Thursday, January 12, 2012

More on The Wrong Question About Teacher Pay

In my last post I suggested that the NY Times was asking the wrong question about teacher pay.  They start the discussion by asserting that teachers make more than other professionals with similar SAT and GRE scores and ask if that means if teachers are overpaid or that teaching needs to pay more to attract higher achieving applicants.

To me, it raises a different question: why people would work in another field if they can make more by teaching? I can think of two broad sets of possibilities.

1.) As an anonymous commenter mentioned on the last post, it's possible that people underestimate how much teachers make and simply don't realize they could make more by teaching.  If this is the case, then we should spend our time shouting from the rooftops about how much teachers actually get paid.

2.) Or, people would rather do something else than teach despite the fact they earn less money.  This could be true for any number of reasons (working conditions, barriers to entry, advancement possibilities, salary structure, etc.).  If this is the problem, we should our time figuring out how to make teaching a more attractive field for both prospective and current teachers.

In either case, the two solutions offered by the Times don't make much sense.  Arguing that teachers are overpaid at the same time that we've reached a consensus that we need more high-quality teachers seems counterproductive; if we're currently short on great teachers, I doubt that reducing pay will do much to help.  And if people are already willing to sacrifice higher salaries in order to enter a field other than teaching, I'm not sure why we think throwing more money at them would solve the problem.

Given the absurdly high turnover rates in our most troubled schools, and the research on why such turnover occurs, it seems likely that working conditions in some schools might be a large part of this problem.

In previous research, I found that 40% of teachers at high-poverty NYC middle schools are in their first or second year in the school and that fewer than half of all teachers have 5 or more years of teaching experience.  The starting salary for somebody fresh out of college in NYC is now over $45K, which won't make anybody a millionaire but is more than a lot of recent college grads earn.

Would NYC have better teachers who stuck around longer if they paid starting teachers $50K or $70K or $100K?  That's certainly a possibility, but besides potentially costing billions of dollars each year, it's also possible that there wouldn't be a huge difference . . . if teachers are leaving to take lower paying jobs elsewhere, then it seems dangerous to assume that paying them more will keep them in place.

Apologies for arguing by anecdote, but in my own case I've sacrificed somewhere near a quarter million dollars of pay to attend grad school for six years (compared to teaching in NYC) . . . and there's a really good chance that I would've made more next year as a 9th year teacher in NYC than I will as a newly minted PhD.  And not for a second does that make me regret leaving teaching.  Well, ok, maybe for one second . . . but that's about it.

Anyway, my general point is that we have plenty of evidence that things other than money are driving the current trends we see in the teacher labor market -- low numbers of high-achieving people entering the field and very high numbers of teachers leaving the field (though this attrition is concentrated mostly in high-poverty schools) -- so we should look at levers other than money when creating policy designed to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers.  The fact that people are passing up money to do things other than teach only serves to bolster this point.

1 comment: said...

I think you're absolutely right, and it brings up a question I've had for years. Why doesn't my union fight for better working conditions? It fights for lots of other things, things that often don't help me, and some things that make people look down on teachers ("Merit pay is impossible! Nobody can tell a good teacher from a bad one!").