speech. Future Congressional prospects to alter this ‘masking’ element to the ruling seem unlikely in the near or even long-term future. However, despite how generally silly and cliché the overly optimistic statement ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ may be, in this particular situation its application may be appropriate for those supporting financial reform.

The prevailing strategy so far by the financial reform movement has been to limit the influx of funds by applying a donation ceiling in an attempt to equalize the two power channels of a capitalistic democracy. To understand the rationality behind this strategy a little background is appropriate. The trademark notion of a democracy is ‘one person one vote’ implying equal influence from all voting parties regardless of position or standing. However, the evolution of the political system in the United States has created an environment where any elected position of significant consequence demands a large amount of money to purchase advertisement and conduct other publicity activities in order to have a reasonable chance at election. This monetary demand places an additional motivational incentive on potential candidates to abide by the wishes of those that have the ability to donate large sums of money at multiple instances.

Thus, while the initial notion of democracy is technically still accurate, it is difficult to believe that individuals who donate more money to fund a particular politician’s run at office will have equal influence to those that donate no money. Therefore, this new election environment has created two tiers of influence: the equal influence provided by voting and an unequal influence where individuals of wealth have significant influence over those that do not have wealth.

Unfortunately due to the flaws in the voting process of an indirect democracy (few/no termination clauses, few abilities to recall, no dishonesty termination, etc.) and the general lack of attentiveness of most voters, in real applied terms the equal influence element is seriously lacking in overall effectiveness relative to the unequal influence element. Due to this inequality some have proposed and even seen the successful passage of legislation to control the influence of money. Sadly as witnessed in Citizens United it is difficult to expect these money ceilings to remain for long periods of time because they do not serve the interests of those in power.

Some would make the argument that the failure of the voting process to neutralize this monetary influence conduit is the fault of citizens and those making large contributions to political parties or individuals should not be punished for this failure. This reasoning is flawed on two different fronts. First, the lack of and limitation of honesty in the political process significantly hinders the total expression of voting power. For example a politician can make statement A to the public, but actually support an opposing position and as long as the public is not able to discover that opposing belief the politician can be elected on a basis of false pretenses. This reality is especially relevant when the position of a corporation and large political donor may be in direct contrast with the position of the general public. How can voting have any real power when a politician can simply lie about his/her position until elected?

The counterargument to the above premise is a rather weak one. The only real logical argument is that in the case of a fraudulent politician, the public needs to take the philosophy of ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’ and when the politician comes up for re-election vote him/her out of office. The flaw in this reasoning is that any viable candidate must be available for replacement. Sadly in the current political system there will typically only be the potential for one viable opposition candidate as other candidates are pushed to the fringes of the process. Even if the lack of choice were rescinded the same initial concerns regarding truth would still be unchecked.

The second flaw in the above ‘it is the fault of voters not money’ argument is the very psychological nature of the players involved in the process. Most large donor individuals/corporations have a single principle in mind when donating money to a particular candidate: making money. There is typically no concern for any social issues or utilitarian elements that are apart from that main objective. This ‘single issue donor mentality’ gives an effective focus to the donation process eliminating the benefits of logical analysis.

However, because most voters are not rich and powerful, their lives are affected more by the myriad of decisions that a representing official has to make, thus it is illogical for these voters to be single issue voters (despite the fact that some are anyways). Therefore, it is difficult to expect voters to sacrifice all other issues to ensure that the large donors do not receive support for their single issue. This single issue element also ties to the trust issue above in that corporations have a black/white point regarding whether or not support should be given to a particular candidate while even if a candidate lies about one particular issue their overall platform may force a non-wealthy voter to continue to support them.

The principle tactic used by those fighting money in politics and other avenues is the belief in ‘sunshine’ or transparency. Proponents believe that by creating environments where individuals that donate large sums of money must make those donations in a completely transparent manner and those that use the money must outline how it was used it will lead to an outcome where more immoral actions will be restrained reducing the overall negative influence of money in politics. However, the problem with this strategy is that it does not address the saturation mindset. It stands to reason that most people believe that all candidates are taking money from some form of special interest and/or large corporate donors (even the small third party ones regardless of whether or not they actually are), so no candidate is ‘clean’. Therefore, without offering an effective way to remove money from the system, it is unlikely that this ‘transparency’ strategy will work.

Some proponents of that strategy may cry fowl at such an analysis citing that if individuals are made aware of monetary donations and expenditures then they could seek out the individuals that are receive no or less money and characterize those individuals as ‘not beholden to special interests’. The concern with this rationality is that receipt of donated money becomes a single issue. It is difficult to envision a scenario where an individual votes against a candidate that shares his/her viewpoint on a wide variety of issues if it is revealed that the candidate has taken a lot of money from special interest groups.

Therefore, ‘taking money from special interest groups’ will be regarded as just one of many issues that is considered by a voter when deciding on which candidate to vote for. Unfortunately due to the fact that messaging and access is heavily influenced by money it seems very probable that very few candidates will refrain from taking special interest money when available to them, regardless of any transparency requirements. If this scenario comes to pass then with every viable candidate feeling it necessary to take money, the previous public psychological assertion become true: everyone is taking money, everyone is dirty, thus it does not matter who takes money.

This above rationality may explain why various polling identifies 70% - 85% of people, regardless of political affiliation, believing special interest money is a big problem, but very few of these individuals do anything significant to address the issue. This unwillingness to act in mass also severely reduces any real possibility of forming a group to combat special interest money with ‘public non-government derived’ money because special interest groups will almost always have more to devote to a given political race. Remember special interest groups view giving money to a given political candidate as an investment, its sole goal is to create further wealth.

The reality of the situation is that it will be almost impossible to expel money from the political system and fighting money with money also does not appear to be a valid option. Returning to the ‘silver lining’ of Citizens United, currently the ruling hammered the last nail in any feasible reality where money could be significantly limited or even removed from politics, thus instead of chasing the highly unlikely scenario of, ‘money out of politics’, individuals can now address new more viable strategies to limit the influence of money. Realistically based on the present conditions the best strategy is to make money irrelevant. Making money irrelevant involves making voters care about what the candidate stands for beyond their party affiliation.

One important element in combating money is to understand that its primary purpose is to maximize information exposure. The real advantage to money is that it takes advantage of interest and time limitations possessed by the electorate. Instead of depending on a potential voter taking the initiative to look up a particular issue on a given candidate, money allows the candidate and his/her supporters to present that information directly to the voter. Unfortunately this presentation is frequently carried out in such a way that the core message is prone to misinterpretations or even outright lies that favor a particular candidate.

Clearly there are issues that voters care about that move beyond party affiliation. The means to break through voter apathy demands tapping into issues which voters care about and using those issues to defeat any influence of money. No matter how much money a candidate spends it is very difficult to expect a voter to vote in favor of a candidate that has opposing positions on a variety of relevant issues. The sticking point in such an information strategy is the fact that different people view different issues as important therefore it would be difficult to spearhead any direct engagement of the electorate because that would take a lot of money, money that is not available to non-bias third-party organizations. Therefore, the simplicity of the information disseminated by media mediums for party sponsored material must be combated with simplicity and accuracy itself.

The lack of knowledge regarding what is important to the electorate makes everything of significance important. Therefore, all information relevant to each issue of significance for a given candidate must be collected and presented in a way that potential voters can compare that information against their opponents.

The medium for this presentation would be best on a website, but because not all individuals have access to the Internet individuals should have the ability to request information through the mail; the information available would be voting records for those that have served in State or Federal level and any public statement they have made; each piece of information placed on this website must have an associated citation confirming the authenticity of the information; the major issues will be Education, Economy, Health Care, Social Security, Foreign Affairs, etc. With all of this information available voters will be able to use a candidate’s own opinion to differentiate between candidates increasing the probability that potential voters will identify which candidate will best serve their interests.

While the compilation of this information in one single place is important it is equally important to design a simple user interface that will make accessing this information very easy so that individuals are encouraged to use the site and access the information. Accessing this information is largely dependent on the simplicity of the interface. One example is as followed:

The home page should consist of a large map of the United States with a mission statement and instructions below the map and finally a search box in the upper right corner. The instructions would simply direct users to click on a state of interest to begin while the mission statement would inform the user that the goal of the site is to provide non-bias non-partisan information regarding public officials in effort to identify their current and future voting stances. The search box is specifically designed to search politician names to speed searching if only a specific individual is of interest.

Clicking on a state will bring up a list of districts within that state. Each district is flanked by all villages, towns and cities that fall within the boarders of the particular district so users do not have to look up which district they are a part of if they do not know. Clicking on a district will bring up a list of all elected government positions within that district, the individual currently holding that position and, when the timing is appropriate, candidates that are running for those positions. Incumbencies or political affiliations are not listed. Clicking on a name will bring up a list of the major issues mentioned above and clicking on one of those issues will bring up a list of sub-section issues that make up that major issue. Clicking on a sub-section issue will open the final list of statements and votes, if any, made by that politician relative to that sub-section issue. All statements will be organized in their entirety with an associated and accurate question (if applicable), which triggered the statement. Citations will be given as either cited references if the content is not available online or hotlinks if it is.

For this site to reach its full potential all news media organizations must agree not to lock any of the citation links behind any form of pay-wall. Also it is important the information is topic sorted, but remains individual centric. The ability to directly compare multiple candidates on the basis of a single political position could foster the development of more single-issue voters. Creating more single-issue voters would be counterproductive because the emphasis on that single issue tends to eliminate consideration of any other issue when voting which will more than likely produce results that will overall be detrimental to society when electing officials. If individuals wish to do the work comparing a single issue among candidates so be it, but by focusing on individual centricity it will at least expose those voters to other political issues and force the voter to do legitimate work to be a single issue voter.

Overall it is important to understand that money in politics from a candidate’s perspective is all about information distribution. Therefore, money can be countered by opposing information regardless of whether or not it is derived from money. Recalling the advantages money provides, the structure of society itself provides an obstacle to its efficiency. Due to the costs associated with information distribution through wide-reaching media, the popular choice with money because of its targeting effects, issues must be addressed with broad strokes. This generality can be countered with specificity and accuracy hence the goal of the above idea. However, even if such a website is created publicity is an important final element. If individuals do not know the site exists then its existence is meaningless. Thus if such a site is ever created, a significant publicity push would be required to introduce the site.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Addressing Teacher Turnover in Education Reform

While numerous topics rage in the public forum regarding education reform, the finer details on the structure of teacher turnover are commonly pushed to the background. The only aspect of this element that acquires any significant attention are reformers pressing the point that a more effective means of firing ‘bad’ teachers needs to be developed within the scope of ending teacher tenure. Interestingly these same reformers fail to ask the question of who is going to replace all of these ‘bad’ teachers.

A simplistic idea to close the turnover loop is the belief that an increase in teacher salaries will drive a dramatic positive shift in the number of intelligent college students who select a career in teaching over something in finance or whatever else. Unfortunately individuals that tout this idea as an effective means of closing the teacher turnover loop, fire the bad ones and then use salary incentives to attract intelligent candidates, fail to acknowledge that intelligence alone does not make a high quality teacher and that salary alone does not dictate job choice. In fact the wheels may fall off this plan at the point of salary increases before even reaching the question of teacher quality.

There are two immediate problems with the notion that simply increasing salary will make teaching a more attractive option for those believed to be higher-level candidates. The first problem stems from a perceived lack of understanding of the rigors of teaching. Salary to work ratio is typically the defining factor determining whether or not an occupation can effectively recruit individuals, when specific interest in a particular profession is not a personal motivation factor. For example most medical students that have the opinion to select, due to their skill level, between a specialization or general practitioner select specializations much more often because of a higher salary and lower total work hours (basically a higher salary to work ratio).

With respect to teachers while reformers want to increase salary they also want to increase work responsibilities through various evaluation methods as well as more targeted testing, thus it is reasonable to suggest that there would be no significant change in the salary to work ratio. In fact depending on how the increase in salary is distributed (how much is added to base salary vs. how much is derived from incentives) the salary to work ratio may actually decrease making teaching a less attractive occupation for high quality college graduates. The troublesome issue is that the salary to work ratio can easily slip into a negative feedback loop where the lower it falls the less attractive teaching is to new potential candidates which mean fewer teachers replacing those that leave the profession which leads to more work for the remaining teachers dropping the real and perceived salary to work ratio even further.

The second major problem with the strategy of reformers with regards to turnover is that with 49 of 50 states currently running deficits and the public continuously wary of raising taxes to pay for civil services where is the money to raise teacher salary across the board going to come from? The procurement of funds to pay for these salary increases is another important question that most reformers fail to address. Teachers are part of the much maligned, chiefly by the Republican Party, public workforce thus it is difficult to imagine a legitimate popular outcry fueling this salary increase. Sadly one of the elements that haunt public education is the near-universal desire to pay teachers more, but the reluctance to bare the financial burden associated with that desire. Add in the problem with questions over whether government should sponsor more charter schools and/or school vouchers and the potential to raise the necessary funds to increase salary decreases further.

Why are addressing these two critical problems in the teaching turnover cycle important? Returning to the problems within the turnover issue, hiring potential is an important element because various estimates cite approximately 270,000 to 300,000 teachers leave the profession each year for some reason (retirement, quit, resign for some reason, etc.).1,2 Sadly in the next 5 to 10 years that number will increase further solely due to retirements from the slanted age demographic of the current teacher workforce. In addition to those increases suppose the zeal of firing ‘bad’ teachers sponsored by most education reformers catches on and 3% of U.S. teachers (approximately 3.5 million)3 in a given year are deemed ‘bad’ and fired over the first 5 years and then the ‘bad’ teacher ratio drops to 1%. So where are the at least 375,000-405,000 additional hires in the first 5 years going to come from with the serious potential for a decreasing salary to work ratio? What about the additional 305,000 to 335,000 for each year after this initial 5 until the demographics level off in about 15 or so years?

Unfortunately the suggestion by reformers to increase teacher salary does not even address the most popular reasons why, outside of retirement, that teachers leave their jobs. Lack of planning time (65 percent), too heavy a workload (60 percent), problematic student behavior (53 percent) and a lack of influence over school policy (52 percent) were all cited as a reason for leaving.4 Although these main surveys are from 2000-2001 based on the current environment in education it is reasonable to assume these concerns remain. Overall these responses lend more credibility to the importance of the salary-work ratio. An increase in salary may stop some teachers from leaving, but it is more rational to tackle these retention problems by addressing the issues that drive them instead of searching for indirect solutions. Until these other issues are addressed the probability of bridging the coming teacher gap will be very small.

Another element in hiring is teacher training. As is common with most proposed solutions, few specific details have been given by education reformers regarding how teacher training will change and evolve beyond simple criticisms and broad expectations. The popular idea is that teacher training needs to be more like medical residency, but few details have emerged beyond that simple comparison statement.

Clearly teacher training matters because one of the following two scenarios is accurate if there are the significant numbers of ‘bad’ teachers as reformers profess: 1. Current teacher training is adequate enough that new teachers are ‘good’ teachers when entering the classroom, but due to a lack of evaluation, general feedback and/or deteriorating teaching environment the teachers are unable to objectively determine what works and what does not work which lead to the slow corrosion of their skills changing some from good teachers to bad teachers; 2. Current teacher training is inadequate and the eventual determination of a new teacher evolving into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teacher falls to their natural ability and overall desire.

The first option does not appear very plausible in that while it is reasonable that some level of deterioration in skill may occur, this deterioration is more likely to be derived from overwork and stress rather than lack of evaluation; if teacher training was adequate then these new teachers would know how to recognize what works and what does not work on their own. The second option does appear to be valid in that numerous personal reports indicate that new teachers, even vaunted ‘Teach for America’ teachers, are not adequately prepared to teach upon entering a classroom for the first time after receiving their credentials.

Beyond addressing the teacher turnover issue is the fact that most school reformers do not appear to appreciate the scale issue involved in genuine and meaningful education reform. The sheer size of the public school system demands plans with stringent detail instead of the short-term applied resource specific niche systems dreamed for scale-up. If educational ‘reformers’ really want reform then it is time for them to stop looping sound bites and actually get into the specific and numerous concerns in the education arena, especially teacher turnover because if there are not enough teachers available to teach the youth of near-future all other reforms are rather meaningless.


2. Solnet, Rita. “Fire our way to better education: is common sense MIA?”

3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor.

4. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Teacher Follow-up Survey (“Questionnaire for Current Teachers” and “Questionnaire for Former Teachers”), 2000–01, Table 6. Washington, DC.