The manufacturers of goods and services know that if consumers aren’t satisfied with the quality of what’s offered, they’ll vote with their wallets and choose another product. Such is rarely the case with a government product.

If you want to be a licensed driver, you have to wait in line at the DMV. And, if you want to educate your child, you have to go through your local board of education — that is unless you have extra cash lying around.

With rare exceptions, public education isn’t susceptible to those kinds of market forces. Consequently, the culture of public schools often discourages competition among students and goes to great lengths to avoid damaging the self esteem of those who don’t measure up.

If a recent report in the Connecticut Mirror is any guide, that same culture has insinuated itself into the very system that produces the state’s teachers.

Superintendents complain that a large percentage of Connecticut’s 1,200 first-year teachers are unprepared for the job. And a couple of national surveys (here and here) confirmed that as much as 60 percent of new teachers felt inadequately trained to face the challenges of a modern classroom.

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the schools of education are doing a poor job, which is what educators themselves are suggesting, or whether too many students in the teacher education programs are dim bulbs — or, perhaps, some combination of of the two.

Almost half the students earning a teaching degree each year in Connecticut graduated from one of the second-tier state colleges: Western, Central, Southern, and Eastern Connecticut state universities. Unfortunately, those institutions do little or no tracking of how their graduates fair after receiving their degrees.

And the teacher-training programs in those universities aren’t very selective. Last year, of those who applied to Eastern’s teacher education program, more than 95 percent were admitted. At Central, it was 92 percent. By contrast, UConn’s acceptance rate was 66 percent. Graduation rates were unavailable for most of those programs, but for education students at Eastern who enrolled in the program in 2006, 99 percent earned their degrees within six years. That sounds absurdly easy. Either the university has low standards or, like the children of the mythical Lake Wobegon, Eastern’s students are all above average.

Moreover, the effectiveness rates of teachers appear to be overly generous as well. I wasn’t able to locate teacher competency data on the state Department of Education website, but according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Connecticut gets a D+ on identifying effective teachers. And in New Haven, where a new evaluation system was recently devised, 90 percent of teachers had received the top three ratings (exemplary, strong, or effective) and only 2 percent received the lowest rating (needs improvement).

That seems consistent with trends in other states, where shocking numbers of educators receive high ratings. In Florida, according to the New York Times, 97 percent of teachers were judged effective or highly effective in the most recent evaluations. In Tennessee, 98 percent of teachers were found to be at expectations. In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher.

How could this be? No profession I’m aware of has such high rates of competency. Are the evaluators (mainly building principals) reluctant to criticize for fear of being unpopular? Are they concerned that if they push too many teachers out the door, their replacements won’t be much better?

Clearly, we need to improve the quality of at least half the students who aspire to be teachers. And yes, it will cost money. While teachers in Connecticut are paid well compared to most other states, it’s clearly not enough to consistently attract the best and the brightest. But I think it’s safe to say that across-the-board wage increases would not do the trick. That would simply reward those who don’t measure up.

No. What would really help is for the unions to drop their position that all teachers should be paid the same, with the only determining factors being years of service and advanced degrees. If, for example, qualified math and science teachers are so much harder to find than history or art instructors, why not pay the former a higher starting salary? That’s what just about every employer outside of the government does. Pay a premium for skills that are scarce and for unusually high quality, and then the problem tends to go away.

Some education reformers advocate for merit pay. It’s sound like a good idea until you consider that under the current system, almost all teachers are rated good or better. So they’d all get nice raises anyway. No, the culture has to change and that has to come from the top. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tried to supply such leadership early in his administration but his clumsy rhetoric about teacher tenure set us back a few years. Still, he managed to convince the General Assembly to take some baby steps on teacher evaluations last year. Will he be able to get more? I remain hopeful but am not holding my breath.

Terry Cowgill blogs at and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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