Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The high cost of low teacher salaries

Here's a thought-provoking column in The New York Times:
WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years.

That link is to an Economic Policy Institute study, which concludes:
We found that the average weekly pay of teachers in 2003 was nearly 14% below that of workers with similar education and work experience, a gap only minimally offset by the better nonwage benefits in teaching. Teacher earnings have fallen below that of the average college graduate in recent decades, losing considerable ground during the late 1990s, as earnings of college graduates grew 11% relative to the much lower 0.8% growth in teacher earnings.

Do you think your children are important? Heck, even if you don't have children, do you think having a well-educated citizenry is important? Then why aren't you willing to pay a premium for that?

The right-wing claims that investment bankers and hedge fund managers must make tens, or even hundreds, of millions of dollars a year, because that's the only way we'll get the very best. Fine. But don't they think that works with teachers, too? Or is it just that they don't care about children, not even their own?

Money is not the only motivation for people, but it's a strong one. When teacher pay is low, the best college students will probably not look there for a career. (And note that it does require a college degree, which your average bartender or garbage collector probably doesn't need.) And it's not as though teaching is really prestigious these days! Are you going to go into teaching for the respect of your community? Ha! Good luck with that!

If you're unhappy with the quality of teaching in your community, the last thing you should do is cut pay. In fact, you should increase it. You don't always get what you pay for, but you usually do. Unless you don't really care about education or about children. Maybe you just like to bitch?

Of course, good teachers make a real difference, but they're not omnipotent. There are a lot of other things that matter, too, especially parents and the local economic environment. Teachers in poor districts face an uphill battle every day. And blaming teachers for poor results usually makes about as much sense as blaming low-ranking soldiers.

But we're eager to shower money on the military, aren't we? We make sure their equipment is second to none. We never worry that their benefits are too good. And we honor every soldier, no matter what he's actually accomplished. If things go bad, we blame his leaders. Or we say that we just haven't given him enough support, financial and otherwise.

Why is our thinking so different when it comes to teachers? Are we still mad about those homework assignments? Or are we, when you get right down to it,... just not all that bright?


Adam Pizzo said...

I recently posted about this same article in my blog ( Here is an excerpt from my post, entitled Victimology 101: "They paint the picture of taxpayers attempting to regain the common sense right to terminate ineffective teachers as "blaming teachers." They contrast this alleged blaming with the way critics of military planning criticize the leadership, rather than “the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.” Eggers and Calegari use a rhetorical slight of hand that is all too common among teachers union apologists:
They label any questioning of their pay-and-pension-regardless-of-performance salary system as "blaming teachers" when in fact the blame is on the teachers unions, not on teachers generally.
This diversion is inherent in the union propaganda, as they claim to speak for all teachers. They never spoke for me; I would have preferred to have the liberty to speak for myself."

WCG said...

The thing is, Adam, you really do hear people blaming teachers in general and criticizing teacher pay (often comparing it to jobs which don't require a college degree and aren't nearly as important to our society). And here in Nebraska, it seems like the first place we look for budget cuts is in education, when it should be the last place.

Should school districts have the right to terminate ineffective teachers. Of course! But how do you identify ineffective teachers? Test scores (which mostly depend on things outside a teacher's control)? A principal's personal opinion? Student evaluations?

It's not surprising that teachers unions worry about such things, and that they're more likely to side with a teacher in a dispute. At the same time, they want effective schools as much as anyone - and more than most.

The fact that teachers unions aren't always right doesn't make them always wrong. There is far, far more that goes into good schools than good teachers, but good teachers are still critical. And we're only going to get good teachers if we pay well. That's the bottom line.

Bringing up teachers unions is a red herring, nothing more. It's a way to shift the debate from the real issue to a scapegoat, teachers unions. For all their faults - and they have plenty of faults - teachers unions are not the big problem here.