What Teachers are Worth

I enjoy reading both Jason Richwine, who I’ve defended before, and Andrew Biggs, who I follow on Twitter. But they don’t strike me as persuasive when discussing teacher salaries, which they do often, most recently No, Teachers Aren’t Underpaid , and also the first time they came to my attention, having written Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid (do you sense a trend?).

I made an extensive comment one time on Richwine’s blog that I’m still quite fond of, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Before I begin, let me point out for the umpteenth time that I like my salary just fine.

I differ with Richwine/Biggs as follows:

  • They keep going on about teacher GPAs and SAT scores as indicators without mentioning credential tests. They’ve been doing this for six (nay, seven!) years. Credential tests are kind of a thing of mine, as you may have noticed, so I’ll just refer you to my previous work. But it’s simply untrue that teacher standards are low, particularly in high school. Grades and SAT scores are irrelevant. Passing scores aren’t amenable to affirmative action.
  • They sugggest (sigh) differential pay for math teachers, special ed teachers, and “language teachers”. (Surely there’s no shortage of Spanish speakers nationwide?) Left unmentioned:  the thus far anemic evidence for other pay reforms, which are significant only occasionally, and only statistically.
  • They point out–actually, this is a Richwine thing–that teachers who leave the field usually end up with lower pay. But they never seem to mull what that means.
  • They point out that teachers get lucrative pensions and benefits. That’s the Biggs thing. They accuse the public and teachers of failing to understand the severity of the pension crisis. Naturally, if the public understood how bad things were, the public would instantly put itself on an austerity program, just as it’s done with the federal deficit. Oh. Wait.

At least they didn’t bring up the old chestnut, merit pay.

Like I said, I’m generally fans of both scholars. But the past two years have seen a complete earthquake in the education reform movement, so why is everyone still pushing the same old ideas that were roundly rejected?

Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study.

The first, sure. The second? If Christina Comerford left the chef’s life to be a secretary, a reasonable job for a woman with a few years of college and no degree, she’d take a big paycut. So is the  Executive Chef overpaid at a hundred grand a year?

But Ed, she’s a chef! An artist!

Sure. An artist who acquired skills outside any academic field of study.

Wages are not purely determined by field of study. Librarians require much more education than teachers for far less pay. College teaching adjuncts work like dogs for peanuts after graduating from a selective PhD program. And raise your hand if you think archaeologists would get higher pay if they had a union and a pay scale.

To quote myself twice:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience.

Segue to

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. …Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. On the other hand, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Don’t think of this as a plea for respect. I’m untroubled by their contempt. I just thought I’d explain why their arguments keep failing.

Besides, they mention wages are determined by supply and demand without mentioning that teachers supply’s kind of a problem at the moment, as most school districts are neverendingly short of teachers.

Despite what reformers constantly bewail as teaching’s low standards and excessive pay, all sorts of college graduates who, on paper, have “fields of study” that would allow them to teach, don’t teach. They’d rather work as, well, bus drivers. Or horribly paid college adjuncts. From 2009-2013, 45% of college graduates worked in non-college jobs, at the same time ed school enrollment plummeted.  Notice that those who pishtosh the shortage aren’t the folks trying to fill the jobs.

No blaming unions, either. West Virginia’s unions are basically social clubs. The teachers aren’t even allowed to strike.  (With teacher’s unions suing Trump over DACA and wasting my fees in various pointless efforts, I’ll cry less about Janus.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin got whomped and was forced to apologize for insulting teachers in yet another state with weak unions. Is it likely that Colorado’s school districts will fire striking teachers when  ed schools face declining enrollment and thousands of jobs  go unfilled each year?

I’m not gloating. I don’t know where this ends. I understand pensions are a problem. But federal policy and court decisions, to say nothing of political realities, have put tremendous pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps Biggs and Richwine should consider attacking teacher pay from the demand side for a while. Richwine, at least, should find that appealing.

Under 1000!

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About educationrealist


13 responses to “What Teachers are Worth

  • Roger Sweeny

    Re the under-supply of teachers:

    To attract a high school teacher, a higher salary is required than to attract an elementary school teacher. A higher salary is required to attract a physics teacher than a “physical education” teacher. But in most places, all teachers are paid the same, the only differences being the teacher’s years in the system and course taking-experience (e.g., Bachelors, Bachelors plus 15 credits, Masters, Masters plus 15 credits). I don’t know the figures but I’m fairly sure that there is under-supply for some teachers and over-supply for others.

    How much money is required to attract someone to a job depends partly on “working conditions.” The worse they are, the more money is required. Administrators who won’t co-operate in dealing with disruptive students or who put pressure on teachers to pass students who aren’t learning much raise the required wage and lead to shortages. Such behavior is far from uncommon. Give any teacher a few minutes and they will tell you lots of things that they feel make the job unpleasant and don’t contribute to education. Thus, often an unspoken bargain, “If you can handle this for 35 years, you can retire and get a very good pension.”

    Ed school is, of course, another year of school to be paid for and endured. Requiring it in order to get a teaching job raises the salary necessary to attract people to that job.

    The teacher shortage would be much diminished by differential pay for teachers, better working conditions, and the elimination of the ed school requirement. I don’t see any of those things happening.

    • educationrealist

      I promise this isn’t self-serving, but the two changes that are probably worth exploring are: 1) higher pay for high school teachers 2) combat pay for high risk schools.

      The first wouldn’t so much result in higher pay for all teachers, but lower pay for elementary teachers, thus saving money in pensions and salaries. The second would recognize the lower job desirability of working in these schools.

      But both have problems. I think we should be focusing on fewer teachers. Also unworkable, but more likely in the long run to solve the problems. End IDEA, end ESL, no more free ride for immigrants.

  • Andrew

    Most people outside education have NO IDEA how much money is poured into IDEA and ESL. Those $15-20K average per student expenditures would drop to $5-10K without the unlimited burdens of special ed & ESL. Additionally, many of the latter are illiterate in their home language, thus have NO skills to transfer to English language learning. Someone from say, Norway, would have comparatively little trouble mainstreaming into English curriculum. Our German exchange student passed ALL the graduation tests that her urban American peers took 8-12 attempts to pass, if ever. Including local government concepts covered on the Social Studies test.

  • educationrealist

    I’ve written about that extensively. Remember, too, that most ESL students are citizens.

  • Andrew Biggs

    I thought this was a good and thoughtful response. I’ll throw out a few counter-thoughts (also hopefully good).

    On salaries: It’s true that Ed students incoming SAT scores and GPAs are subject to selection problems. Not all Ed students will become teachers and not all teachers are Ed students. But that’s less true for people taking the GRE exams for a Masters in Education, and those are also below those of people getting Master’s degrees in other fields. If, as the Economic Policy Institute does, you do a wage regression controlling for years of formal education, you’re effectively assuming that a teacher with a Masters in Ed is underpaid if they don’t receive the same salary as private sector workers with Masters. That strikes me as problematic. Similarly, if you use AFQT scores from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (basically, an IQ test), people employed as teachers are okay, not idiots, but earn about what their AFQT scores would predict.

    Likewise, our numbers (and others) show that teachers leaving for private jobs earn about what they earned in teaching, maybe a little less. Likewise, people leaving the private sector for teaching jobs earn about the same. Sure, there are selection effects involved. But if you talk to anyone in the public sector (not just teaching), most are convinced they could earn more on the outside. But there really isn’t a ton of direct evidence for that. All in all, this tells me that teacher salaries on average are around where those teachers would earn in private sector jobs.

    Obviously that’s an average. We point out that there are shortages in certain teaching areas, and they’re kind of in the areas you’d expect, where prospects outside of teaching are higher. But if you look at Connecticut, which tracks applicants per teaching position by subject area, you simply don’t see shortages in the ‘run of the mill’ (however you want to call it) teaching areas. I’m working from memory, but in subject areas that make up roughly two-thirds of teacher positions, Connecticut is getting roughly 50 applicants per slot. Sure, a lot probably aren’t great applicants, but you only need one good one.

    On pensions: EdReal neglects this, probably because he’s not a pension person. But let’s say that you were offered a job with only an okayish salary, but the employer said they’d make a contribution to your 401(k) equal to 25% of your salary. And then maybe another 5% for retiree health care. That’s an insanely good deal compared to the private sector, where a typical employer 401(k) match is 3% of salary and retiree health coverage is pretty much non-existent. If you’re analyzing teacher compensation and you’re looking at retiree benefits like this, then any salary that’s remotely close to private sector levels will leave you with a total compensation premium for public school teachers.

    What we were looking at is the claim, made by people like the Economic Policy Institute and repeated pretty much verbatim in the press, that teachers are dramatically underpaid relative to comparable private sector jobs. I don’t think there’s the evidence for that, and I actually don’t think it’s even very close a question. If you want to pay more to get better teachers, that’s a different story. Maybe it will work, maybe not. But we tried to answer the question that people are considering.

    Thanks again for looking at our piece. Appreciated.

    • educationrealist

      Thanks so much for your response. I appreciate it.

      I don’t much trust the strike reporting. Edweek does a pretty good job. But as you might know, the public response to teacher pay isn’t usually determined by the press. So, for example, the media was almost universally against the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and were stunned by a poll showing majority public support for the teachers among Chicago residents.

      So you are saying that EPI is putting out “teachers are underpaid” copy and the media are obediently repeating it, and you and Jason Richwine were responding to their data? That makes sense. It seemed you were rebutting someone, but I couldn’t figure out who.

      I’m indifferent to what teachers “should” make, and “under” vs “over” paid are a bit irrelevant in my view. I understand the purpose of that data for government use. But teaching is the largest occupation, and there is no student queue. What I see happening at the moment is entirely independent of things like average SAT scores and similar occupations. I think you are probably overstating EPI’s impact on the debate.

      I think your case would be stronger if you broke down teacher populations into three categories: high school academic, high school non-academic, elementary school. There are so many more elementary school teachers, combined with sped and pe high school teachers (also much lower academics). High school teachers have considerably higher academic credentials and SAT scores. When people combine them, it really annoys high school teachers. And while there’s next to no support among high school teachers for paying some academic subjects more than others, I think high school teachers would be more likely to at least think about supporting a split in pay between high school and elementary school teachers, particularly high school academics teachers. I think the public would find that argument pretty compelling. In unified school districts, elementary school teachers outnumber high school teachers and all the votes go their way–another reason high school teachers might be open to splitting up their salary negotiations. Elementary school teachers will make a good case–they are dealing with far more severely disabled students on a daily basis in mainstream classes, which isn’t a big problem for high school teachers. And dealing with little children is a grueling task. But there’s at least a meaningful argument there.

      the other huge problem is high poverty schools. First, the “underqualified” teachers currently at these schools, the ones always pishtoshed about in these papers, are disproportionately black and Hispanic. So if schools added on $20K or so “hazard pay” to teach at high poverty schools, you’d have the same sort of problem that occurred in New Orleans and other cities–whites with high test scores replacing black teachers. Terrible optics.

      I don’t neglect pensions. Like you, they worry me. But teacher pensions are small potatoes compared to cop, firefighter, and prison guard pensions, so how come y’all are always picking on us? We work longer than the others,don’t go on disability, and can’t spike our pay with overtime like all other government employees can.

      As for pensions being a part of pay, have you read Chad Aldeman? He goes on and on about the poor teachers who never qualify for pensions as states continually yank back the vesting period. Chad wants to take pensions away from long-term teachers and spread them out more evenly among all teachers in defined contribution. Yeah, good luck with that. But my point is, telling teachers they’re getting plenty of pay in pension isn’t going to work, because many teachers feel they won’t be able to hang on long enough to get the pensions. At the same time, states are (reasonably) yanking more money from teachers to pay for those pensions.

      So yeah, pensions are a problem. But teachers will never agree to go to defined contribution.

      I have some other comments on shortages, but will post this one first.

    • educationrealist

      I swore I wouldn’t respond to specifics on qualifications, but just wanted to respond to this: “But that’s less true for people taking the GRE exams for a Masters in Education….But that’s less true for people taking the GRE exams for a Masters in Education”

      People taking GRE exams for an MEd are either teachers getting a credential via a Master’s program (raises hand) or teachers going back to school. If the latter, they are either going back for more money, or they are required to get an MEd (in a few states) OR they are getting an administrators credential. I’m assuming your leaving out the last group, because administration selection involves affirmative action and no subject matter knowledge. So elementary school teachers or PE teachers can become administrators. But at the same time, adminstrators make *lots* more money. So using GRE scores for all MEd would be pointless. YOu’d have to look only at MEds for people entering teaching and getting a Master’s & credential at the same time. Otherwise it’s administration or a pro-forma MA just to get more money–something that universities are designed to give easily, since everyone knows it’s a game.

      Again, using university grades instead of the SATs of people passing credential tests is simply giving a skewed look at teachers. And there’s a HUGE amount of data on credential tests, as the Praxis issues reports most years, and states like California discuss their pass rates and occasionally SAT scores as well.

      But my larger issue is this: you keep looking at teachers compared to similarly educated people and declare they are getting more–thus they are overpaid. But in that case, given supply and demand, why aren’t those similarly educated people getting into teaching for the money? Why are we having a teacher shortage? And it’s not just math, science, and special education. (Connecticut’s shortage is dire, and elementary school teachers are twelfth on the shortage list, in front of both history and English high school teachers.)

      Why is ed school enrollment declining, if the grades are easy, the job pays tremendously well, and moving to teaching gets more money? Why didn’t West Virginia districts shrug and fire all the teachers, secure in the knowledge that thousands were waiting for these terrific jobs and low standards?

      That’s why it seems obvious that teachers aren’t overpaid. There’s something about teaching that keeps a lot of people away from it, something that makes it quite difficult to deal with shortages. And remember, unlike other government job shortages, teacher shortages must be filled. Schools can’t say “sorry, we’re full up and can’t get any more teachers without increasing salary past the point we can’t afford, so send your kids to private school.”

      There is, as I said, something beyond education that is required in teaching, something that prevents lower paid people with the same *academic* credentials from taking on the job to get more money. Why college adjuncts and programmers displaced by H1B workers aren’t lining up for these cushy jobs.

      That’s my larger point, that all this focus on education and selectivity and getting “better” (ie, education credentials you approve of) is irrelevant. Teachers can strike because there’s no one standing in line to take the jobs–no scabs. That makes any claim of “overpaid” moot. You can’t claim states are overpaying if they can’t get enough teachers.

      Which is why you shouldn’t talk about targeting some teachers for better pay to end the shortage, but rather talk about reducing demand.

  • Andrew Biggs

    I’m not sure we fixate on teachers. Neither of us have written on the issue in some time. But it’s obviously a prominent issue right now and a lot of claims are being unquestioningly circulated that just aren’t true. For instance, see this CNN story which treats the Economic Policy Institutes (poor) teacher pay analysis as if it’s simply fact: https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/27/health/teachers-salaries-comparison-trnd/index.html NPR and others have done the same thing; when I told the NPR reporter that EPI’s teacher pay numbers shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value, he told me he didn’t want to discuss that and was planing on leading with them. But they’re crap.

    To provide a few details on teacher shortages in Connecticut (simply chosen because it provides better detail than most other states). You’re correct that elementary school teachers ranked 12th on CT’s list of teacher shortages. Connecticut has somewhere around 27,000 elementary school teachers. Of that, there were 1,065 openings in 2014-2015 (not by itself a sign of excessive turnover, since you lose some to retirements each year). For each opening, schools received median of 112 applicants, whose quality was ranked 4 on a 5-scale. Given that each open position needs only one quality teacher to fill it, it’s tough to portray this situation as a real problem.

    For middle and high school teachers it’s not as dramatic, but I think the situation is more or less as we described. Say, for grades 7-12 English and history teachers, there are roughly 50 applicants per position. For positions where you’d intuitively think teachers would have more job options — languages, technology, math, science — there are fewer applicants per opening.

    But look what’s happened in Arizona, where in response to teacher protects Gov Ducey has promised a 20% pay increase. That’s going to increase pay (and pensions) for teachers where you don’t really need to do so. Is a 20% increase enough to fill the positions where there are legitimate shortages? We don’t know. But granting an across-the-board increase provides no incentive for people who would have specialized in, say, elementary education to instead specialize in an area where there are shortages.

    Re Chad Aldeman’s pension analysis, he’s a good guy but the analysis is incorrect. It assumes that teachers, were they not contributing to their teacher pension, could instead invest their contributions and receive a guaranteed return equal to whatever their pension system assumes (7-8%, usually). But that’s not right. If you look at what teachers could earn from investments with similar risk to their teacher pensions, teachers break even from the moment they vest (and their losses prior to vesting are small). Here’s a paper I presented last month on this topic: https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR1234.html

    I get your point on GREs, though I wouldn’t take it as far as you do. But AFQT scores tell a similar story. So we don’t fixate on SAT scores or GPAs. We’ve got an obvious problem with standard analysis that equates quantity of education with quality of education. We look at a variety of methods to get around that problem, including GRE/AFQT scores, job switching, BLS’s work level analysis and so forth. Maybe no single method is flawless, though I’d say there all less flawed than the types of wage comparisons that you often read in the media. But they tell a very consistent story with each other, which is that teacher salaries are about equal with what those teachers would earn in private sector jobs, not 20% less as some people claim.

    • educationrealist

      I responded to Andrew’s comment in email, and realized it was basically postable:

      1) ” Of that, there were 1,065 openings in 2014-2015 (not by itself a sign of excessive turnover, since you lose some to retirements each year). For each opening, schools received median of 112 applicants, whose quality was ranked 4 on a 5-scale. ”

      Teachers apply for huge numbers of jobs. Each principal selects their top 5. So if there were 100 job openings, and 112 teachers applied for all those job openings, you’d have 112 job applications for all those jobs but a surplus of only 12. And a lot of those 12 are also applying in other districts, making another pool. It’s not as if there are 112 teachers uniquely applying for each job.

      (added, not in email): It could be that the research takes that into account, but I’m skeptical. Teacher hiring is a weird thing.

      See my next point.

      2) ” That’s going to increase pay (and pensions) for teachers where you don’t really need to do so. Is a 20% increase enough to fill the positions where there are legitimate shortages?”

      See, the “don’t really need to do so” is confusing. Clearly, the teachers are striking. Clearly, they want more money. Clearly, they don’t feel their jobs are at risk. And it’s not about tenure or unions. These are all states with weak unions and weak job protections. If there were teachers spread all over the ground waiting for more jobs, then it’s hard to believe this wouldn’t go very differently.

      Looking at principals’ and districts hiring and firing behavior, as well as the states response to these demands, makes it pretty clear that they have “legitimate” job shortages in all the areas, not just the ones you observe. I am quite sure there are elementary teacher shortages. I was talking to a charter teacher the other day, in a decent suburban charter (not just at risk kids) and she said the entire fifth grade teacher team was quitting at the end of the year. Two were leaving teaching, one was going to get better pay at a public school. Charters face *huge* shortages every year, of course, because they have tougher conditions. At the same time, charters are soaking up teachers, exacerbating the shortage.

      3) I completely agree that the media covers this situation badly. They always do. For good education coverage, I go to edweek and edsource. But conservatives in general (not you) also do a dreadful job. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so appalling, how many times you see Charles Krauthammer and others talk about how black city riots are caused by bad schools and that charters would fix everything.

      4) I was guilty of saying “you” when I meant the debate. that is, you read lots and lots of conservatives, libertarians, and neoliberals worry about teacher pensions, and occasionally worries about “government worker pensions” but no one ever gets specific about cops (incredibly expensive) or other government workers who can spike pensions. It’s all about teachers.

      So my larger point is this: Teachers have tremendous job perks–more job security, better pensions, good vacations–but it’s a tough job that is hard to fill in an era when the federal government is placing increasing demands and expectations on public education.The perks just stop the salaries from rising *faster*. But it’s not about what teachers “should” get. I’m saying that it makes as much sense to talk about under or over paying teachers as it does to talk about under or over paying actors. You disagree, I know. I’m just pointing out that events and behavior tend to support my view rather than *either* the under or over paid story.

      • rob

        Libertarians aren’t against teacher’s pensions. This is a far-left lie.

        They’re against government-regulated phony unions–whether privileged or suppressed by law– and coerced taxation. They think public or more correctly common schools are better served with independent endowments as they used to have before the far-left seized them, and open unions. They’re very big on IRA’s and strong pensions for all. Double teacher salaries? So long as voluntary, hell yeah.

        They like removing regulations that hinder choice e.g. parent led public schools, private schools, home schools, degrees by thesis and exam that are cheap or free via an endowment, life-long e-learning all involved and in many countries still involve regulatory fights led by libertarian coalitions.

        Most of today’s educational innovations were championed by Libertarians but misused by the far-right and far-left. Educators need to educate themselves on the Libertarian revolution happening around them. Pay attention.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, libertarians are mostly nuts.

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