Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On teacher salaries and blame

Joy and I were having a brief conversation last night about elementary teacher salaries. You see, she was one. -- a teacher, that is, not a salary -- For two years Utah sent her to one of their worst districts, which served to shape her understanding of our education system and helps her to see the problems with many of the arguments put forward from both sides of the political aisle for "what's wrong with education."

The question is occasionally asked, "Why are teacher salaries so low," usually in relation to someone like a baseball player. The Econ 101 answer is typically that the supply of teachers is so much higher than the supply of people who can hit home runs without steroid use that this keeps their wages low relative to baseball players. There are a number of issues with this argument, but there's one that's glaring:

The market for el ed teachers is not free.

Specifically, the wage for el ed teachers is not set in a market. State governments, school boards, and to a lesser extent voters choose what they think a fair wage offer for el ed teachers should be and offer to hire a given quota of teachers. As a side note, this means that people who really have no idea what it's like to be a teacher (including most of you and including me) are choosing the conditions under which teachers work. This is a recipe for disaster. Some states, like New York, have such a glut of teachers that they can require a Masters degree while others have difficulty hiring enough for the year. That wouldn't happen in a free market.

I happened to see my wife's social security statement last night, listing what UT pays its el ed teachers. I confess I was appalled. I've never been on the side that says throwing money at the school system is the answer, but this was poverty line pay for college graduates doing absolutely mandatory work! It was frankly insulting. And the fact that she could have made almost $15k a year more by working in the other half of the same city (that just happened to be in Nevada) is evidence that we are NOT dealing with free markets here.

Now, while I'm on a roll, let me take you a little further away from Econ 101 to grad school econ ... WITHOUT GREEK SYMBOLS! In Econ 101, there is a slight admission that workers may differ according to some mystic thing called "ability." High ability workers can command a higher wage than low ability workers. Teachers are willing to work for very little, so the Econ 101 answer spouted by conservatives and libertarians who never made it any further than 101 (that's still better than most liberals who didn't understand 101 in the first place) (no, please, Derrill, tell us what you really think) is that teachers must be "bad." If wages were higher, "good" teachers would enter the system. Liberals will then have a tirade about needing more money and conservatives will have a tirade about unions and libertarians will have a tirade about governments.

As a footnote, saying that the school system is in the tank because of bad teachers is not the way to win my wife's good graces.

Instead, let's suppose there are two ways that teachers differ: "teaching ability" and "love." A teacher who loves her students will bring about better outcomes, even if there are other people who are better teachers. Now what we really want are excellent teachers who love their students - the two skills are complementary rather than substitutes in the jargon. High wages elsewhere in the market will draw away high ability teachers who don't love their students, it is true, but it turns out that if you want to attract and keep teachers with high levels of love, the way to do it ... is to pay them very little. Only those who love stay.

Now this is not a call to lower salaries. I have a different point in mind. (At this point, Joy quips that I don't want to sleep on the couch tonight.) But there really does need to be some sort of balance here. We have decided as a society that el ed teacher salaries should not be set in a market. Now whether you agree with that or not, that's what we've decided to do. After seeing what Joy was actually paid in UT, I'm convinced that UT doesn't pay what their teachers are worth - it literally is poverty line pay. After hearing my wife's horror stories, I'm convinced that there are a fairly large number of things wrong with the system - enough for people of all stripes to find productive things to improve.

As I ran this by the Lovely and Gracious, she commented that she didn't leave the education system because of a lack of money, or that she decided she could earn more elsewhere. Once again, econ fails in the real world. :) "I left because to be the best teacher I know how to be took more than I had to give; and I would have been completely worn out with nothing left for myself in less than 5 years. That's how I feel about it." It's a difficult job, and blaming the people who are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation in a real labor of love is not the answer. And that's the point.

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