Monthly Archives: May 2019

Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages

“We have examined and rejected a number of idiosyncratic explanations for rising costs in education…” Why Are The Prices So D*** High?, Helland/Tabarrok

Economics papers always make my head hurt, but because they’re focusing on my field, I’ve been following Alex Tabarrok’s posts on his upcoming book–well, maybe not following, but reading. I was pleased to see they didn’t find “bloat” in educator salaries, and grok the Baumol effect, but consider myself wholly unable to comment on their basic argument. (Except, you know, pensions?)

But a commenter, Slocum, caught my interest:

Another problem with the Baumol story is that, in education, costs are increasing dramatically even when salaries of workers providing education are low and stagnant. At this point nearly three quarters of faculty are non-tenure track. These positions are generally neither secure nor well paid. This is possible because supply of PhDs wanting teaching positions far outstrips demand. How does the Baumol explanation dovetail with a great oversupply of high-skilled workers relative to demand?

This reminded me of a question I wonder more researchers don’t wonder about.

Group A: PhDs wanting tenure track positions but settling for contracted adjunct jobs. Pay: low. Job security: horrible. Benefits: none.

Group B: public school teachers with tenure positions. Pay: a lot better than adjuncts. Job security: famed and resented throughout the land. Benefits: famed and resented throughout the land.

One would expect that Group B had the greater barrier to entry, except of course that’s why the job security and benefits are resented. High school teachers are the plebes of the cognitive elite, and elementary school teachers aren’t even granted that lowly status. Meanwhile, college adjunct professors spent at least seven years and god knows how much money earning a PhD, usually at a research institution.

In a world ordered by economists and education reformers, the PhDs who didn’t find college tenure would move down to secondary school and, thanks to their superior education and instructional training, displace the far less-educated high school teachers at high-paying suburban schools, where the principals would be delighted to hire them over mere BAs who often don’t even have a degree in the subject they teach. Those high school teachers found wanting by the suburbs would be forced into middle school or even Title I high schools–maybe even inner city schools.

All those PhDs would create a surplus in the K-12 teaching population, making it much easier for administrators to hire and fire, create more job insecurity among teachers. Oversupply of teachers would weaken unions ability to demand more pay, thus putting downward pressure on salaries.

Robbed of their desperate labor pool, post-secondary institutions would be forced to raise salaries, offer more tenured positions, favor international students over citizens, or automate instruction.  Ultimately, balance would be restored either by increased tenure opportunities for PhDs, better pay and conditions, or a near elimination of college adjuncts.

But the world is not so ordered. Only 1.3% of public school teachers have PhDs. Private schools have a slightly higher 2.3%

Why don’t these adjunct professors rebel against the crappy pay and insecurity and move down to high school level teaching?

Granted, they would still have to go back to school and get a credential–but they could get through the credential nonsense quickly, while working as a paid teacher. All that education will push them all the way to the right on the payscale, although this double MA holder advises you not to mention that education.  Better, really, would be to get the credential while going through the PhD program. I’ve often wondered why all those criticizing universities for overproducing doctorates don’t suggest something like this.

But ed school is a pretty minor barrier, really. Given the investment, why not get the security they were looking for? Instead, when they do leave, they tend to become administrators in the very universities that rejected them.

I have observed this oddness before, and answered my own question.   But if I don’t say this directly, some reader will annoy me by pointing out the obvious: yes, of course, the adjuncts see k-12 as unworthy and low status.  I don’t know how or if economists take status into account when they talk about rational actors. Accepting a low-paying, low security job when a little extra work would net them a much higher paying, low risk job certainly seems to be acting against self-interest, but maybe I’m missing something.

However, it’s also clear that principals don’t regard PhDs as inherently superior to regular garden-variety credentialed teachers. If they did, the few thousand dollars extra in salary wouldn’t deter them. But research consistently shows that hiring districts don’t have any hiring criteria that would advantage additional education. Paradoxically, private schools have more PhDs because they don’t pay more for education–and also because they don’t require credentials. Lower standards, not higher. Yeah, weird.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the solution to the K-12 teacher shortage is more failed PhDs. Even if principals were to prefer credentialed PhDs to credentialed BA/MAs, there’s no guarantee that the lower status teachers would settle for less desirable schools. It’s well known that universities produce far more elementary school teachers than needed; less well known that inner city and rural schools still go begging for teachers because many would-be teachers simply leave the field if the location or the kids aren’t what they had in mind. It might just send even more down the PhD path, this time with the express intent of teaching.

I argue instead that K-12 teaching is an entirely different animal, an art more than a skill with all sorts of non-cognitive abilities required, that demanding kids take demanding classes despite  little interest or ability in the subject matter is a terrible idea, and that teacher supply will continue to dwindle if policy makers refuse to acknowledge these fundamentals.

Anyway. Given the imbalance in these two fields, I’m just surprised more researchers haven’t explored it.

Look at that, 1000 words.

Note: Fantastic, detailed comment by JC , also by James Miller and Andrew Biggs.

 


Learning Styles

 

Isaac Asimov’s third robot story, “Reason“, has all the hallmarks of his early work: painful stereotypes, hackneyed dialog. Still, the conflict it explored has always hooked me.

Powell and Donovan, two troubleshooters who fix puzzling problems with experimental robots, are stuck on a remote sun-mining station training a new robot to capture energy from a planet’s nearby sun, run it through an energy converter, and direct it back to the planet. The robot, QT-1, or Cutie, decides that these humans are naturally inferior and must be early models that his superior frame and brain are designed to replace. His world was the station, his god was the Energy Converter, known as the Master, who wanted Cutie to direct beams to the dots. Powell and Donovan try to convince Cutie that the dots are planets, that he is a robot created by humans to do their bidding. Cutie thinks this is absurd and creates his own cult of believers, indoctrinating all the robots on the station with the will of the Master, with  Cutie as the Prophet. Powell and Donovan worry themselves sick with aggravation and fury.

The tale reaches a climax when Donovan spits on the Energy Converter. Cutie is horrified and angry at the sacrilege and refuses to let the two men into the Operations room. Powell and Donovan see a dangerous asteroid storm coming,  a catastrophic event that could cause the energy beam to misdirect and incinerate a third of the planet. Desperate to convince Cutie of his wrongthink, they hit on the idea of building a robot from the box, as it were. They uncrated a spare robot,  disassembled into parts, and spent three hours painstakingly putting the robot together. See? They created the robot! Just like they created Cutie!

Cutie shakes his head. Silly weak humans. Of course, they assembled the parts. But how did the parts get to the station? Only the Master could achieve that. So he turns away and ignores the two men, who stop sleeping and eating in sick anxiety over the incoming storm and the annihilation it will pour down on earth.

When, after the storm, they are finally released into the Operations room, Powell and Donovan rush in to assess the devastation. But no! Cutie protected all the humans on Earth perfectly and kept the energy supply constant. Or, as Cutie describes it,  Cutie “obeys the will of the Master” and keeps the beams directed to the right place on the dots.

Powell and Donovan realize they were worried for nothing. They just have to bring all the robots be indoctrinated in the Will of the Master as told by the Prophet (that is, trained by Cutie)  and the stations will be run beautifully. Cutie waves goodbye to them regretfully, knowing they are bound for “dissolution”, but encourages them to believe they are going to a better place.

Reasonquote

tl,dr: If learning styles make no difference in outcomes, who the hell cares what teachers believe?