Tag Archives: tenure track positions

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.