Tag Archives: teacher pay

The Shibboleths of Tenure Haters

Checker Finn gives the “ending teacher tenure” argument the old college try:

Tenure arrived in K–12 education as a trickle-down from higher ed. Will the demise of tenure follow a similar sequence? Let us earnestly pray for it—for tenure’s negatives today outweigh its positives—but let us not count on it.

Yeah, let’s not.

I wish all these tenure-haters would at least acknowledge that teachers can be easily dismissed in some circumstances. Teachers are fired for crossing clear, bright lines is done every day. Having sex with students? Gone.  Proven violence against students? Buh-bye.

Even fuzzy lines lead to firing if the circumstances allow it. Have a past or a present that’s simply….distracting? Easy.  Have an unpopular opinion? Game over. 

Firing teachers simply because the boss just doesn’t think they’re very good? Book some time, start a file, document madly, hit every deadline, give them a lousy schedule and hope they get the hint and leave.

We teachers don’t really have free speech or a right to privacy in any meaningful way, if the students know about it. But we also don’t have any agreement on what makes a bad teacher, which turns out to be our secret weapon. It’s much easier to fire an exemplary teacher who strips (or, gulp, blogs) in private than it is to fire a mediocre one whose students are bored. A new principal who really wants to ‘clean house’ and bring in a bunch of bright shiny new cheap teachers to do her bidding is doomed to disappointment.

You’d think by now that any article pushing to “fire bad teachers” would start by making that distinction, but here I’m the one likely to be disappointed.

Checker’s a bright guy, capable of thoughtful discussion. But here he brings up a goofy red herring, arguing public school teachers don’t deserve the same protections that university professors do.

I’m not convinced by the analogy. K-12 tenure is “trickle down” from university tenure? Eh, maybe. While many journalists give Massachusetts credit for instituting teacher tenure in 1886,  the text of the law doesn’t suggest any such thing. More accurately, I think, New Jersey first passed teacher protection laws in 1910. By 1930, tenure had come to most states, and by the 1950s, some 80% of teachers had tenure.  The push for women’s suffrage, the ridiculous controls schools boards put on teachers’ private lives, nepotism, and a desire for good governance were all involved in granting K-12 tenure (Dana Goldstein agrees, a tad repetitively.)

Ultimately,  university tenure became much more about lifelong employment and academic freedom–similar to judicial appointments. Teacher tenure, on the other hand, began as and remains an offering of job security, more akin to my favorite parallel for the teaching profession: police. So the four or five paragraphs Checker devotes to arguing that K-12 teachers don’t really need academic freedom is pointless.

I agree, we don’t need academic freedom. Which is good, because we don’t have it and have never had it. That’s why I’m anonymous.

Checker asks:

How valuable is job security to the employee….Would you rather earn $50,000 a year in a job that you know will continue indefinitely and does not depend on performance, or $75,000 in a job that is assured only for a several-year term and where renewal of the position hinges on your performance in it?

But Checker’s own organization surveys teachers on this very issue every year. Did he forget? Why not cite his own data? Probably because it shoots his case down cold. Teachers are quite consistent: less than 1 in 5 wants merit pay.   3 in 5 teachers in EdNext’s survey think tenure’s a good idea.

Checker again:

It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.

This, too, is a curious argument to make. First,  given the fact that neither private nor charter schools have managed to post extraordinary gains over publics, Checker’s claim that tenure is better for students is a bit shaky. At best, all the selection bias and skimming has gotten Checker’s preferred options are a few fractions of a standard deviation, if that.

As for flexibility working better for school leaders–well, immediately before Checker’s article is this piece by Kirsten Schmitz: Why do Private School Teachers Have Such High Turnover Rates? Bad timing, that. Charter turnover is so high we have a term for it.

So Checker’s got some chutzpah in asserting that privates and charters get a big win out of flexibility.

(Notice whose standpoint isn’t mentioned, of course, when discussing hiring flexibility. Notice, too, that Checker argued for decreasing job security as a tradeoff for improving teacher pay but neglects to mention that private schools pay far less than public schools.)

A while back, Paul Bruno argued that teacher tenure is a perk, since the reality is that our chances of being fired are quite low. Bruno’s logic here has never, to my knowledge, been engaged and it’s inescapable:

One of the central tensions for reformers when it comes to improving teacher quality is that on the one hand they believe teachers are fighting desperately for excessive job security but also, on the other hand, that you can substantially reduce that job security without making teaching significantly less attractive.

In theory this is not impossible. Making it work, however, requires admitting that job security is a benefit for teachers and that taking it away will – all else equal – make being a teacher less appealing.

Bruno believes (or believed, he hasn’t been writing for a while) that teacher valuation of tenure is overrated, since we’re not really at risk of being fired, anyway.  I agree we’re not at risk of being fired, and tenure vs untenured doesn’t seem related. Compare terminations per district (per teachers per district) in tenured or non-tenured states. My rough take is that terminations has as much to do with size of the district as it does tenure policy (the smaller the average district size, the more firings, particularly in rural areas or charter districts).

But  freedom from random firing because a new boss has a new agenda is of considerable value–Paul cites 10% of salary, I’d guess more. Moreover, bosses get extremely tempted to cut payroll by canning older employees. Freedom from that fear is worth a few ducats, too.

Meanwhile, as Checker advocates for easier teacher dismissals, Idaho and South Dakotas legislatures’ attempt to end tenure was  rejected by voters.  In CaliforniaMinnesota, and North Carolina , the courts did the rejecting. Kansas, which did successfully end tenure, is now working to enact legislation to bring it back. Wisconsin’s rollback of tenure and union protections may have led to the state’s teacher shortage, but it’s definitely increased district hopping as teachers negotiate better salaries–not, perhaps, the ideal outcome for anyone but those teachers. Yet Checker acts as if schools are groaning under the weight of unwelcome pension-pathers.

Supply’s the problem, Checker. Firing teachers, ending tenure, pay for performance–those are the choices available in a teacher glut. No one has really pinned down the nature of the current teacher shortage–I wasn’t terribly impressed with this recent study, although I quite like Goldhaber usually–but  state behavior of late is pretty consistently taking actions to increase supply. New York’s much derided decision to end the literacy credential test, Illinois similar decision to reduce the testing requirements for  teacher credentials, large California districts aggressively recruiting senior teachers from smaller districts with moving bonuses and removing the work years cap for salary calculation(a big disincentive for switching districts)–that’s just a small sample. Most states are making decisions that suggest they’re worried about getting and keeping teachers.

Checker knows better. But his audience–and his funders–don’t. So he keeps spinning the same old line.

Random but not unrelated: My administrator just emailed me my review, with an  “outstanding” rating,  I am convinced administrators meet up and decide which handful of teachers are going to get singled out for top marks while the rest (usually including me) get lumped into “satisfactory”.  Administrators, like bosses everywhere, are restricted on how many top marks they can give out. Most teachers I know realize the box checked isn’t as important as the review text–is it anemic, or strong? Complimentary or critical? The box, eh.  But if you think I shrugged off this rating, ask yourself why I mentioned it.

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Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, he attended the local community college, where he also had a 4.0 GPA. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit with my sister, who balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them who aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense is worth it. I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.

So I educated my sister and niece on the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. I took my nephew on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system, including a stop by the transfer admissions office, where he learned he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier. His text to me was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country.

The cool thing about this story, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

Ysenia had a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes, at the request of his special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.

Profiting from Master’s Degrees, or Not

In Who Profits From the Master’s Degree Pay Bump For Teachers?, Matthew Chingos never actually answers the title question, except he’s pretty clear that most teachers don’t.

Chingos is shocked that teachers are actually losing money, taking on something like $50K in debt just to pay bump tat comes with an MA. Naturally, if the teachers stay in the profession a long time, they make back the money, but Chingos has lately been very worried about the teachers who leave the profession, and wants them to know that a master’s degree won’t pay off.

Okay, so this entire research line is nonsense. Half of all teachers are not taking on massive debt at their local universities to get a relatively small bump in salary with a master’s degree in education.

But I thought it’d be interesting to discuss, for two reasons. First, because if you know anything about this issue, it’s pretty instantly clear that the logic and assumptions are absurd, and not to be engaged with seriously. Chingos has no real desire to alert teachers to a risky debt. He’s in favor of merit pay and other strategies that would lead to most teachers taking a pay cut. This whole argument line is just a branch in the reformer effort to end the compressed, one-size-fits-all pay scale that teachers have in favor of differential (or merit) pay. Merit pay consistently fails to win takers, so presumably the new front involves finding short-term teachers who argue that they had to leave the profession because they couldn’t afford the cost of a master’s to get a salary increase. None of these sidebars are the real issue.

Besides, demonstrating the massive holes in Chingos’s thinking requires an explanation of teacher entry points that some might find useful, even though the information is not complete. In fact, I gave up on this piece several times until I decided it still had some value in its open-ended state.

I don’t really dispute Chingos’s underlying point—that additional education doesn’t improve teacher quality. Chingos only cares about test scores, I’d go farther: I doubt additional education improves teacher quality on any spectrum.

That said, the first of many things Chingos seems utterly unaware of is that some states require a master’s degree for a permanent credential. New York requires teachers to acquire a master’s in the first three years of their professional experience; I keep that Massachussetts has the same requirement, but don’t see it stated on the website. Ohio recently discontinued the requirement.

In fact, Chingos seems to ignore entry path to teaching entirely, as well as the state mandates, at every point. He must know that many teachers began their career with master’s degrees—or at least additional education beyond the bachelor’s—but he seems not to consider it relevant.

Typical entry points—there may be a few more, but the details would probably push them into one of these categories.

  1. Education Majors: 4 year degree in education includes a teaching credential.
  2. Teaching credential without masters: 4 year degree in something else, stayed a fifth year or later entered a credential program.
  3. Teaching credential with masters: 4 year (and possibly graduate) degree in something else, entered a graduate program that provides a masters along with the credential. (I took this route).
  4. Alternate I—the TFA kind, aka an internship program that allows them to take a job before they’ve finished the credential.
  5. Alternate II—The Call Me Mister kind, focusing on low ability candidates who can’t easily pass the credential tests. (I wrote about the struggles of black and Hispanic candidates and the 1998 HEA.)

As I’ve been saying forever, not all teachers have education degrees, and not all education BAs become teachers. I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.

But a substantial number of teachers get credentialed in a graduate program that does not result in a master’s.

How many? I couldn’t find out.

I couldn’t determine how many elementary teachers took the option 2 route after degreeing in some other subject. My best guess says that not all elementary teachers are ed majors, that some non-trivial percent, maybe hovering around a quarter, maybe less, majored in something else and then signed up for a fifth year of ed school.

A far larger number of secondary teachers take option 2, and get credentialed without the master’s, is my guess. How many? Not sure.

I wish I knew if this data existed somewhere. Title II reports only break down by traditional vs. alternate. Some numbers are a bit hard to believe, like this National Education Information Survey: In 2011, about two out of three (65 percent) teachers surveyed had entered the profession through a traditional college-campus-based undergraduate teacher education program and an additional 18 percent had prepared to teach through a traditional graduate teacher education program.

Sixty five percent of teachers have ed majors? Really? I’m wondering if the survey is conflating non-master’s graduate programs with undergraduate programs (options 1 and 2). I’m prepared to believe that only 18% of teachers start off with masters’ in education, but two thirds of all teachers have education degrees? Deeply skeptical. But I could be wrong.

Does this matter to Chingos’s point? Well, he’s aghast that half of teachers have invested in master’s degrees, so you’d think it’d be relevant that a number of them started with MAs, or substantial post-graduation credits.

Then Chingos goes through a bit of a bait and switch. His data source makes no distinction between type of master’s degrees, and at the start of the piece, Chingos doesn’t either: The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research. No mention of degree type.

Then, about halfway through, he makes it clear he’s thinking of MA Ed (all emphasis mine):

I address this question by merging salary schedule information from the NCTQ database with data on the tuition cost of an education MA degree at colleges and universities located near each school district
For teachers who plan to spend “only” 10 years in the classroom, earning an MA in education is likely a waste of money and effort.

And then, in the comments Chingos says:

If subject-specific MA degrees have benefits in the high school grades, it would not show up in this research. This suggests that we need more systematic research on teaching in the high school grades, and that a more sensible policy regarding MA degrees might be to reward subject-specific degrees (for teachers working in the relevant subjects) but not general education ones.

Clearly, Chingos assumes that all teachers are just going back to school to get a master’s degree in education for the pay bump. But in fact, not only do many teachers have to go back to get that master’s, but also Chingos has no idea how many teachers are getting MA Eds. One huge overlooked area: many teachers go back to school to pursue an administrator’s credential, where the payoff is considerably larger and has nothing to do with the master’s bump.

These may all seem like just quibbles. So who cares whether Chingos has any understanding of teaching entry points, or how teachers get paid for education? He’s trying to warn teachers off of getting a master’s that isn’t cost justified based on the pay bump.

But Chingos doesn’t seem to completely understand the pay bump, either. For teachers who started an MA their first year in the profession, Chingos assumes it takes 4 years and that the payoff is “the MA salary bump, which begins in the teacher’s fifth year and continues as long as he stays in the district.”

However, in many districts, teachers move across columns by acquiring credits, no matter where they lead, and then get a separate stipend for a master’s degree, PhD, or board certification.

Some examples: LA Unified (which flips steps and columns) pays on both education acquired and then adds a bonus for master’s and doctorates. A South Carolina district gives a boost for 30 BA credits, then it looks like a master’s is needed to get more pay. Then, once master’s is acquired, the teacher can keep acquiring more credits. Montgomery County in Virginia is made of sterner stuff, granting pay bumps only if program leads to a master’s—but it doesn’t have to be a teaching or career related one, so MoCo teachers, go get that MBA. DC schools provide an either/or option.

Generally, teachers are going to see pay benefits from the additional coursework long before they get the master’s. In many districts, a teacher could never bother with any education classes and just take interesting technology seminars that never lead to an advanced degree and still see the same salary boosts as someone working directly towards a master’s.

So once we weed out the states that require the teachers to get a master’s degree in order to keep their credential, and eliminate some non-trivial amount of teachers start with a master’s, and remember still others aren’t going to have to invest in the full cost of a master’s because they only need a few credits, who exactly are we talking about that might jump in for a full-fledged master’s degree purely to get a big salary hike? Elementary school teachers, that’s who.

Even in assessing just those teachers getting a master’s for the boost—and I absolutely grant the behavior exists—Chingos appears to be overestimating the expense. Not that we can tell for sure, because he doesn’t provide his data or the average cost per master’s per region. But Chingos assumes they are all going to their local college, and he seems to be saying that the average debt is $35K.

Naturally, Chingos is terribly worried that elementary school teachers are sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a master’s degree, and while the obvious solution is to dump the bump, in the meantime the states “should instead encourage the creation of low-cost MA programs.”

Yeah. Because without Chingos to point this out, no businesses ever would have looked at the teacher market and figured out that a doling out low-impact master’s degrees to people looking for a pay bump was a good market.

The most popular teaching universities are almost all online and often for-profit; the University of Phoenix costs 10K/year. National University comes in at around $16K, assuming the teacher applies professional development time towards the credits.

Ironic, given Chingos does research in online education, that he’d completely ignore the online diploma generators lowering the cost of getting a salary bump.

I don’t know what number Chingos came up with, nor do I know how much teachers are actually paying for a master’s. But unlike Chingos, I don’t think teachers are morons, and I do know they make cost benefit analyses when deciding how much teaching education to pay for. I used to wonder why so many teachers who didn’t major in education would take option 2, above (credential only) rather than get the master’s, as I did (option 3). After asking around I realized that the year-long master’s program at a fixed cost is largely restricted to the elite ed school programs. Most universities offer both the credential and a master’s, and the latter takes longer and costs more. The credential-only route is the cheapest way for most non-education majors to become teachers.

By the way, a great deal of these loans are forgiven. My master’s degree cost a bundle, but around $35K or so was wiped away, or will be (one more year for some of it).

One last thing Chingos ignores, although this is much more in the Paul Bruno bailiwick: having lots of education makes it harder to get jobs, particularly as a second career teacher. You’re old and expensive. Adding education also adds to the already considerable disincentive for teachers to leave districts: senior teachers always lose steps (most schools give 5 or 10 years at most) and unless schools are specifically looking for a veteran (usually because of outreach), they aren’t interested in paying an experienced teacher when they can get new ones for cheap. Every class a teacher takes increases district ties, making it less likely that the teacher will leave. As Paul Bruno is fond of pointing out, reformers and others who opine on education without understanding it are prone to confusing policy with job perks.

And so Chingos’s original research paper, the one he did with Peterson, is irrelevant, because districts aren’t under the illusion they are paying for quality. District officials almost certainly consider the education bump a means of keeping staff because, as I’ve written many times, keeping staff is a much bigger concern than firing staff.

Chingos’s ostensible concern is for the teachers going into debt to get more money that won’t pay off. He’s almost certainly wrong on that, as I’ve observed. His secondary concern is these silly districts that don’t understand they’re paying for quality they don’t get but that, too, is a misunderstanding of what districts are actually paying for.

In the main, I’m not bothered by the possibility–indeed, the likelihood—that the education bumps are nothing more than pay to play.

But only provided I don’t think about it for too long.

When I do think about it for too long, say the time it took me to write this, I am bothered by the possibility that many teachers go through the motions to get a master’s degree just to get a pay bump, for much the same reason that Jay Mathews Challenge Index offends me. States pay test fees to the College Board for tests that the kids will fail all so that the schools will have a higher ranking and, hopefully, improved property values. Teachers take out (small) loans to pay to a university for a no-brainer master’s so that the state will pay them more money. I’m all for free enterprise, but both the universities providing easy master’s degrees and the College Board are raking in dough that they really didn’t do much to earn through their business acumen or excellence. They’re just the purveyor of the credential that isn’t even a proxy.

So if there is, as I suspect, a good chunk of teachers forking out money to somewhat undeserving businesses to get largely meaningless credentials just for a raise, I think that’s a Bad Thing. I think it’s worth having a discussion about eliminating columns. However, like Chesterton’s Fence, eliminating an activity without knowing why it started often leads to difficulties. Paul Peterson says that rewarding teachers for education credits came about as a compromise to convince high school teachers to accept a compressed pay scale that put them on the same footing as elementary school teachers. If in fact most high school teachers start out two or three columns ahead of K-6 teachers, then eliminating columns leads to lower pay for high school teachers. Not a good plan.

Ah, say some, but that would lead us to another compromise. If we can’t have merit pay, surely we should at least pay teachers based on the relative demand of their skills. Pay high school teachers more than elementary teachers, and then within high school teachers, pay math and science teachers best because that way we can upgrade the profession, get more skilled people.

Okay, so focus hard: MATH AND SCIENCE TEACHERS ARE SMART ENOUGH. And the field pays well enough for people who want to be math and science teachers, particularly those who are happy to teach kids who will struggle to remember what a negative slope looks like.

Discussion at hand: what to do with the “column” money if the education columns are eliminated? In answering the question, accept that the outcome will only reallocate the money saved to a teaching population that looks just like the current one.

That’s an interesting question, but one that I suspect opens large cans of squiggly worms and when we all look inside, we’ll say hell, just let University of Phoenix et al get some undeserved profits.

Besides, that’s not a discussion that Chingos and other reformers want to have, because despite being the ones to raise the point, they aren’t interested in fixing the problem, but in forcing a solution.

Okay, I’ve been working on this long enough. Punting and posting.

Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

I’m going to start by observing that I’m not convinced that teachers’ use of sick leave is a problem. This Clotfelter et. al study observes that teachers’ absentee rate in and of itself is nothing to be fussed about:

Although absence rates in teaching tend to be higher than ostensibly comparable figures for other similar occupations and sectors, however, they are not wildly out of line. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the opportunity to take the occasional day off that makes a teaching career attractive to many people with children. Except for schools and districts with persistently high rates of absence, then, the rate of teacher absences itself should probably not be a cause for great concern.

On the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are going to get louder in the days to come.

My own use of sick time is next to non-existent. I have used 2.something days in 4 years. My first year, I had a recurring and dangerous infection that simply wouldn’t go away. Moreover, each recurrence required use of some really severe antibiotics that made me so sick that one morning I literally walked/ran out of class to throw up in the huge garbage can parked conveniently outside my door (not there, I hasten to add, for that purpose). I walked back in, a student gave me a fresh bottle of water (the school didn’t have drinking fountains), and I finished the day without incident. I took a partial day when the infection first showed up, and one full day when the infection returned overnight; in both cases I had to go to the doctor and then wait for the meds to take effect.

My second year, I took no sick days, but was forced to use a sub for six days of required professional development. Had I not been completely inept at using the automated absentee system, I would have been gone for eight days, but in two instances I screwed up and no sub was available at the last minute, so I skipped PD. (I should have made the same mistake 6 more times, but I was afraid they’d notice.)

Last year, I taught an entire day with a scratched cornea, wondering why the hell my head hurt so much. Two hours after school ended, I decided I may as well stop in at an urgent care to see why my allergies weren’t responding to medication, and was amazed when the doctor made the problem go away with some anesthetizing eyedrops—one of the only times a doctor has genuinely helped me with a medical issue. He then gave me some antibiotics to put in my eye overnight. They did the job, but an allergic reaction to the ointment made my eye look like something out of a horror film. I went into school, asked for a sub, taught first period with my sunglasses on to spare my students the trauma of my eye (most of them demanded a peek anyway), and left when the sub showed up. I then came back in after school for a department meeting. So, one day.

This year, I haven’t taken any days off. Several students have commented, unprompted, that I’m the only teacher they have who’s never used a sub.

In other words, my proposed remedy to any purported “sick leave” problem is that of someone with extraordinarily good health, a ridiculously high pain tolerance, and no kids at home. Before teaching, I spent only five and a half years in a full-time job, which is the only time I had paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance. I’ve spent the majority of remainder of those twenty years working contract or temp, as an admin worker, a tech consultant, or a test prep instructor/tutor. In those careers, I got no sick time. Ever.

I agree with every word of Paul Bruno’s comments here. The year of forced professional development was nightmarish; I knew the kids would waste the day, but I had to prepare for it anyway. Math and science teachers have it tougher than English and history teachers here, I’m sure. If I were ever to think of taking a day off, the amount of preparation work would quickly banish any appeal.

It’s clear that most teachers either don’t agree with us or have compelling reasons to be absent—or both. I remember one day at my last school seventeen teachers called in sick on one day, and at least one day this year so many teachers were absent we ran out of subs and covering teachers and the admins had to step in. However, I’ve never gotten the impression that the admins considered this more than a minor inconvenience; teacher absenteeism at both schools is a non-issue. I know my last school district simply wouldn’t pay a teacher who took the Monday or Friday off around a 3-day weekend unless it was a documented illness. That seems a simple enough remedy. I don’t think my current district does this. (One question that arises in these discussions: are the absentee rates distinguishing between professional development and teacher-initiated absences? The Clotfelter study does make that distinction; I’m not sure all do.)

I often read ignoramuses who vent about the supposed idiocy of including unused sick time in teacher pension payouts, or advocate “use it or lose it” restrictions. Here’s a fun one:

Imagine two teachers, identical in every way except unused sick time. They’ve each been teaching for 30 years, have final average salaries of $86,636 and retire at age 60. One has the average 1.84 years of unused sick time; the other has none. The difference in lifetime pension payouts is more than $115,000. When you consider that there are 91,000 retired teachers collecting a pension, that difference starts to add up.

Jesus, this is irritating.

Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $64,000

Teacher B takes no sick leave. She costs the school $63,000. But she makes less money per hours worked than Teacher A.

So spare me the crap arguing that paying teachers for unused sick leave is just another entitlement, okay? Wail about pension costs, fine. Give the teachers the money at the end of each year—perhaps with the option of putting it into a separate retirement account, also fine. Argue for reduced sick days for all teachers, go to town. But do not for a moment pretend that paying teachers who didn’t use their sick days is an injustice, because even leaving student achievement aside, these teachers are bargains.

If pension costs for teachers and other government workers are exacerbated by reimbursing them for unused sick leave at retirement, then by all means pay them their entire daily rate for the unused time at the end of each year.

But while this will solve the pension problem, it won’t necessarily solve the costs of teacher absenteeism—substitutes and, perhaps, weaker student achievement.

Most studies I’ve read (admittedly, I haven’t researched extensively) don’t address the dual problems of teacher sick pay and absenteeism—that is, they are focused entirely on either pension costs or day to day costs, and so want to decrease overall sick time or accrued sick time. They ignore the fairness problem I’ve outlined above: teachers who don’t take sick leave are costing the district less than those who are. Not reimbursing them for the money they’ve saved the district is simply unfair. Besides, without reimbursing them, any “use it or lose it” policy for teachers is a foolish idea, since it will increase absenteeism among teachers who otherwise wouldn’t think of taking time off. Any teacher—yes, even me—is going to take sick days if they will otherwise lose them.

I like this Clotfelter study (he’s done more than one on absenteeism) because it focuses on an approach for reducing teacher absenteeism, proposing “A revenue-neutral policy change , incorporating $100 in savings associated with averted payments to substitute teachers, would thus increase teacher salaries by roughly $400 per year, in exchange for teachers accepting a $50 charge for each sick day taken”.*

Thus my proposal to both reduce pension costs and teacher absenteeism:

  • Give teachers a fixed number of sick/personal days to use during the year.
  • Charge teachers $50 for each sick day taken up to the contracted amount.
  • At the end of each school year, pay teachers their full daily rate for their unused sick time.
  • Districts that want to give teachers even more incentive for staying in the classroom can give more money upfront and charge more for absences. I really like the idea of a separate retirement account (teachers have something but lordy, I can’t remember what it’s called), possibly with a matching payment in appreciation of their dedication to maintaining consistent student learning environments.

So if, as Kate Walsh asserts, paying teachers for not costing their districts more money is the new blame game, reformers might want to get it right the first time, by rewarding teachers who don’t use their time, while asking those who do to offset some of the costs.

Most teachers will hate it, of course. But when has that stopped reformers?

*(Note: the study uses North Carolina data, in which the teachers are charged $50 for each day taken after their allocated sick leave, but the researchers propose moving that fee to the first day and beyond.)