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.


About educationrealist

31 responses to “Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages

  • Flatulent Points🇺🇸 (@FlatulentPoints)

    Interesting observations.
    Would appreciate your thoughts on teacher unions, vouchers, and the different academic and career achievement levels of the various races, despite receiving the same teach union educations.

    NYC is a, rather, an excellent controlled study.

    1.1 million students taught by teacher union employees, and monitored by Media for fairness.
    Yet, immigrant children entering the system speaking little to no English, outperform Blacks, year after year.
    Do teachers “under teach” Blacks? Of course not.

  • rodolfolasparri10001

    Tough love….too many students become “collegiate scholars”

    1/2 of high school students are ave to below ave IQ, but they’re pushed into college.


    1 – Classes and degrees that don’t require exceptional, or even very good, book smarts. Racism/Affirmative Actions also muddies college….I see a Black or Hispanic from a competitive college, my first thought?
    “Earn admission or box checker?” Second thought? “Pursing a real degree, or low mental horsepower field?”

    2- A shortage of professors, even in Grievance Studies… a field with a no unsubsidized demand in the real world, and zero benefit to society.

  • Andrew Biggs

    Having PhDs who fail to find an academic job take high school teaching spots likely makes sense both for students and for the teachers, at least financially. But (at from my experience in grad school) most people who pursue PhDs and seek academic positions don’t want to teach so much as to be researchers (or novelists, or general intellectuals, etc.). So working in a high school forces them to focus on the part of being a college professor that they’d probably enjoy the least.

    This leaves aside whether a research-oriented PhD would actually be a good high school teacher. As you note, the skill sets aren’t necessarily the same.

    • educationrealist

      Andrew, I completely agree with you and should have mentioned that. What I was focusing on, however, was the very common belief among ed reformers, many researchers, and politicians, that teachers should have *more* subject matter knowledge, like an MA in their subject area. The clear implication is that more subject matter knowledge creates a better teacher. Well, if it’s true for MAs, then why not for PhDs, who spend a great deal of their time getting their degree in teaching? I just would like to see more people wrestle with this idea and (hopefully) reach similar conclusions.

    • JC

      While most doctoral students enter their PhD programs wanting to do some degree of research, after spending 4-5 years in a PhD program many discover that they actually like–and are comparatively good at–teaching. Some may gain a great deal of relevant experience, especially those teaching in freshman writing/composition programs, which tend to actually value and teach pedagogical skills to instructors. It’s these PhDs who would, I think, be excellent high school teachers and could rationally choose to pursue secondary teaching as their comparative advantage compared to a research-oriented academic job if the stigma of choosing a teaching-oriented job was lowered. A few universities have developed “permanent lecturer” or teaching-track positions that take advantage of this skillset, but these are still relatively few in number and only rarely offer the same tenure protections as research professor positions (they also usually pay a lot less). Ironically, “alt-ac” jobs as university administrators or nonprofit workers are viewed more favorably and pushed a lot more strongly onto PhD students compared to public secondary ed.

  • James Miller

    I wonder if many tenured professors would be interested in spending a year teaching high school? You would never get professors hoping to move up to a higher status college to do this, but a lot of us expect to stay at the same college until we retire.

  • JC

    Some insight from someone with a PhD, high school teaching experience, and a temporary higher-ed gig:

    – The credential barrier is real. Permanent certification would have cost $30k and taken two years of time out of actually teaching/grading/preparing to get a credential that would have told the world what my secondary teaching evaluations already said: I could teach (not a superstar, but quite good, particularly for a first-year teacher). I know some districts have tuition support for ed school classes, but none in the area where I was offered that. Some PhD stipends and temporary gig salaries compare pretty favorably with the costs of ed classes + the low first-year teacher salaries (as part of recent “reforms,” having a subject-area master’s did not result in any extra salary for where I taught). The education “classes” themselves that I looked into were insultingly dumbed-down, politicized and full of make-work assignments. Most of the assignments for the courses involved tedious online posting and worksheets (ironically, the very kinds of things that the educrats running the state system were telling us we had to eliminate from our own classrooms!). After years of taking advanced-level courses, it’s a shock to see this decline and a signal that your peers in secondary education are very different than those in higher education.

    – The PhD is increasingly worth less in secondary teaching these days. The school districts with payscales that value credentials are cutting back because so many current teachers obtained said credentials through random online universities and night classes. The EdDs who demand everyone address them as “doctor” for writing a 60-page thesis are paid the same as a PhD with extensive subject-matter knowledge. Thus, a lot of districts have compressed their payscales now to value years of service more than extra classes/degrees and may, at most, award an extra $1k a year for a doctorate.

    – Getting to teach at a school where a PhD might use their advanced subject matter knowledge fruitfully is tough. The wealthy suburban districts that many PhDs would want to teach in are already uber-competitive in many subjects. I know multiple good social studies teachers who spent years working part-time and subbing before landing a full-time position in these districts. The urban districts that might also be attractive at least location-wise are often wildly unstable, with random wholesale layoffs and budget crunches as well as chaotic mid-year site movements. Plus in those districts with seniority rules, it’s expected that new teachers will get assigned to the worst schools in the district for a few years before building up seniority to move out. A PhD who might be a great AP teacher at an average school might not make it through 2 years in the worst schools in the city.

    All this said…yes, PhDs should consider high school teaching anyways as it is much better than adjuncting. And, in fact, high school teachers in some areas with sufficient seniority get paid comparably to low-level tenure track jobs and get a heck of a lot more location flexibility. So why don’t we see more choosing secondary education?

    – Taking a high school teaching job is admitting “failure,” as you put it in your post. It’s a sunk cost fallacy, but it’s a big psychological barrier regardless. And it’s not helped by the reaction of the PhD programs, who will “erase” you if you take a high school job; you’ll never be listed on their placement website, your mentors for the past 5-8+ years will consider their time spent advising you to have been wasted and cut off contact, and your peers who you leave behind will talk about you in a quiet whisper as if you died. There’s also a social stigma, especially if you’re male. You’ll see people praise teaching in the abstract, but then go right back to seeking doctors, lawyers, and professors in their dating pool.

    – There’s already an expectation in many academic disciplines that it will take 2-3 years of adjuncting or temporary gigs before you will be competitive for a tenure-track job. This leads to the constant temptation of “one more year” before giving up. Why not try the lottery of the tenure-track job market one more time before admitting defeat?

    – It would make a ton of sense to add a teaching credential component to a PhD program; it’s a smart hedge, especially in many humanities disciplines with few academic positions. But faculty would almost certainly fight tooth and nail to keep it from happening as they view their role in the world to be producing scholars, not teachers. Already, it’s considered near-blasphemy in many top PhD programs to say that you want to teach at a liberal arts college or a teaching-oriented regional college. Students who take up the credential option would likely be exiled from their home department–why should professors waste their energy on “unserious” students who dare want to teach?

    – The credentialing process and secondary teaching job-search process is utterly foreign to most PhDs. On the private school side, there are number of placement services for private schools who recruit PhDs and handhold them through the process. For public school jobs, you have to navigate the dizzying array of credentials designed around undergrad education majors, byzantine hiring processes, fly-by-night alternative certification programs, etc. that vary greatly from state to state and district to district. Enterprising school districts and states in need of good teachers might want to think about designing a clear process and recruitment/residential programs for PhDs, but that would probably meet with a backlash from unions and current teachers. I would personally love to know if there are programs out there right now that would take a PhD and let me work for a teaching credential–I’ve only seen a tiny handful of public schools (generally top STEM public magnets) that specifically offer that.

    • educationrealist

      JC. I’m going to flag your comment in my post because it’s so informative. Maybe I should do a primer on what it would take to go from PhD to teacher.

      1) Permanent cert should not take 2 years and 30K, at least not without a job during that time. Now, PhDs are likely to be education snobs, but every state has an alt cert program. Find a state with a teaching shortage and you can get a paid fulltime teacher job instead of a student teaching gig.

      2) As for education classes being silly–oh, well. It’s a pay to play job. I will tell you this–some of the stuff you think is insulting will seem a lot more pertinent in school. And some of it won’t, it will always be stupid. But that’s just a reason to pay the least amount of money and spend the least amount of time in school, not a reason to avoid teaching.

      3) Your “brethren” aren’t as different as you think. Remember, they’re the ones who can actually teach the at risk kids. And most of them think the classes are bullshit, too. Besides, I’m not sure that PhDs in the glass houses of Sociology, English Lit, and History have any business throwing stones.

      4) “The PhD is increasingly worth less in secondary teaching these days”–In some states, the money isn’t in the PhD bump, but in all the credits you took to get there. I began teaching in row 1, but the farthest (highest paying) column, which is 5-6K more money each year–plus the percentage bump. That said, they offer more than $1K.

      North Carolina–advanced degree + phd, $6K more than simple BA + credential. chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/

      West Virginia, the bump is $7000

      South Dakota and Oklahoma have horrifying salaries, I can only assume rent is less than $800/month.

      NYC, looks like there’s no percentage bump for a PhD, but MA + 30 is $15K higher than starting. That’s some serious change.

      5) “Getting to teach at a school where a PhD might use their advanced subject matter knowledge fruitfully is tough.”
      Yeah. That’s not going to happen, as a rule. And were I to suggest to a PhD that they consider teaching, I would not argue that they consider it an opportunity to teach what they know best. Unless, as you say later, there was a planned pipeline.

      Everything after “all that said”, I completely agree with.

      • JC

        1. To clarify, this would have been on top of teaching full-time over two years and during the summer. So a pretty big blow to income and time at the start of one’s newfound career. I think it’s that initial hump that’s tough to get over for those considering teaching (particularly for PhDs with teaching experience having to go back to being a student), especially since a lot of the compensation comes from far-off retirement benefits that may or may not still exist in 30 years. Reihan Salam has written a bit about the extensive backloading of teacher compensation and I think this could be an interesting area for policy innovation.

        3. Absolutely right, that was poor wording on my part. The top secondary teachers are truly outstanding and the average teacher is solid at their craft. Teachers are also generally much more fun to hang out with than academics.

        I think the off-putting way the ed classes were framed was similar to the way teachers were treated by the state/district: assume dumb unless proven otherwise. I went to one mandatory PD session where we were told by some district admin how bad we were at teaching and how none of us were going to get the highest score on our evaluations because it was so difficult with the state’s new higher standards (that was not the case). The evaluation process too seemed needlessly adversarial with the burden of proof on the teacher to show that you did each of the 110 things some education bureaucrat thought effective teachers should do in every lesson. This is very different from higher ed PD sessions where the Teaching and Learning Center staff seems pleased that you’re there in the first place and overjoyed if you ask them to come observe your class. Conversely, there’s also a stigma against teaching too well at some research-oriented institutions–a teaching award is considered proof that you didn’t spend enough time on your research.

        4. Maybe it was just the district where I taught, but I went back and confirmed that their salary schedule is simply based on years taught, nothing different or extra for degrees or hours. There is, however, a “merit pay” feature wherein a top-rated teacher can make an extra $750 a year compared to an average-rated teacher. What an incentive!

      • educationrealist

        I don’t know what state you’re talking about, but it’s pretty rare for teachers not to get paid more for education. It’s something ed reformers bitch about. So presumably you’re in a big reform state, and things will swing back.

        Maybe it’s just me, but I think I get paid pretty well (low 6 figures, although without working through prep I’d be in the mid 90s). I’m only 10 years in. Anyone entering at PhD level would be making about what I make. Now I live in an expensive state, but it’s still pretty good money.

        I think the real issue is that universities should, as you say, be encouraging their PhD candidates to have a backup–except if they were honest about the chances of a tenured research position, they’d have a lot fewer applicants.

      • Mark Roulo

        “I think the real issue is that universities should, as you say, be encouraging their PhD candidates to have a backup–except if they were honest about the chances of a tenured research position, they’d have a lot fewer applicants.”

        Amusingly, I think there is one area where the *sports* side of the colleges/universities is a lot more honest with the students. My son played baseball competitively (travel teams) through high school and went to a few “camps.” The camps tend to be run by college coaches who are (a) looking for players to recruit and (b) make some money during the off-season. The coaches are *VERY* clear that:
        1) Most high school students won’t get to play competitive college baseball, and
        2) Most college players won’t get drafted, and
        3) Most players who get drafted won’t get out of the minors.

        The message is very consistent and very clear: This probably isn’t going to work out as a career, so have a backup plan!!!!!

        I’d be delighted to hear that a similar message was coming from the academic folks in humanities PhD programs (especially programs at 2nd tier schools …). But I’m not holding my breath.

    • Mark Roulo

      “Taking a high school teaching job is admitting ‘failure,’ as you put it in your post. It’s a sunk cost fallacy …”

      I think your phrasing *under*states how bad it is for some/many PhD folks to leave academia. They haven’t just failed. They are *tainted*. Which the rest of your paragraph addresses, but I think the work *tainted* conveys some valuable emotional truth.

      A poorly paid adjunct with not benefits or job security is still “in academia” in a way that a high school teacher or someone who goes to work in industry isn’t. For some folks who have *only* “done school” since they were six years old and who have absorbed that all the valuable/important people are in academia, leaving is pretty tough.

  • jb

    You need to fix your first link, the one to “Why Are The Prices So D*** High?” A prefix got added to the link that makes it display random sites, including one that tried to trick me into installing software.

    For the benefit of readers of the comments, here is the correct link:

    Click to access helland-tabarrok_why-are-the-prices-so-damn-high_v1.pdf

  • educationrealist

    What are you talking about? I’m sorry, I’ve never seen any such thing. Every time I click on the link it works. I’ll fix it.

  • educationrealist

    Found it–and found the other posts with it in, and fixed it. That’s disturbing; I’ll have to see what horrible bug I’ve picked up.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I don’t know how or if economists take status into account when they talk about rational actors.

    The official position of most economists is that “value is subjective.” People want what people want and “there’s no arguing with taste” (de gustabis non est disputandum). Given a person’s preferences, it is possible to talk about the most rational way to achieve those preferences (“means rationality”) but it is not possible to talk about which preferences are rational (“ends rationality”). If some people live for status and some people don’t care, that’s just the glorious diversity of humanity.

    Of course, in practice, economists are not always so consistent. I once heard Ken Arrow, one of the most accomplished economists of the 20th century, argue that buying lottery tickets was irrational. (If you are trying to maximize investment returns, it is irrational, but people have a lot of other reasons to buy tickets).

  • Ryan

    You briefly mention that K-12 teaching is a different skill, but I think that understates the case.

    I’m not sure how universal my experience is, but the people who pursue hard-science postgrad degrees did not necessarily have a great highschool experience and will have absolutely no confidence trying to control a classroom.

    • educationrealist

      Again, I agree. That’s kind of my point. Think about all the ink wasted on “poorly qualified teachers”, with less understanding of the subject matter, while in Finland, by golly, they have to have a master’s degree in their field!

      But if they are entirely different areas, then all that talk is nonsense.

      So I think both things are true. First, that more pHds should have a teaching credential in their back pocket–we will need increasing numbers of teachers. And second, all the talk about getting “better qualified” (more educated) k-12 teachers is nonsense.

  • mrsgradgrind

    I am one of those failed Phds. I have also been a secondary teacher for almost five years now. I’d like to echo the previous comment about the emotional and psychological toll of admitting defeat and taking a job teaching in K-12. Leaving academia broke my heart and stripped away any confidence I’d ever had– which wasn’t much. Five years on, I haven’t really recovered. I’ve accepted my lot in life, but I can’t say that I’m happy.
    This is a particular problem for someone who works in education; we’re supposed to encourage students to dream big and believe in themselves, but my dreams died, such a painful death that I wish I’d never had them. I feel like the worst kind of hypocrite every time I tell a child that they can be anything they want to be. I believe that I will always be a fraud as a teacher because I don’t believe a fraction of what I say.
    Do not underestimate the pain of permanently losing your dreams and your identity as a thinker. It’s bitter enough to spoil the taste of even the most generous benefits.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Never, NEVER tell a child they can be anything they want to be. It is a lie. You are not helping them by setting up unrealistic expectations. Encourage them, but be realistic.

      We often don’t tell the whole truth in education. We don’t say, “Your child is lazy and doesn’t do shit.” We say, “Your child is struggling. He has difficulty with motivation.” I could live with that.

      But out and out lying, lying that makes you feel like “the worst kind of hypocrite”, is not right for you or your students. If you feel like you have to do it, re-evaluate your situation.

      You have lost one dream. Do not lose your self-respect.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I agree with Roger. It’s one thing to tell a kid to take risks. Quite another to tell them to follow their dreams no matter the cost. I spend a lot of time with kids talking about cost benefit analysis.

      I’m also very sorry you feel that way about yourself. As someone who never fit into academia, even had I wanted to, I consider teaching a great job with fantastic benefits before you even get to the money and time off. I hope you can shake off the totally undeserved sense of failure you have.

  • James Speaks

    Someone who is very good at mathematics, for example, is not necessarily good at teaching Algebra 1 to high school students unless this person has a great deal of insight as to why the students do not grasp the basics with the same ease as Mr. Ph. D.

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    […] Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages–May 31, 2019 Here I raise an issue that seems quite obvious, but isn’t. We have thousands, if not millions, of unemployed PhDs who will never get a tenured job and work as poorly paid adjuncts. Why don’t they become teachers? After all, everyone says we need smarter teachers, right? There’s a cognitive dissonance revealed in the fact that everyone understands that a poorly paid PhD is acting rationally in refusing to take a better-paid, more secure job with great benefits. ignore me, lazy way to space I thought I was done, but 2017 spoke up, really pissed off. Why nothing? I tried reassurance. It was nothing personal. I wrote some good shit that year. Besides, 2020 and 2021 aren’t represented either. But it would not be assuaged and as my mother isn’t doing well, and this is a not only an ode to American schools but also a lovely story about my mom, an extra… ignore me, lazy way to space […]

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