Misconceptions about Teacher Pay and Supply

(Part 2 in my recent post on conventional wisdom in education)

As a teacher, I feel weird writing about this. I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who felt that they are paid enough, this is all despite the fact that we get at least 12 weeks of paid vacation alongside the best benefits of almost any profession.

EPI also understates the critical role of fringe benefits, especially pensions. According to the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), which are the official ledger books of the U.S. economy, employees in public education received benefits — inclusive of the future pension benefit they accrue each year — equal to 45% of their annual wages. In the private sector, benefits averaged only 19% of wages. By itself, this benefit advantage is sufficient to negate a teacher salary penalty of up to 17%.

By almost all objective measures, teachers don’t actually seem to be underpaid in the traditional sense. “Nationwide, the average teacher salary was $60,477 during the 2017–18 school year.” And teachers work around 2 hours less a week than the average profession (“ 40.6 hours during the work week, compared to 42.4 hours for private-sector professionals”). BLS Occupational Information Network studies found that teaching isn’t a particularly stressful job relative to other professions, and teachers typically have pretty solid relative job security. In addition to all of this, teachers don’t make a lot when they leave teaching and education majors are the lowest scoring of any major. Although teachers have extraordinarily high social prestige, it looks like we are paid close to what we are worth on the actual job market.

Now, of course, this comes with some caveats. When we say that someone is underpaid we aren’t making the same claim that an economist is. We are saying that the importance of their job is misaligned with their salary. Teachers score right next to Lawyers and Doctors in terms of occupational prestige but they are paid significantly less. So, in this vague sense, yes, maybe teachers are underpaid. But regardless of that, the blanket push to “fix the system by paying teachers more” is almost certainly misguided, probably ineffective, and also incredibly expensive given that teacher’s salaries are the largest part of education spending already.

4. We don’t have a shortage of teachers

Some districts have trouble keeping teachers. Overall though, teacher quit rates are lower than most professions, and the actual supply of teachers is pretty good when you look at scholarly economic studies of the problem. (It should be said that Union funded thinktanks like EPI do argue that there are teacher shortages)

“ Another consequence we would expect if teachers were underpaid is widespread teacher shortages. According to a trend-setting New York Times article from 2015, “districts are struggling with shortages of teachers…[as] a result of the layoffs of the recession years combined with an improving economy in which fewer people are training to be teachers.” Today, an internet search of news media sources finds 262,000 references to “teacher shortages,” often attributing such shortages to low teacher pay. And yet, as Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality points out, there is “no real data — because neither states nor the federal government collect the data that’s really needed to pronounce the onset of a teacher shortage.” Instead, claims of a teacher shortage are heavy on anecdote and speculation.”

The trouble is that we have a low supply of teachers willing to work in difficult districts. All of my teaching friends in Nashville have experienced some shortage in their respective school. Anecdotally, most teachers are looking for cushy positions in suburban districts where classroom management and discipline is easy. When I was growing up I was lucky to attend a high-quality suburban school where there just was a culture of treating teachers with respect. There was very little disciplinary issues in the school. It was just a given that you didn’t talk during class. Consequently, there was only a basic disciplinary system. You did something bad you got a detention. You did something really bad you got sent to the principal’s office. That was it.

The story in urban schools is different. Arguably, the majority of an urban teacher’s job is just classroom management. The successful schools almost always have complicated and multi-tiered disciplinary systems that are mislabelled by journalists and policymakers as “no excuse” policies. Not all disciplinary systems are “no-excuse” policies, but that doesn’t matter, the buzzword has power in the press.

These policies typically look pretty similar across the board. You have a series of leveled demerits that add up to a detention and eventually a suspension or call home. You talk in class, well that’s a level 1 demerit. You say the f-word, that’s a level 2 demerit. You hit someone and that’s a level 3 demerit and you’re going to get sent out and put into a restorative room where you will talk with someone about the situation.

The urban schools that don’t have complicated and tiered systems are frequently mismanaged and ineffective. The students often run the school. Subsequently, with the exception of a very few exceptional teachers who run their rooms through likability and relationships, the majority of classrooms contain very little learning.

A lot of teachers don’t want to work in these schools either because they hate implementing the disciplinary systems or they can’t handle student disrespect. You really have to have a conviction to work in these schools. But unfortunately a conviction isn’t enough to supply enough willing teachers who will work in tough urban schools for the long-term. Because of this, you will have schools where a third of teachers will leave before the second semester and well more than half of teachers will not return for the following year. This creates cycles of under-served students who have to deal with long-term substitutes (who never really teach anything) and inconsistent school cultures (due to the revolving faces of administration and teaching in the school).

In sum, it looks like there isn’t a teacher shortage in the traditional sense, but there are a lot of urban and rural schools with a shortage of willing teachers. This obviously needs to be remedied but it won’t be fixed by lying about the statistics. One possible reform is to push teachers unions and local districts into adopting differential pay according to subject and school. Right now, almost all districts have the same pay schedule across all teachers and all schools despite the fact that we have a relative surplus of humanities teachers and a relative shortage of STEM teachers. Take Nashville, the gym teacher in the top performing school in the district (e.g. Hume Fogg) is being paid the same as the math teacher in the worst high schools (e.g. Pearl Cohn). Despite the fact that there is a long line of willing and qualified people to be a gym teacher in a magnet school, that person is being paid the same as the teachers working in undersupplied, state-tested subject in the most at-risk schools.

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